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India-China Relations During Last 75 years ; By Dr. A. Adityanjee

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Image Courtesy: Envoy Excellence Magazine

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Article 50/2021

Both India and China are two ancient civilizational states in Asia with rich history and culture. However, China and India, the two Asian giants were never immediate neighbors till 1949. After the fall of the last Manchu (tang dynasty) emperor, from 1912 till 1949, China was ruled by a democratic administration, commonly known as the Republic of China (ROC) initially by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and later by Chiang Kai-Shek of the Kuomintang (KMT) party. In 1949, the victory of the communist PLA under Mao led to the retreat of the Chiang Kai-Shek government to Taiwan. Communist China’s PLA (Peoples’ Liberation Army) invaded Tibet in 1949, occupied it under the garb of liberating Tibetan masses from the “serfdom of Dalai Lama”. Soon after the invasion of Tibet and its annexation into mainland China by the use of military force;a cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing of Tibet ensued. As a policy, Han Chinese was made to settle in occupied Tibet which was trifurcated by the communist authorities. Active military presence and infrastructure development were speedily done in the Tibetan regions to keep it under close surveillance. As China never considered Tibet to be an independent state, it has rejected any border treaties signed by Tibetan officials and, therefore, the McMahon line. The communist revolution has pretty much put an end to any possible hope for democratic institutions, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion in China.

Since the transfer of power in 1947, the government of India has tried to have good relations with China. With the Communist revolution in that country in 1949, the then Prime Minister of India JL Nehru was very positive towards China’s role in the post-colonial world and essentially started playing second fiddle to that communist country that was in an expansionist mode. There was some rivalry between India and communist China about the leadership of the non-aligned movement in the early fifties as reflected in the Bandung Conference. Derisively, the Chinese communist party considered Jawahar Lal Nehru as a “useful idiot.”

Relations between democratic India and communist China have been strained since the early fifties. Disputes culminated in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 when communist China invaded India ostensibly to “teach India a lesson”. In recent years, multiple contrived events were staged on the Indo-Tibet (China) border by communist China leading to worsening of the bilateral relations. The incidences in Dokalam, Pangong lake (eastern Ladakh), and Galwan valley drive the attention to the perennial unresolved border dispute between two countries. A critical analysis suggests that the geopolitical disagreements between the two most populous countries in the world are far more subtle and more fundamental in nature.

India and China share approximately 2167 miles of land border. India recognizes the “McMahon Line” to be the international border between two countries inclusive of Occupied Tibet. However, China does not accept the McMahon line as the international border between India and China. Henri McMahon was the foreign secretary of the British India and chief negotiator of the de facto quadrilateral Shimla conference in 1914 attended by Imperial Britain, British India, Tibet, and China. This conference was organized by Imperial Britain to determine the official border between the Sovereign state of Tibet and British India (including Myanmaror Burma). British officials had recognized Tibet to be a sovereign state & therefore, an independent Tibetan delegation separate from the one from China attended the Shimla conference. After long deliberations, the border proposal was accepted & signed by the Tibetan & British authorities. Chinese delegation walked away from the border agreement at the very last minute questioning the sovereignty of Tibet.

China is historically an expansionist power irrespective of the rulers. The Communist Party of China which leads the Chinese government makes maximal claims against all its neighbors’ territories and agreed to a “mutual compromise” settling eventually for a slice of each neighbor’s land. Be it Myanmar, Thailand or Mongolia, China has dictated border agreements to much smaller and weaker neighbors and has gained territories. In the mid-1960s China reexamined & renegotiated its borders with twelve out of fourteen neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Nepal, Mongolia, etc. However, it never did so with India and Bhutan. China has thrived on the border conflict with India. The 1962 war between India & China is a good example of this. Chinese aggression in 1962 was not only about grabbing land, but also “teaching India a lesson” and putting her in her place. China & its leader Mao Ze-Dong wanted to replace India as the leader of the developing world. Before 1962, India was seen as the leader of developing countries due to the non-alignment policy it had openly rooted for. During the 1962 war, India had to give up its non-alignment stance& called upon the West for military aid. India was humiliated because of its defeat in the war. Both the defeat and the move on India’s part to seek assistance from the West largely benefitted China which subsequently became a new leader of the developing countries. Sixty years later, the power game between India & China is still on. India continues to be the main opponent to the Chinese aggression, politics in the Asiatic region as well as in the UN. China keeps on needling India so as to box her continuously in regional conflicts. Chinese aim is to prevent India’s emergence as a global power.

