Menu Close

5.2] India China Relations

China Political Map

1. History of India China Relations

India and China are amongst the oldest civilizations of the world and their relations go back to the ancient phase of history. Trade routes existed between two geographies. These routes were also used by travellers like Fa Hien, Sung Yun, Hsuan-Tsang and I-Tsung from China and ancient Indian travellers like Kumarajiva, Jinagupta, Jinbhadra, and Bodhidharma.

In modern period, both nations became free from the influence of European powers around same time. While independent India was established in 1947, modern China took birth in 1949. Over period of more than 7 decades, the India China relations experienced deep fluctuations, with extended positive and negative periods.

1.1 India China Relations Post Independence (1949-1962)

During early phase of cold war, while India went for Non-alignment, China chose to remain closer to Soviet Union. Indian Prime Minister, who also happened to be foreign minister, considered it in India’s interest to befriend China. India one of the first non-communist country to recognised the People’s Republic of China (December 1949) and also promoted its representation in the United Nations.

When China forcibly occupied Tibet in 1950, India did not do anything beyond protesting. In April 1954, both countries signed an agreement concerning trade between India and ‘Tibet Region of China’. The agreement incorporates the principal of ‘Panchsheel’, which later became an important set of principals in Indian foreign policy discourse.

The trade agreement was followed by the visit of Chinese premier to India (June 1954), and Nehru’s visit to Beijing 3 months later. The leaders also met few months later in Bandung Conference of Afro Asian nations in April 1955. Together the two leaders led the dialogue on evolving a common approach for developing countries to deal with the intricacies of international politics in the midst of Cold War. India consistently championed the cause of China’s representation in the UN, so did many other developing countries.

While some analysts criticize Nehru for supporting China’s entry into the UN, some also argue that Nehru’s China policy enabled India to manage peace and tranquility on the northeastern borders for at least fifteen years. There is also a debate around Nehru sacrificing the permanent seat at UNSC for India, once in 1950 when offered by US and again in 1955 when offered by USSR. However, it remains a highly politicized issue.

1.2 1962 Indo China War

In late 1950s, there were contentions between India and China on the border issue and the status of Kashmir. In 1959, there was Tibet Uprising, and India granted asylum to Dalai Lama. China raked up the border issue arguing that there has been no border agreement between India and China and refused to recognise the McMahon line. It also claimed the Aksai-Chin region of Kashmir as an area originally belonging to its Xinjiang province. Further, China reversed its policy and began to challenge Kashmir’s accession to India. It regarded Kashmir as a disputed territory, and supported the principle of self-determination in Kashmir.

India China Relations Indo China War Nehru

Amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, on 20 October 1962, the Chinese army invaded the disputed territory along the border in Ladakh and across the McMahon Line in the northeastern frontier.

The Chinese troops pushed Indian forces back in both places, capturing significant disputed territories. A month later, China unilaterally declared a ceasefire and announced withdrawal to pre-war position, effective Indo China border (‘Line of Actual Control’).

The war was a blow India’s image as a leader of the developing world. India’s non-aligned policy was compromised and Nehru had to make an appeal to the United States for military assistance. Nehru was criticised for his idealistic foreign policy and failure to defend the country’s honour.

1.3 Developments After the War

Afte the war, China established close relations with Pakistan and signed a border agreement (1963) with it. It also made Kashmir an issue involving three countries, as Pakistan illegally ceded a part of occupied Kashmir China. In 1964, China exploded a nuclear device, boldening Pakistan, which launched its second war against India in 1965.

Then there was 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and creation of Bangladesh. India also witnessed agricultural and industrial successes and demonstrated its nuclear capability in 1974. All of this changed India’s power profile in South Asia. The end of Vietnam war and the unification of Vietnam in 1975, moreover, ended the first round of intense Cold War and altered the security scenario of the world.

In the backdrop of all these developments, prime minister Indira Gandhi took steps to normalise relations with China. To begin with, full-fledged diplomatic relations were established in 1976. The process continued during the Janata Party rule. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then foreign minister, visited China in 1979 and held dialogues with senior leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.

