How India handles China will determine success of foreign policy

The issue is likely to remain India's most complex external challenge

Wary neighbours: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a garden in Wuhan, China | AP Wary neighbours: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a garden in Wuhan, China | AP

How will India and China manage their relationship in the future? This is a question of considerable significance not just for the two countries, but for Asia and the world. Clearly, a cooperative future would enable both to concentrate on the internal transformations into developed countries that both seek, and would enable them to have a larger say in the world. An antagonistic relationship would entangle them in competing in the periphery that they share, and would limit their effectiveness internally and externally. Logically, therefore, it is in both countries’ interest to find a cooperative path.

Shivshankar Menon Shivshankar Menon

But experience teaches us to be careful. The tortuous course of India-China relations suggests that this is not the only logic that applies in practice. Since the two republics were founded in mid-20th century, India and China have had good and bad phases, ranging from outright war to decades of coexistence. But differences and disputes remained throughout, and seem today to be sharper than ever. Besides, when looking forward, there is never one single future, but many possible scenarios. Let us consider some of them.

A cooperative future?

That India-China relations are under stress today cannot be denied by anyone. What are the interests and issues that have affected the relationship and make a smooth cooperative relationship unlikely?

The foremost cause of stress is the unsettled border. Some find it convenient to describe the boundary question as an issue left over from history. This places the blame on earlier regimes and British colonialism, and not the Republic of India or the People’s Republic of China. It also could make compromise easier. But it wears thin as an explanation 75 years after each took charge of their own fate.

Several efforts have been made to settle the boundary question over many years by India and China, but at no stage were both countries simultaneously ready to settle the issue. Nor were they able to arrive at a solution that was politically acceptable to both.

What they have achieved through serial explorations and talks at every possible level, including special representatives of the highest leaders, is to have a very good understanding of what the core differences are. They have also narrowed those differences down to the few points on which both sides would need to make political decisions. These are not technical issues though they might be presented as such. Recently, however, China has tended to present the boundary question as one of sovereignty and territorial integrity, rather than as a dispute left over from history, which suggests that it will be harder to compromise and take the difficult political decisions required for a boundary settlement. The greater the reliance on nationalism for legitimacy, the less likely compromise becomes.

In the absence of a boundary settlement, until recently, both sides found it in their interest to maintain the status quo along the line of actual control (LAC), formalising this understanding in the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement and subsequent agreements on military and other confidence building measures (CBMs). For some decades thereafter, the border remained where it was, as each side built up its infrastructure and access to the LAC, and managed those areas where both sides had different perceptions of where the LAC lay.

However, beginning in 2012, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began signalling more assertive intent, moving into areas previously vacant or patrolled by Indian troops, and attempting to prevent Indian troops from accessing areas that they had visited regularly in the past. A series of escalating incidents and face-offs between troops caused by Chinese intrusions in places they had not been before marked a significant shift in Chinese behaviour. In spring 2020, the PLA went further and changed the status quo in several strategically significant areas in the western sector of the LAC.

China is apparently attempting here what she has already done in the South China Sea and East China Sea. She is incrementally changing the local strategic situation in her favour while staying below the threshold of provoking a full-fledged kinetic response or conventional conflict.

The fact that after 16 rounds of military level talks and diplomatic contacts we have still not seen a restoration of the status quo, in terms of the positioning and stationing of troops or of access to areas by Indian troops, indicates that China is creating a new normal that she now wishes to consolidate. Whether this is due to domestic political compulsions, or considerations of great power politics, or a desire to make clear to India and others China’s advantages in power makes little difference to the fact that India cannot be expected to engage in a normal political relationship with China while Beijing continues to build up threatening capabilities and seeks to change the situation on the border.

The tension on the border coincides with a much more active Chinese engagement in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, extending to a willingness to be seen taking sides in domestic political issues in countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka, and a stepped up commitment to Pakistan since Xi Jinping’s 2015 visit to that country. That commitment has broadened from the supply of weapons and technology to the Pakistani army and nuclear weapons programme to the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which includes power projects, rail and other connectivity linkages and the strategic Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea near the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

China is also now more outspoken in her opposition to India’s rise, as is evident from the difference between her going along with the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) consensus to grant India an exemption in 2008, and her outspoken opposition even before the meeting to India’s membership of the same group in 2015.

China, too, has her grouses. India was the first country to express public doubts about Xi’s signature proposal, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and to stay away from the two forums on the BRI. What really seems to have changed is China’s practice of seeing relationships and issues through the lens of its own relationship with the US. While the US may be China’s principal external worry and focus, this has skewed her view of the world.

