Mistrust and Cooperation: Analyzing Sino-Indian Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 21

A considerable degree of mistrust normally characterizes Sino-Indian relations. China sees India as a potential rival to its dreams of major power status in Asia and systematically tries to depreciate India’s standing and capacities in all ways possible. Thus Indian observers, along with many foreign analysts, believe that China’s long-standing military, political and economic assistance to Pakistan aims at keeping India tied down in South Asia and preventing it from expanding its horizons, influence, and capabilities. China essentially ignores India’s drive for greater power and by its silence conveys a condescending, patronizing attitude toward India that also diminishes its status. Until quite recently, for example, China essentially dismissed India’s position with regard to the disputed Indo-Chinese border, fully displaying this patronizing stance. As India’s foreign policy is dominated by its ceaseless striving for respect and greater status in Asia, a certain tension continues to prevail, though both states have made consistent efforts recently to improve relations.

These efforts at rapprochement have intensified of late, leading to surprising twists in Chinese policy. For example, Chinese officials now claim that there is also no obstacle to the resolution of border issues with India, indicating an apparent willingness to negotiate until the issue is completely resolved. While on the international stage, China has publicly come out in favor of India’s wish to join the UN Security Council. (India’s application to the Council is in some measure wrapped up with Japan’s similar application, as China clearly opposes any enhancement of Japanese influence in Asia.) Beijing also is calling for an intensification of cooperation with Asian states, including India, against terrorism in Central Asia, especially Xinjiang. Obviously, the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism brings these two states together, with China advocating new bilateral military cooperation. China has even allowed the chairman of Xinjiang, Ismail Tiliwandi, to travel to India and to negotiate a significant expansion of trade and transportation between India and Xinjiang, including a natural gas pipeline connecting the two countries.

Similarly, Chinese officials seem more willing to entertain the idea originated by Yevgeny Primakov of a strategic triangle with Russia and India. This would mean regular consultations among the three states on points of agreement in the struggle against terrorism and on behalf of a multipolar world – though a consensus on what “multipolarity” means or a functioning bloc is unlikely to result, especially since India is clearly committed to improving ties with Washington. However, such thinking does illustrate the increasing desire of both countries to regularize their consultations and to include their mutual partner, Russia, in these ventures.

To be sure, none of this means that the rivalry between India and China, or the competition for influence in Asia, is over – quite the contrary. India’s new agreement with Myanmar, its naval buildup, and its Look East policy in Southeast Asia are all influenced to some degree by the desire to limit China’s growing influence. Indian observers view China’s naval growth and its exploding economic influence in Southeast Asia and Central Asia as potential challenges to Indian interests. Therefore they work assiduously to counter that influence. Likewise, they still maintain that China’s support for Pakistan aims at preventing India from achieving its rightful place in Asia. Nevertheless the present rapprochement means that parallel with this rivalry in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, strong countervailing and shared interests are taking root as well.

These common interests clearly pertain to the war against terrorism and China’s continuing search for a way to stop the unending challenge to its rule in Xinjiang, e.g. by expanded international cooperation in the area’s economic development. This approach is based upon the Beijing’s belief that economic distress underlies the insurgency and the fear that foreign governments may try to funnel support to the separatists. Thus China searches for means to ameliorate local economic shortages, increase its energy supplies from Central Asia and the Persian Gulf (much of which must traverse Xinjiang) and isolate potential external sources of support by enmeshing them in economic ties that would gravely suffer if they were caught harboring Uighur rebels.

China’s new “diplomacy of smiles” builds upon its foreign policies throughout Asia for the last several years, a policy that has consistently sought to allay fears of China’s growing power and capabilities. This diplomacy of smiles is encapsulated in the leadership’s recent efforts to advance a foreign policy line relating to China’s “peaceful rise.” The line is meant to convey the idea that China’s rising power is entirely natural and peaceful and no threat to any Asian state’s interests. But beyond that, China wants to curtail or at least moderate India’s drift towards collaboration with America, which would decisively restrict its power potential in Asia. (Although, such collaboration would mitigate the possibility of another Indo-Pakistani war and limit Pakistan’s ability to harbor Islamic radicals who strike at Chinese interests, either by killing Chinese workers in Pakistan or by fomenting attacks in Xinjiang.) Support for India’s membership in the Security Council also has the potential to limit the fallout from Japan’s membership by balancing it with another Asian power, or possibly even prevent Japan’s entrance altogether. Either scenario would be more palatable to Beijing than simply having Japan as a Council member.

For its part, India has never sought to be part of any U.S. or other strategy that entails the containment of China. Rather, its elites, for all their rivalry with and suspicion of China, have always maintained that the steady growth of Indian power plus a rapprochement with Washington would suffice to prevent Chinese power from becoming a direct threat to vital Indian interests. But as is often the case in world politics, closer ties between two major powers prompts action by a third party to seek better relations with one or the other, so as not to be left out. New Delhi’s visible closeness to Washington has led Beijing to take it more seriously as a potential rival, to weigh the costs of that rivalry and decide that a greater stress on bilateral partnership with India is a more profitable and productive way to go, even if the rivalry continues in muted fashion. And India has reciprocated in kind.

This rapprochement is, therefore, from China’s standpoint, a timely move to ward off or at least to limit the dangers that could confront China either from renewed Indo-Pakistani violence – as seemed to be quite possible in 2001-02 – or from an Indo-American partnership, a project that many American analysts who feel threatened by China’s rising power may eagerly embrace. The new friendship with India also indicates just how flexibly Chinese diplomacy is adapting to the new world order that came into being after 9/11 and how it is exploiting America’s relative inattention to issues other than Iraq to advance its own diplomatic and economic position across Asia. Inasmuch as the China-India relationship is one of the most pivotal ones in Asia and has significant repercussions beyond region, especially if India gets into the Security Council, this development is one that merits our closest attention.