The relationship between India and China has long been very difficult. The two countries came into existence in their present form at almost the same time. India achieved independence from Great Britain in 1947.
The People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949. But from the start, the two countries took divergent paths. India became a parliamentary democracy whereas China became a one-party communist dictatorship.
India became one of the leaders of the non-aligned movement in the Cold War whereas China initially allied itself with the Soviet Union
The ideological divide could not have been more stark and led to an often unspoken competition to see which system could produce the best results for its people.
The Indians derived some satisfaction from the disaster inflicted on the Chinese people in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and his Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. No comparable disaster occurred in India.
The first signs of real friction between the two countries came to the fore in 1950 when China invaded, occupied and annexed Tibet. The Indians regarded this as a clear case of military aggression on their doorstep.
It was also viewed as a geostrategic setback for India, which had long considered Tibet as a valuable buffer state separating it from China. Things took a turn for the worse in 1959 when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, decided to flee his country in the face of Chinese military suppression. The Dalai Lama was granted refuge in India, where he was treated as a revered spiritual figure.
To this day, the Dalai Lama lives in the Darjeeling area of northern India, where he is surrounded by thousands of Tibetan refugees. The fact that the Indian government granted him asylum and allows him to freely travel the world is totally unacceptable to the Chinese government, which regards him as a dangerous separatist and a threat to China’s territorial integrity.
Matters took a further turn for the worse when the two countries became involved in a short border war in 1962. The People’s Liberation Army inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Indian army, and China remains in occupation of some substantial strips of Indian territory to this day. At the time, China went on to lay claim to the entire Indian state of Andhra Pradesh on the grounds that it was once part of southern Tibet.
To top this all off, in 1965 Pakistan ceded to China a band of territory in northern Kashmir, and this despite the fact that India lays claim to Kashmir in its entirety. These territorial disputes have been the object of endless consultations and negotiations by diplomats, geographers and politicians for over 50 years. No solution to them has yet been found.
Over the years, China has drawn even closer to Pakistan, India’s arch-enemy. What the Pakistanis describe as an “all-weather friendship” has paid handsome dividends for Pakistan. When the Americans turned their back on Pakistan because of its unwillingness to curb its nuclear weapons program, China stepped into the breach, providing Pakistan with political, economic and military support.
It is widely suspected that China provided Pakistan with much of the technical know-how to develop and test nuclear weapons, something which was anathema to India. Furthermore, China has become a stalwart defender of Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir dispute at the United Nations and beyond.
In recent years, the relationship between China and Pakistan has grown ever closer. As part of its Belt & Road Initiative, China is investing some $58 billion in infrastructure development in Pakistan. The so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is now the scene of major projects in sectors as varied as energy, agriculture and transportation.
What is perhaps most troubling to the Indians in all of this is that it is widely believed that the Chinese intend to transform the Pakistani port of Gwadar into a base for their navy, thus greatly extending the range of its operations in the Arabian Sea and in the Indian Ocean to the detriment of India’s influence there. There is an old saying to the effect that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
That saying can be turned on its head to read “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” If that is essentially true, then China, by aligning itself so closely with Pakistan, has declared itself to be an enemy of India.
Although the two countries have strengthened their economic relations over the past decade or two, they have also become embroiled in a geostrategic rivalry. In pursuit of its objective of increasing its presence and influence in the Indian Ocean, China has pursued what has come to be known as a “String of Pearls” strategy.
This involves surrounding India with countries friendly to China. The countries targeted include Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, as well as Pakistan. And China has established a naval base in Djibouti at the western end of the Indian Ocean.
To counter these moves, India has aligned itself ever more closely with the three major democracies present in the region: the United States, Japan and Australia. Together they form something known as the Quad, which holds periodic joint naval exercises. Earlier this year, India’s most senior general, Bipir Rawat, suggested that the Quad should conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea.
As The Economist commented in a recent article: “Though America routinely conducts such operations, India has trodden more cautiously. Expanding its naval presence in disputed waters in the Pacific would mark a big widening of its confrontation with China.” Only time will tell whether this actually occurs.
In the meantime, tensions have risen sharply along what is known as the Line of Actual Control in the Himalaya Mountains separating the two countries. Indian officials claim that since April, the People’s Liberation Army has occupied some 1,000 square kilometres of territory on its side of the line.
In June, there was a confrontation between Chinese and Indian forces in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and many more wounded; the number of Chinese casualties is unknown. In September, the two sides exchanged warning shots. These incidents mark a breakdown of the protocols and understandings that have for decades governed the activities of the armies on both sides of the line.
The situation is now deemed to be “very serious” by the Indian government, and yet no progress has been made in discussions to try to de-escalate the confrontation. Given the close proximity of the positions held by the two armies, there is a very real risk of repetition and escalation of these types of incidents.
Both China and India are now in the hands of essentially nationalist governments
The Chinese have been flexing their muscles in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Straits and in Hong Kong.
They now appear to want to do so along their undemarcated border with India. The Indians, for their part, have made it clear that they do not intend to back down. In retaliation for the June incidents, they have banned a large number of Chinese technology companies from their market.
In deference to the wishes of their nationalist supporters, neither government appears ready to make concessions that might lead to compromise agreements on the territorial disputes.
The confrontation between India and China thus seems likely to persist to the detriment of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.