Carla Smith, a 2nd Year International Relations and History student, writes a review of our recent event on understanding Sino-Indian security relations with Vijay Gokhale, Dr Jinghan Zheng and Antoine Levesques.
India and China seem at first glance to have overwhelming similarities: they are the world’s two most populous states, and both are rising powers with shared interests in climate change and rejecting their colonial past. However, Grimshaw’s most recent event on their relationship seemed to emphasize that cultural similarities are not enough to restore balance in the relationship. The main problem is that China and India have different approaches to carrying out foreign policy which creates a dangerous asymmetry in the perceptions of each other’s intentions. This was obvious in the way Mr Gokhale and Dr Zheng in turn insisted that India and China respectively had the better solution to resolving the conflict. Regardless of which approach is the most effective, it is clear that a new normal of armed coexistence and instability has come to replace the consensus of peaceful coexistence.
The first misperception in the bilateral relationship was shown in how India thinks that the resolution of the conflict is high on China’s priority list. India mistrusts its rival and paints China as the aggressor. Indeed, Indian youth today have a hostile view of China, which marks a shift from the way India viewed China as a respectable role model before 2012 (when the current leader Xi Jinping seized power in China). India also sees itself as the loser of an unequal trade relationship. It argues that China deliberately keeps trade imbalanced to maintain an economic advantage. While China is India’s second-biggest trading partner after the US, China invests very little into its neighbour, even though India is a huge provider in the service industry (pharmaceutical, agricultural and technological sectors were cited by one of our speakers). As a result, India has decided to boycott China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Chinese-driven mega-project of connectivity and trade.
However, as the discussion carried on, it became apparent that China does not regard India as a significant threat, and even less so as a priority. China’s interest in the border dispute has more to do with supporting its ally Pakistan (in fact, its closest ally after North Korea) in the region of Kashmir, than with any real intention to escalate tensions with India. China is much more involved in its conflict with Japan, for instance over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands and over Taiwanese sovereignty, and has been ramping up its military activity in the South China Sea. China is also still very confident in its regional influence: contrary to India, it is a nuclear state and occupies a permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council. China thus has no intention of pouring its energy and resources into a conflict with India which would do more harm than good. This asymmetry in perceptions of each other’s intentions has been worsening ever since China’s growth.
The second misperception, inherently linked to the first one, is that both states have adopted a different response to the threat of conflict. On the one hand, India has prepared itself for a new normal of armed coexistence and instability. India has historically tried to achieve its aims through traditional negotiations, as highlighted by Gandhi’s strategy of non-violent struggle against the British colonialists. Today, one can’t help but notice the consistent and almost daily developments in India’s military. The Sino-Indian border is now at unprecedented levels of militarisation, leading to a series of clashes in 2020 known as the Galwan Valley incident that left at least 20 soldiers dead. On the other hand, China does not see militarisation as the best approach. In fact, it does not approve of the way India tries to counter its presence in the region. It argues rather that India and China should learn to coexist or risk placing Asia in a dangerous position of instability. One must not forget that any threat of conflict in South Asia is also threat to China’s BRI and trading projects. The Chinese foreign policy approach thus favours de-escalation.
Lastly, the event brought to light the mistaken Chinese assumption that India is part of a Western or US-led camp. This could not be further to the truth. India expects the world to accept that it is independent and not tied to the US block. It is determined to make China understand that it makes its own decisions, rather than at the command of Biden’s administration. In fact, one of the speakers noted that there is a closer relationship between China and the US than between India and the US. Indeed, the US-Indian relationship is more of a partnership rather than an alliance. It was suggested that perhaps China’s confusion stems from the fact that India is the only country (apart from Japan) that has remained consistently democratic since its independence.
On that point then, it seems that both countries have found common ground: neither China nor India wants the US to get involved in their affairs, as both believe that Asian affairs should be decided by Asian states. Another common ground could be found in the narrowing demographic gap. India is still in ‘take-off’ mode and can be expected to face China as an equal to forge a new relationship within 10 to 15 years. It is also possible that the relationship could be eased through new infrastructure projects that will further connect the two contiguous states in the years to come. One thing is certain though: many misperceptions need to be cleared up before the conflict can be de-escalated.