Successive Indian governments have mishandled the bilateral relationship with China from 1947 onwards under the mistaken belief that the two Asian giants should live in peace. Nehru signed the Panchsheel agreement and sought Chinese friendship at any cost. Nehru was a Fabian socialist who had the delusions that communist China will never attack India, a fellow Asian country. Nehru was afraid of military coups in the post-colonial third world and deliberately starved the Indian armed forces of funds and equipment as a policy out of fear of being toppled. He placated and appeased China in every possible way. He gave away Tibet on a platter to China relinquishing the Indian trade-posts in Tibet and the office of the Indian political agent in Lhasa. Nehru effectively gave away Aksai Chin in the Ladakh sector to China by saying that not a blade of grass grows there! During his tenure as PM, China built the Karakoram highway through the Pak-Occupied J&K. Nehru also refused to accede to the request of Nepal’s King to join the Indian union as one of the states. Nehru also rejected the offer by the Oman Government to transfer (after Indian independence) the Gwadar port to India which has now been developed into a Chinese naval base under Pakistan’s sovereignty. Nehru gifted the Coco islands in the Andaman Sea to Burma (currently Myanmar) which is now used as a SIGINT listening post by communist China with Myanmar’s permission. Nehru twice refused to accept the membership of the UNSC as a permanent member in the 1950s taking the lofty position that communist China deserves it more and he did not wish to antagonize that country. During Nehru’s time, India did have the nuclear know-how to conduct its own nuclear tests, but it was not done by the messiah of peace! China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, thereby, being grandfathered into the five nuclear weapons states recognized by the Non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Lal Bahadur Shastri’s tenure was too brief. International intelligence agencies conspired to get him eliminated in January 1966 followed within two weeks by death of Dr. Homi Bhabha in a plane crash because of fear of India conducting a nuclear test. Indira Gandhi did not carry out a nuclear test prior to entry into the force of NPT in 1967 though India had the technical capability. India would not have faced multiple sets of economic and technological sanctions if Indira Gandhi had the foresight to conduct India’s nuclear tests before the signing and entry into the force of the NPT. It would have balanced China’s military threat to India. Finally, when Indira Gandhi allowed a nuclear test in 1974 in Pokhran, it was a dubbed as “peaceful nuclear explosion”. There was no follow-up for the weaponization of the capability giving China a head-start. Indira Gandhi did distinguish herself with a stellar achievement in the form of a merger of Sikkim with India on the northern border. This was a tight slap on the face of communist China. China still questions Sikkim’s merger with the Indian union. During her come back years of 1980-1984 also India Gandhi failed to conduct a second series of nuclear tests. India‘s permanent representative at the UN, Samar Sen, under the Indira Gandhi government, voted in favor of communist China’s entry into the UN in 1971 by thumping the table in the UNGA.

India-China relationship during the tenure of Morarji Desai did not improve because of Chinese machinations. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as foreign minister, wanted to make a fresh start with China. He visited China from February 12 to 18, 1979; his visit had to be cut short because China invaded Vietnam, a friendly country to India during his China visit. There were border tensions with China during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. Rajiv Gandhi attempted to normalize the relationship with China by downgrading the border dispute &visiting China in 1988. Without resolving the border dispute, he unilaterally reiterated that Tibet is a part of China. Rajiv Gandhi did a whole “song and dance show” in the 1988 Delhi Declaration with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev calling for universal nuclear disarmament and presented the “Rajiv Gandhi plan” for universal nuclear disarmament in 25 years to the UN General Assembly. It stifled India’s development of an Indian nuclear deterrent, demoralized our nuclear scientists while China leapfrogged its weapons capability, and also proliferated nuclear weapons to Pakistan. Narasimha Rao visited China in 1993 and fell for the Chinese ploy and trapped India into a military disadvantage. The Narsimha Rao Government signed the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China during his China visit in September 1993. With a stroke of the pen, the entire disputed border has been renamed the Line of Actual Control. Narasimha Rao was bullied into submission by the US regime as it got wind of imminent nuclear tests by India in 1995. Atal Bihari Vajpayee resumed his outreach to China when he became the prime minister for the second time. Under Vajpayee’s leadership, India finally proclaimed herself to be a nuclear power after the 1998 Pokhran-2 nuclear tests. However, it was short-sighted to unilaterally commit to a “no-first-use” (NFU) nuclear doctrine as it tied the nation’s hands despite having the weapons capability. China was allowed to join the WTO in December 2001 during Vajpayee’s leadership without any serious objections from India although China has blocked India’s membership of the UNSC. Vajpayee, as PM, visited China in June 2003 and again reiterated that Tibet is a part of China without getting anything in return in writing from China about accepting the merger of Sikkim with India.