The 1980s saw several rounds of border talks where two countries sought to amicably settle the prolonged dispute. Chinese Premier Hua visited India in 1981 and gave a further boost to the increased interactions between the two countries. The seventh round of border talks between 1981 and 1986 completely unfroze the Sino-Indian relationship, although a lasting solution to the contentious issues had not yet been arrived at.

Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988, the first prime ministerial visit in 34 years, and it wide opened the avenues for high-level exchange of visits by Indian and Chinese leaders. During visit, the two sides to set up a Joint Working Group to defuse tension along borders. The leaders agreed to concentrate on establishing and enhancing cooperation in other areas of mutual benefit, and separate the border issue from other bilateral issues. The Chinese Premier Li Peng’s visited India in 1991 accelerating the improvement of political relations between the two countries.

Rajiv Gandhi China Visit

The India China relationship again turned sour when India carried out a series of nuclear tests in 1998. However, soon India took steps to address the Chinese concern. India assured the China that it perceived no threat from it. Official interactions soon picked up and culminated in Chinese premier’s five- day official visit to India in 2002.

In 2003, first the defence minister, Fernandes and then prime minister Vajpayee paid highly successful visits to China, where the countries agreed to address border questions with care and caution.

1.4 India China Relations in Last 2 Decades

The 21st century India China relations saw rapid growth of trade in two economies. From mere $ 339 million in 1992, the trade grew to $ billion in 2003, $ 60 billion in 2010, and has almost doubled to $ 114 billion in 2023.

The Sino-Pakistan alliance has strengthened. It’s CPEC passes through POK, violating India’s sovereignty, and there is also a nuclear assistance from China to Pakistan. In Indian ocean, the approach of China has been defined as ‘string of pearl’s’ strategy by Western scholars. A policy to encircle India. And India has raised strong objections against it.

The border issues were quite silent until Doklam clash between the border forces (2017) and unfortunate Galwan skirmishes (2020), that led to death of 20 Indian soldiers and 40 Chinese. China has remained the biggest challenge of Indian foreign policy. There is a huge probability of the conventional war between India and China. As suggested by the Chinese proverb, ‘there cannot be two tigers in a one mountain’.

Today, China is second largest economy in the world; second largest trading power and a country whose military strength is growing by leaps and bounds. India has achieved the status of 5th largest economy, and it’s growth rate, as well as population has surpassed China. Together India and China host 35% of the world population. 21st century is often described as the ‘Asian century’ and thus, Indo China relations are most important relations at this stage in the international relations.

1.4 How China Sees the World

The biggest problem that China faces today is that the developed countries, which directly/indirectly facilitated the rapid economic growth of China, now open consider China as an open threat. The sentiment which was strengthened by the COVID-19 crisis, the origins of which lay inside China. The strategic competition to China is becoming more acute; and the regional security situation remains tense. Thus, to meet these complex set challenges that China seeks to establish a new model of international relations.

In economic sphere, the Chinese have been huge beneficiary of trade liberalization and multilateral trade. Thus, they would love to continue with that model for the foreseeable future. Given the Chinese status as a permanent member of the UNSC, China would like any future international system to have the United Nations at its core. Further, the nation has heavily i invested in the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], and will seek to reap its benefits in coming times.

2. Contentious Issues in India China Relations

2.1 Indo China Border Dispute

For millennias India and China lived as neighbour peacefully as civilizational states. Customarily, there used to be transition zones. However, Britishers tried to fix Indian boundaries to avoid war with expansionist Russia. It is important to note that territory is a western concept, and is closely linked with modern understanding of sovereignty.

India China share approximately 3500km boundary. However, it is not continuous, but is divided into three sectors i.e. Eastern, Middle and Western sectors. Currently India China has boundary dispute in two of these three sectors.