As India’s relationship with the US has improved, Chinese commentary on it has become more shrill. And its expression in “wolf-warrior diplomacy” has provoked negative reactions around the world. For instance, when the Chinese embassy in Delhi tells the Indian media in public what they should and should not say on China, this can only be counterproductive.

Doomed to conflict?

But does this mean that India-China relations are doomed to a future of conflict?

Again, not necessarily. Experience shows that India and China have coexisted successfully for extended periods in the past. For 30 years in the 1980s, 1990s and noughts, India and China successfully managed their relationship, kept the peace on the border, built functional and trade exchanges until China became India’s biggest trading partner, and cooperated on the world stage.

What made for success in managing the relationship? Other preoccupations helped. In this period, a reforming China was internally preoccupied. When China had to deal with the domestic uprising of the ‘Tiananmen incident’ in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it sought to keep other fronts like India, Japan and Russia calm. India, too, was going through a reshaping of internal and external policies to reform and open up the economy, and to cope with the phase transformation in the world that the end of the Cold War meant. Both sides saw advantage in keeping their relationship calm while concentrating on more pressing preoccupations.

Equally, success in managing the relationship was based on a high level strategic understanding between the leaderships worked out with considerable effort in the 1980s and formalised during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988. In essence, this modus vivendi provided for both sides to discuss difficult issues like the boundary, while maintaining the status quo on the border, to develop other parts of the relationship, cooperate on the international stage, and to cease what could be construed as interference in the other’s core interests and internal affairs.

Deng Xiaoping promised Rajiv Gandhi that China would not support Indian insurgent groups and China began advising India’s neighbours like Pakistan and Nepal to work with India as she was doing. Several of these understandings—on maintaining the status quo on the border, on not arming and supporting Indian insurgents, on not interfering in India’s relations with other neighbours—are now being violated.

What that experience suggests is that it is possible for both sides to learn to coexist, but that it would require a tempering of ambition and an acceptance of politics as the art of the possible, not the desirable or what could be forced. It also requires a broader strategic understanding between them, underpinned by the self interest of both countries.

Is that possible today? One will only know if an effort is made through a real strategic dialogue which explores core interests and concerns, where they clash, and whether they can be settled or managed. To start with, such a dialogue would aim not for trust or understanding, which are rare in international relations, but for a clear picture of how the other side sees the issues and of what the redlines are so that accidents and misunderstandings do not determine the future of the relationship. This would require, for instance, a reworking of protocols for border management, and better crisis management and CBM mechanisms, and the restoration of deterrence on the border to prevent a recurrence of spring 2020.

Through a glass, darkly

Experience and logic, therefore, suggest an ambiguous answer to the question of where the India-China relationship is likely to go from here. They suggest that the future is open, could go either way, and depends on the actions both governments take now.

Of course, India and China operate within an international context. Scholars often look to the role of the outside world to explain the twists and turns in the relationship. To my mind, this factor is often overestimated in this case. The root cause of the differences between India and China will not vanish or change depending on whether India is closer or more distant to the United States, Russia or other countries or if China is successful in improving her relationship with the US. At the same time, the international context, and worry about the consequences of China’s rapid accumulation and exercise of hard power, do create a different and potentially useful environment in which India seeks to manage the China relationship.

Gang of four: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a Quad summit in Tokyo | Reuters Gang of four: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a Quad summit in Tokyo | Reuters

What the international context does seem to affect is Chinese behaviour and sensitivity, which varies over time on issues, because China now seems to see most issues and relationships through the lens of her deteriorating relationship with the USA. This makes a cooperative India-China future less likely. India has worked to transform its relationship with the USA for reasons other than China. The USA is critical to India’s transformation into a modern, developed country, and if China continues to take that relationship and transformation amiss, her behaviour will limit the prospects of India-China relations.

At the same time, we must also recognise that some India-China tension is useful to many others: to India’s smaller neighbours who can play one off against the other for assistance; and to established powers and status quoists who find that this gives them leverage with both India and China.

Looking ahead, in the best case, both countries would take responsibility for their relationship, settle issues like the boundary and learn to live with one another in the periphery they share and in the broader world. But this seems unlikely given their internal trajectories and domestic politics, which rely increasingly on nationalism for legitimacy and where compromise can be portrayed as treason.

For some time to come, therefore, the relationship with China is likely to remain the most complex external challenge that India is likely to face. How it is handled will determine the effectiveness of Indian foreign policy. Given what we know, and our experience of these two states’ behaviour towards the other, likely scenarios for the relationship in the foreseeable future range between the extremes of cooperation and contention and would likely include both. It would be an achievement if they are able to limit the amplitude of the swings between tension and calm that have marked the relationship in the last 70 odd years. The future promises to be interesting.

Menon was national security adviser of India.