During the 10 years of the UPA rule, China was given a free pass to develop a massive trade deficit with India, decimating the Indian manufacturing sector. The secret agreement signed by Rahul Gandhi on behalf of the Congress party and Xi Jinping for the Communist Party of China in 2008 needs to be made public. India literally served a subservient role to China during those 10 years while China made monetary donations to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. The UPA government failed to develop roads and border infrastructure on the Indian side of the LAC during the 10 years of its rule. China continued to nibble Indian territory in all the sectors across the LAC during those ten years. Meanwhile, the UPA government did not allocate adequate budgetary allocations for defense, and the defense acquisition process came to a grinding halt under Dr. Man Mohan Singh. The armed forces of India wanted to raise a mountain strike corps of 100,000 soldiers on the northern borders, but the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh caved in and could never find the budgetary allocation for the same. China was given observer status in the SAARC during the tenure of the UPA government. This gave China a carte blanch to interfere in India’s near abroad region without impunity. Under Chinese pressure, the UPA government cold-shouldered the concept of the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” in the Indo-pacific region. China conducted its first ASAT test in 2011 during the second term of the UPA government. Both, the nominated PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and his NSA Shiv Shankar Menon refused to conduct India’s ASAT test during the tenure of that government giving China again a head-start in space warfare capability. Incidentally, this author had consistently highlighted the need for India to acquire the ASAT capability since 2011 onwards.

What has happened since 2014 is too obvious to comment upon. We must laud the current PM for some pragmatic containment efforts directed towards China. India has not allowed SAARC meetings to be held because of Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism in India. However, with this one brilliant stroke, India checkmated Chinese infiltration and manipulation of that entity (SAARC). India under Narendra Modi has focused on fostering regional cooperation and connectivity through BIMSTEC instead of SAARC. Sub-regional cooperation is also being promoted. And that helps contain the China-Pakistan axis as Pakistan is not a part of the BIMSTEC and other sub-regional groupings. We also credit the NDA/BJP government led by PM Modi to finally take the decision to conduct India’s ASAT test balancing the space warfare capabilities of India and China. Modi government has shown the spine and the anatomical fortitude to resist Chinese pressure and actively support the QUAD alliance and the concept of the Indo-Pacific. The Indian government is recapitalizing the naval fleet of ships, building 45 new ships. India must have the plan to develop and construct indigenously at least six aircraft carriers if we have to safeguard India’s strategic interests in the long run.

However, the “Dhokla Diplomacy” in Ahmedabad and “Serenading Xi Jinping on a Swing” in 2014 eventually resulted in the Dokalam crisis of 2018! Our policy establishment and the political leadership got seduced by the high-flown Chinese rhetoric about the “Wuhan Spirit,” the “Chennai Connect” in Mahabalipuram, and the “Wisdom of the two Leaders” in solving border problems peacefully! Optics and flattery should be cast aside while dealing with China. It has to be acknowledged honestly that there have been acts of omission and acts of commission while dealing with China by every successive Indian PM since independence. There is no character (word) for transparency in the Mandarin language. Chinese strategists from the time of Sun Tzu have advocated surprise and deception as a way of conquering the enemy. China, per Sun Tzu’s philosophy, believes in winning the war without fighting any battles. It has been our monumental mistake that none of the successive Indian governments have understood Chinese national character and Chinese psyche in strategic policy formulations. There was a process of internal democratization of the Communist Party of China with two terms limit but the experiment came to end with the current Paramount leader Xi Jinping who is emulating Mao.

China has refused to allow India’s entry into the UNSC as a permanent member since 1995 when the UNGA first brought the issue of UN reforms. China built the Karakoram highway in the Pak-occupied J&K and Ladakh violating India’s sovereignty. China has proliferated nuclear technology and nuclear weapons know-how to Pakistan. All the Pakistani missiles directed against India are of Chinese and North Korean origin. China has become an all-weather friend of Pakistan and an iron brother. Over the last decade, China has created unnecessary controversy about the “stapled visas” and not allowing Indian athletes and politicians from Arunachal Pradesh to enter China for sports events. China has consistently refused to allow India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). China has been an obstacle to India’s status as a participating economy in the APEC. China has been shielding its client state Pakistan from international sanctions for its fomenting of Jihadi terrorism worldwide. China has spread its tentacles in the Indian subcontinent bribing leaders of the smaller countries as seen in the case of the Maldives and Sri Lanka. China started increasing its influence in the Indian Ocean region by building military assets under the “String of Pearls” strategy. China is doing the same under its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s investment of $64 billion into the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), a part of the BRI violates Indian sovereignty as it passes through the Pak Occupied Kashmir. China is putting undue military pressure on Bhutan to severe special ties with India and asking for Bhutan to establish bilateral diplomatic relations with China. China is interfering in the domestic politics of Nepal and is instigating the Nepalese government to take anti-India postures over the last 15 years. China got India kicked out of the Maldives and Sri Lanka from developmental and commercial projects. China has done everything possible in its power to contain India and her influence while professing the mantra of friendship and peace. India must develop strategic relations with Vietnam, Taiwan, North Korea, and Japan in order to balance China.