A] The Eastern Sector

Indo China Relations Border Dispute

In 1913-14, the representatives of Britain (India), China, and Tibet attended a conference in Shimla, India and drew up an agreement concerning Tibet’s status and borders. The McMahon Line, a proposed boundary between Tibet and India for the eastern sector, was drawn by British negotiator Henry McMahon on a map attached to the agreement.

While Chinese delegation did not sign the agreement, it was accepted by British and Tibet. According to Chinese, by signing the Shimla Convention with Tibet, the British had violated the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, in which both parties were not to negotiate with Tibet, “except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government”, as well as the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906, which bound the British government “not to annex Tibetan territory.”

The McMahon line was never accepted by the Chinese, and the status of border has remained disputed ever since. China accuses India of occupying 90,000 square miles of territory.

On the other hand, India accepts McMahon line as India China boundary. Not just because of its legal status, but also because the boundary also marks the watershed divide between two geographies and have been a boundary between two civilizations historically.

B] Middle Sector

In the middle section i.e. the Indo-China border between Nepal & Bhutan, currently there is no conflict. In 2003, during Vajpayee’s visit, China recognized India’s sovereignty on Sikkim, and opened Nathu-La pass for cross border trade.

C] Western Sector

Indo China Dispute in the Western Sector

In the western sector, India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square miles of Indian territory. i.e. Aksai Chin since 1962. Additionally, Pakistan has illegally ceded 2170 square miles territory to China (Shaksgam valley) from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). At present, Aksai Chin is under Chinese occupation and the armies of both nations are stationed across LAC (Line of Actual Control).

To settle the dispute in western sector, British had proposed two maps i.e. 1) Johnson line, which will put Aksai Chin under India, and 2) MacDonald line, which will put Aksai Chin under China’s sovereignty. However, China did not accept any of the map and the issue remained unsettled.

According to Indian sources, Aksai Chin has been a part of state of Jammu and Kashmir. For China, it is an extension of Tibet. The problem becomes worse because the region is not habituated. While public opinion can be taken in Arunachal Pradesh, same cannot be done in Aksai Chin. The region is important to China as an important route to Tibet.

Doklam Standoff

In June 2017, Chinese troops with construction vehicles and road-building equipment began extending an existing road southward in Doklam, a territory that is claimed by both China and India’s ally Bhutan. About 270 armed Indian troops crossed the Sikkim border into Doklam, to stop the Chinese troops from constructing the road. An intense standoff between the two forces occurred that lasted for almost 2 months. On 28 August, both India and China announced that they had withdrawn all their troops from the face-off site in Doklam.

2020 Skirmish

In June 2020, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a brawl in the Galwan River valley (Aksai Chin). It led to unfortunate death of 20 Indian soldiers and around 40+ soldiers were killed on the Chinese side.

2.2 Brahmaputra River

Indo China Relations Over Bramhaputra River

Brahmaputra river flows through Tibet (China), Northeastern India, and Bangladesh. Also known as Yarlung in China, the issue has arisen due to development of hydropower bases in the lower reaches of the Brahmaputra River.

According to India and Bangladesh, any such effort to divert water from the Brahmaputra river would infringe upon the rights of lower riparian states. This will have a negative effect on the quantity of water available in the Brahmaputra basin during the dry season.

Apart from concern regarding hydropower projects, the Government of India had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China. The MoU makes provision of Hydrological information sharing on Yaluzangbu/Brahmaputra River during flood season by China to India. The MoU was not respected by China in 2017 during Doklam standoff. While the information regarding water level in upper parts of the river is crucial for India to ensure flood management in Assam.

2.3 China-Pakistan Relations

Apart from bilateral issues, Chinese relations with Pakistan has been a major issue for India. The Chinese officials and Pakistani officials, talk about the China-Pakistan relationship as an all-weather friendship, described as “higher than mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey”. The relations are very close and is getting stronger every year.

However, it was not always this way. However, as the India-China relationship started fraying due to unresolved border issue, which eventually led to a border war in Oct-Nov 1962. Consequently, China came closer to Pakistan, and the latter ceded part of its territory to China in 1963 (Sakshgam Valley). This was a significant development because since then China has also become a party to the India Pakistan territorial dispute.

