FRIENDS, RIVALS – OR A BIT OF BOTH

The world’s two most populous countries will always vie for strength and influence, but they also have to work together, writes G Parthasarathy

If one was to judge Sino-Indian relations by the number of official visits being paid by each country to the other, it would appear that they were the best of friends.

In August China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, was in India to prepare for the scheduled visit of President Xi Jinping for the BRICS summit in October, his second to India in as many years. His previous trip, in 2014, coincided with the assumption of office by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who welcomed Xi personally in his home state, Gujarat.  Xi, in turn, responded by personally receiving Modi in his home town, Xian.

The world’s two most populous countries work together in multilateral forums like BRICS, G-20 and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, with Modi due to be in Hangzhou for the September G-20 summit. But while the Chinese and Indian leaders have maintained personal contacts and made efforts to expand bilateral ties, there are deep differences between their nations, arising from rivalry for strategic space and influence across each other’s immediate neighbourhood.

Beijing has sought to take advantage of problems that India has faced with virtually every South Asian neighbour, including Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

India is increasingly concerned at what it regards as China’s growing assertiveness across Asia and the Indian Ocean. There is a widespread feeling in New Delhi that Beijing is seeking to undermine Indian influence even in its immediate South Asian neighbourhood. Beijing has sought to take advantage of problems that India has faced with virtually every South Asian neighbour, including Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, even though these efforts have not succeeded thus far.

Balancing Chinese power has required New Delhi to work closely with Japan, the US and its Western allies, apart from neighbouring ASEAN countries, across the Bay of Bengal. The US ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific has complemented India’s ‘Look East’ policies. This, in turn, raises concerns in China.

Beijing has disputed maritime boundaries with virtually all its neighbours, including South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. India, on the other hand, has worked assiduously to settle its maritime boundaries with all its eastern neighbours. Bilateral agreements were struck with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh, as well as tripartite agreements to demarcate tri-junctions, with Myanmar and Thailand, Indonesia and Thailand, and Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Even arriving at an agreement to demarcate India’s maritime frontiers with Pakistan will not be difficult, once agreement is reached on demarcating the land boundary in the Sir Creek area.

Rivalry extends as well to military matters. While India has been concerned about China’s growing military ties with its South Asian neighbours, China in turn looks with disfavour on India’s increased military co-operation in areas such as the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, where it has conducted joint exercises with the US and Japan.

Relations between Beijing and New Delhi have recently been affected by India’s concerns about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, through which 55 per cent of India’s exports are shipped. This has predictably led to growing maritime co-operation with China’s neighbours like Vietnam, with whom India has agreements for offshore oil exploration.

The borders between India and China remain disputed and as yet un-demarcated
The borders between India and China remain disputed and as yet un-demarcated

China’s unilateral declaration of an ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’, across its maritime frontiers, has raised concerns about uninterrupted and safe passage of civil aviation. India’s endorsement of the need for respect of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) has, in turn, aroused concerns in Beijing that India would raise this issue, along with the US and others, at the Hangzhou G-20 summit. Foreign Minister Wang urged India to stay out of differences between China and its neighbours, on issues of maritime frontiers.

The really serious differences between India and China, however, revolve around Chinese relations with Pakistan. The main issues are continuing Chinese assistance for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, and its virtual veto in the United Nations against declaring the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish e Mohammed, which was responsible for a recent attack on a military air base in India, as a global terrorist organisation.

The most recent setback to the relationship, however, was when China virtually vetoed a move by the US and an overwhelming majority of members to admit India to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China objected on the grounds that India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. New Delhi retorted that while China was a signatory, it had flouted virtually every provision of the NPT, by the supply of nuclear weapons designs and materials for Pakistan’s uranium enrichment and plutonium processing facilities.

While their borders have been relatively trouble free, both India and China are strengthening their defences. The military command structure in China is being revamped, with Kashgar emerging as the location of the Western Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army. Kashgar is being connected to the Pakistan Army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi by a $44 million fibre-optic link.

India has objected to China’s $46 billion One Belt One Road Project, linking Xinjiang Province to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which is located astride India’s energy corridors to the oil-rich Gulf. At the same time, India is strengthening its defences along its borders with China, with new deployments, including the raising of an additional Strike Corps, the deployment of tanks at high altitudes, acquisition of new, 155mm mountain artillery from the US and the development of forward air bases.

The potential for problems is increased by the fact that the borders between India and China remain disputed and as yet un-demarcated. But both sides appear determined not to allow tensions to get out of control, having agreed at the highest level that they must strengthen measures to improve communications and prevent flashpoints. Measures include meetings between local commanders on either side, but it is important that the vexed border issue should be resolved, sooner rather than later.

Guiding principles were agreed between the then Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao in 2005, and a settlement on the basis of these principles is possible, given the will. Ideally the ongoing dialogue should seek to reconcile, not gloss over, concerns on regional security issues.


G Parthasarathy is a retired career Foreign Service Officer and was a Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army from 1963-1968. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

 Related Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *