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How India-China Relations Could Evolve

The Chinese were quietly watching each step of Mr. Narendra Modi even before he became Prime Minister of India. Mr. Modi had visited China at least three times as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He was particularly impressed by China’s infrastructure and the railway system, especially the “bullet train” which runs at a speed of 300 to 350 kms per hour.

The Chinese continue to see Mr. Modi as a leader focused on economic development, something he did in his own state. They brushed aside his hard statements on Arunachal Pradesh and the India-China border issue, cautioning Beijing to stop expansionism. This was said in the course of his election campaign. Bill Clinton had called the Chinese leaders “butchers of Beijing” during his presidential campaign for the first term. Once president of United States, Mr. Clinton was the key to China’s entry in WTO as a developing country.

A leading Chinese think tank compared Mr. Modi to US President Richard Nixon who opened US-China diplomatic relationship and established a kind of an axis along with Pakistan to counter the Soviet Union. Of course, the statement did not include military or strategic partnership, but was in terms of trade and economic cooperation.

The US relationship followed by its reform and opening up policy made China what it is today. The China-US trade has crossed $ 500 billion. It has acquired high technology by methods fair and foul. China is moving from an only investment inviting country to a country looking for suitable investment targets. India is one such target. Last year (2013) when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang came to India he carried a plane load of businessmen who were looking for export and investment opportunities, but not import of Indian goods. India-China trade stands at around $ 65 billion with a huge trade deficit against India. This needs to be corrected for a healthy trade and economic relations.

The intention is to reach $100 billion bilateral trade in 2015, a difficult target to achieve unless India opens up its iron ore exports mainly. China is pushing in cheap goods, otherwise known as “shoddy goods” into India. On the other hand there is a glass wall against Indian exports to China. This is a political wall. Nobody gets into China through purely business decisions. India is in this category. China’s desire to invest in India is welcome. But in the past decade and a half experience suggests that the Chinese are interested in areas that are strategically sensitive for India’s security. These areas include ports, airports, certain areas bordering Tibet and, most importantly, the information technology/cyber technology sectors. Two Chinese cyber technology companies, Hua Wei Technologies and ZTE are already in India. They have questionable backgrounds where the host country’s security is concerned.

In any case, these are issues of details which the Indian government would have to consider with inputs from its security and intelligence agencies. It must be taken into account that cyber warfare includes planting of “Trojans” or “assassin’s mace” weapons into the adversary’s system. This is just one example.

Here, India’s private sector, especially those large industries involved in businesses where cyber technology needs to be acquired would have to be responsible players. Cheap goods are not necessarily the best goods.

Yet, India and China are the two largest countries in Asia with a total population of more than 2.5 billion. They share a common yet unresolved land boundary of 4000 kms, though China puts it at 2000 kms. China is preparing to replace the USA as the world’s largest economic power very soon. India has broken the shackles of under development and is emerging as a significant economic and political power.

Hence it would be a logical process for the two countries to cooperate for mutual benefit and that of the region at large. The Chinese behaviour including flexing military muscles with neighbours in its eastern maritime region does not inspire confidence in Beijing’s words of peaceful development. If China can adopt such measures with its neighbours on territorial issues on which they do not have clear claims, why would they not do the same to India on territorial issues at a time suitable to them? For good relations in trade and investment India must not only adopt, but strictly implement the policy of “trust, but verify”. A Jewish Prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp wrote thus: when they came for my neighbour across the street, I remained silent; when they came for my next door neighbour I remained silent; when they came for me there was no one left to speak for me. There is a deep strategic lesson in the above applicable in the present case.

There are both issue based and larger geopolitical driven questions between India and China. While the issue based differences are well known like China’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and continued nuclear (weapons related) assistance to Pakistan, the geopolitical challenges need to be examined urgently by the Indian government and experts.

The immediate Chinese emphasis is to get the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) road which will connect China (from Yunan province) through Myanmar, India to Bangladesh (Chittagong) to emerge near the Bay of Bengal with access to the Indian Ocean. This is the maritime silk route that China has been talking about recently. The project is stuck since Myanmar is yet to give the clearance. The Chinese want India to pressure Myanmar, but it is unlikely that Myanmar will yield easily. Naypidaw had once gone down this path with China but that did not work out because of conditions put by China.

The BCIM route is not only a part of China’s maritime silk route strategy but includes its Indian Ocean maritime and naval strategy to create a network of ports for civil use normally which can be transformed into maritime base at the time of battle. The Gwadar Port in Pakistan is one such facility and so is Hambantota in Sri Lanka. There are thoughts in China of constructing such ports in the Maldives and the Seychelles.

Bangladesh is seriously considering a deep sea port in Kutubdia in its eastern Sea board near Chittagong in which the Chinese have evinced serious interest.

Given the tension in the South China Sea between China and other claimants like Vietnam, the Philippines, and to a lesser extent with Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei over the Spratly islands, a possibility exists of this very important international maritime route getting closed temporarily. China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea with no serious evidence but threat of military power. In such a case the BCIM route will be very important for China. But countries like India will be closed off from the East Asia trade and commerce. It may be noted that China is very eager on an early resolution of the BCIM route and may take retaliatory steps against any country of this group which does not cooperate on this project. It is considered a sensitive issue for China.

In the meanwhile, the Chinese may use a tactical friendly approach towards India. This would involve issues in the international fora, be more accommodative in groups like the BRICS, ARF, ASEAN etc, and bilaterally in trade and commerce. Chinese President Xi Jinping may bring with him some palliatives when he visits India. According to Chinese experts Xi now is a one-man dictator in China’s foreign policy. His “Chinese dream” ambition is very serious. If he cannot get his way without resistance then he is prepared for the hard way.

India’s relations with the USA and Japan dominate Chinese thinking in is quest for preeminence in Asia. It is not like the preeminence of a benign power but that of the son of Heaven controlling his planetary system in Asia.

It is the US stand that thwarts Xi Jinping’s ambition. Japan is a very important corollary to the US. With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move to amend the country’s pacifist constitution to empower the nation with a more active role supported by the US, China’s task is becoming difficult.

With the gradual acceptance by the US of the 1998 Indian nuclear tests, and the India-US nuclear deal of 2008, China became convinced that the earlier Asian political order was changing against China to an extent. For several years now Beijing has been expressing concerns through different medium that US-Japan-India triangular arrangement was growing to counter China. US President Barack Obama’s US pivot to Asia had further alarmed China. The Chinese hope India will retain its independent foreign policy and not join any alliance against China. Added to this is the strengthened India-Japan relations which, in Chinese perception, naturally links with the US. If not an alliance, such a strategic collaboration would strengthen two other poles in Asia, namely Japan and India.

China always envisaged a unipolar Asia with China being the only pole. This strategic ambition has been rehashed by Xi Jinping as the “Chinese Dream” of realizing the great national rejuvenation. Hence China will cajole and pressure India to support the concept of Asia is for Asians and Asia is by Asians and foreigners are excluded.

Obviously, this approach is flawed. But President Xi feels Obama is a lame duck president with a lack of will to press through the Asian pivot or rebalance.

The Chinese are doing well in India to shape intellectual opinion on China. Meanwhile, India can forget about an early boundary resolution and be prepared to face existing pressures including China’s entry into pliable Indian neighbours.

(The writer Mr.Bhaskar Roy is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail

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