Presently, there is very close military cooperation between Pakistan and China. Pakistan buys a lot of its military equipment today from China. The military aspect is assisted by a strong political relation between two nations.

China & Pakistan are also working on developing a strong economic interdependence, and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is important part of it. The project is important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the project is bringing major infrastructure investment to Pakistan, for China it is opening up a new land route to Indian Ocean via Pakistan. India has objected to the project strongly since it passes through the PoK region and violates Indian sovereignty.

China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Map

Evolving Sino-Pak relations is an important problem for India. India unresolved border issue with both the nations. And it becomes an even bigger problem since it creates a at two-front situation for India.

2.4 Chinese Advances in Indian Ocean (String of Pearls)

Chinese String of Pearls Strategy in Indian Ocean

The String of Pearls is a hypothesis proposed by United States political researchers in 2004. The term refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. The sea lines run through several major maritime choke points such as the Strait of Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Lombok Strait as well as other strategic maritime centres in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Somalia.

Many commentators in India believe this plan, together with the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and other parts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a threat to India’s national security. Such a system would encircle India and threaten its power projection, trade, and potentially territorial integrity. Furthermore, China developing the Gwadar Port in Pakistan is viewed as a threat, compounded by fears that China may develop an overseas naval military base in Gwadar.

To counter the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. Indian scholars have proposed ‘Necklace of Diamonds’. In this strategy, India strengthens ties with Vietnam, Oman, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, Singapore, Seychelles and all five Central Asian Republics to conduct joint army, Airforce and naval exercises. Necklace of Diamonds includes the development of naval bases, air corridor, boasting multilateral trade etc.

2.5 Unfair Trade Relations

The Bilateral trade between India and China in FY23 stood at US$ 113.83 billion. As of 2022-23, China is India’s third-largest trading partner, after USA and EU.

Major items of export from India to China include petroleum products (US$ 1.21 billion), followed by marine products (US$ 1.44 billion), iron ore (US$ 1.39 billion), spices (US$ 739 million), and organic chemicals (US$ 692 million), etc. in FY23.

Major items imported from China include electronic components (US$ 8.19 billion), followed by computer hardware and peripherals (US$ 7.25 billion), telecom instruments (US$ 6.81 billion), organic chemicals (US$ 6.44 billion), and machinery for dairy (US$ 6.27 billion) etc. in FY23.

While the increasing trade between India and China may appear a good sign, there is also a widening trade deficit for India. This has raised alarm by businesses, and India has often accused China of unfair trade practices. Further, a large dependence on a country, relations with which are not exactly friendly, also creates political and security challenges for India.

2.6 Dispute in South China Sea

China and the Dispute in the South China Sea

The South China Sea dispute does not involve India directly. However, it involves China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries.

Since its establishment in 1949, the Chinese have claimed that majority of the South China sea is its territory. The sea has numerous small islands, and thus, there are multiple disputes for sovereignty over these. China lays claim to 85 percent of the contested region and has been reclaiming and militarizing features in its possession.

The nine-dash line, also referred to as the eleven-dash line by Taiwan, is prominent amongst these disputed areas. It represents the region in South China Sea claimed by China. The contested area includes the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and other disputed islands.

The territorial claims, also brings with it claims on energy resources and fisheries in the region. This is important for the involved countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam). The region also is important for India from an energy security perspective. For instance, India and Vietnam signed an oil and gas exploration agreement in South China Sea.

Further, approx. one third of global trade passes through South China Sea and India would like to keep these sea lanes of communication free from unilateral influence of a country like China. China accuses India of getting involved in the South China Sea, while from New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the South China Sea does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’

3. Areas of Cooperation for India China

3.1 Regional / Global Cooperation

Sustainable Development

India and China are the most populous countries of world and together make up one third of the world population. Studies have demonstrated that an “Open regionalism and integration between … the world’s two largest developing countries in trade, investments and infrastructure development can foster outward-oriented development and economic and social benefits that could result in poverty reduction” (CESIFO 2005).