China is flush with funds and has a foreign exchange reserve of $ 3.214 trillion as of June 2021. Compared to this, in India we gloat over the fact Indian foreign exchange reserves are all-time high at $611.112 billion in July 2021. Without increasing our exports related to a strong revival of the domestic manufacturing industry, we can’t compete with China. If India offers to be the viable alternative to China in the manufacturing sector; India must undertake further domestic reforms on a fast track and cut down the red tape. Both Atmanirbhar Bharat and “Make-in-India” policies will help India bridge the economic gap with China. Modi government has set a target for $5 trillion economy by 2024. From our perspective, it would be better not to set any caps or ceilings while setting long-term targets. Instead, we should aim for double-digit growth of the Indian economy over the next ten years to catch up with China. The Chinese economy is definitely overhyped, and their economic data is unreliable. China is facing an internal debt crisis. China is facing the 4-2-1-paradox owing to its one-child policy in the past and an aging workforce. India does have an advantage of a comparatively young working population while China is greying and aging leaving very few workers. India has started attracting investments that otherwise would have gone to China. More importantly, India has to neutralize the internal saboteurs from the Chinese agents as seen in recent vandalism and damage to the Foxconn factory that manufactures Apple products (Taiwanese investment) in Bengaluru by the leftist unions and fire (arson) in the Serum Institute of India campus causing damage worth Rs 1000 crores. More importantly, the Indian market must continue to attract foreign investments. India took $57 billion in 2020 in FDI, a 13% increase. In contrast, China was the single largest recipient of the FDI in 2020 despite the Wuhan China virus pandemic having brought $163 billion in inflows.

China’s GDP is estimated to be $13.4 trillion in 2021 whereas India’s GDP is $2.72 trillion. This is a four-fold asymmetry in the GDPs of the two countries. Bottom line is that India has a lot of catch-up growth to do in order to balance China economically. Without economic strength, there will be no strategic balancing. The asymmetry in the two respective economies must not be allowed to grow bigger than what it is. Rolling in fast-track economic reforms, though painful in short term, is the need of the hour.

India has not been able to safeguard her strategic interests vis-a-vis China by engaging China positively. Excessive use of soft-power rhetoric and playing second fiddle to China will not help resolve the border dispute. China has no intention of solving the border dispute. It has insisted on delinking the border issues with other bilateral relations. In essence, China wants to continue to exploit India economically while nibbling India’s territory in a “salami-slicing” approach.”China is a rising hegemon. Hu Shi-sheng, a Chinese analyst, in Global Times, accused India of a negative and obstructionist approach towards China. The article asserted that “India tends to disrupt China’s agenda in multilateral mechanisms” to prevent China’s rise and accused India of not promoting internal unity in the BRICS and SCO but trying to dismantle them from within. He bluntly warns that as the gap between India and China widens, differences in regional and global governance issues would grow, and “the favorable atmosphere for China-India cooperation” would fade.

Recently, the Minister for External Affairs Dr. S Jaishankar has enunciated a set of eight broad principles to repair the bilateral relations. He further propounded that the three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity, and mutual interests – are the determining factors for guiding the bilateral relationship. That is enough Diplomatese jargon to guide the bilateral relationship with China. However, China is used to flowery prose and melodious diction from the time of Panchsheel and is unlikely to change its hegemonic behavior towards India. The only way to manage China’s behavior is by displaying India’s strength. Unfortunately, we have allowed the economic and strategic asymmetry between the two countries to increase by many folds while China has become a super-power. India must reform its economy on a fast footing, strengthen the manufacturing sector, encourage exports, build a domestic military-industrial complex, strengthen our armed forces and strategic capabilities and increase India’s comprehensive national strength (CNP). India should continue to build strategic alliances with other democratic nations like the QUAD 3.0 and IPCO (Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization) in order to balance China. Without boosting India’s CNP in the next 5-10 years, India will not be able to shift the balance of power between the two Asian giants.

(The author is President, Council for Strategic Affairs. The views expressed in this article are personal.)

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