Thus, the Indo-China cooperation in attaining sustainable development goals is imperative, and together they can achieve more collectively as well as individually.

Climate Change

India and China share common concern from climate change. Several environmental bodies, including IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports have concluded that the two Asian countries face imminent threat in the form of ecological degradation, food and water scarcity, agricultural shifts, health hazards, etc. due to climate change. Given their high populations, the developmental needs and aspirations of these countries are enormous and are further complicated by the effects of climate change.

On the other hand, there is deliberate neglect of climate issues from the western countries, whose contribution remains limited to the study in environmental impact.

Thus, India and China have emerged as key players in the environmental negotiations in international sphere, voicing the concerns of third world countries. They have asserted that the issues of equity and justice are incorporated in any climate change related international agreement. Both the nations have several bilateral institutional mechanisms in place for environmental cooperation. At multilateral level, both are party to the Paris Agreement on Climate change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

According to Matoo and Subramanian, “the present sets of international mechanisms in tackling climate change need to be replaced by a new approach, wherein developing countries such as China, India, Indonesia, etc. take the mantle of leadership emphasising on technological innovation and cooperation.”

3.2 Trade and Economics

Both India & China are members of the BRICS, the SCO, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDB). As the third world countries become wary of unilateral policies of the West in existing economic and trade institutions, these Asian neighbours can enhance their economic cooperation through these institutions and provide an alternative to existing economic order. Both countries champion themselves to be the leader of the third world, and as US hegemony is on decline, it puts them in right spot to cooperate on a larger platform.

4. Scholarly Perspective on India China Relations

Amb. (Retd.) Naleen Surie

“India and China need each other; should find ways of settling their differences including on the boundary question and continue to focus on achieving human development for their countries.”

“There can be no 21st Century of Asia without serious and positive collaboration between our two countries. Our civilizational contact of the past has been fruitful and benefited both sides. There is no reason that this should not happen in the coming decades.”

S Jaishankar

“The ability of India and China to work together could determine the Asian century. Equally, their difficulties in doing so may well undermine it.”

“The rise of China is a reality but there is an equal reality that is the rise of India”

“India and China have been in an ‘abnormal state’ since 2020 Galwan clashes”

“If the two biggest countries of the world have that degree of tension between them, it has consequences for everybody else,”

“If we had been more Bharat, we would have had a less rosy view of our relationship with China”

“I argue for dealing with China from a basis of realism”

“Development of India-China relations is guided by three mutuals of respect, sensitivity, and interest”

Dr. S Jaishankar suggests India to be imaginative and open minded while dealing with China. India should learn from the wisdom of China. To quote Sun Tzu, ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’.

C Raja Mohan

“The relative rise in the international system makes India more self-assured in dealing with the great powers. Rather than wring its hands about potential shifts in US-China relations, Delhi should focus on seizing the current opportunities with the US and the West to accelerate India’s rise in the global power structure, reduce the strategic gap with China, and enhance the military deterrence against Beijing.”

“The unintended consequence of China is, it compels India to think more strategically.”

Other Quotes

“China shares a very long border with India, has direct impact on India’s security. The asymmetrical accumulation of power constrains our ability to exercise strategic autonomy, a fundamental principle of India’s foreign policy. It means India would have no option but to go for partnership with USA to counterbalance the asymmetry. India cannot remain nonaligned.” – Shivshankar Menon

“China faces climate change as a part and parcel of its larger development process. There is convergence of interest on the issue of climate change between India and China. Both insist the historical responsibility of the developed west… we agree we have to contribute to mitigating climate change but not at the same level as the west. At this level, there is room for cooperation.” – Shyam Saran

“No other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China.” – Modi at Shangri La dialogue June 2018.

According to Rajiv Sikri, “India should not lose the psychological war against China.”

Posted in PSIR NOTES

Related Posts

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Is it enough to covered the China topic for PSIR optional

Abhijeet Pimparkar

Yes.. this is enough. You should top it up with happenings in current affairs.