Tensions between India and China have eased considerably since their 2017 military face-off on the Doklam Plateau. Sarang Shidore examines the reasons behind their current cooperation and the rivalries that remain
A year after their tense military standoff over the Doklam Plateau high in the Himalayas, India and China are in the middle of resetting their relationship. The shift began most visibly during an informal April meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China, where the two leaders agreed to issue ‘strategic guidance’ to their respective militaries so a situation like Doklam doesnot arise again.
A flurry of high-level meetings followed Wuhan, including those between foreign and defence ministers and national security advisers on both sides. Modi and Xi have also met twice more on the sidelines of multilateral events and are slated to meet again later in the year. As a result, the countries are discussing a hotline between their two military headquarters, are planning to resume their Hand-in-Hand military exercises along the border and are setting up additional locations on the border where local commanders can meet.
More than tactical
The current thaw goes beyond military-to-military confidence-building measures and symbolic summit meetings. India and China have also resumed talks on maritime affairs and river waters that had been suspended since 2016. India has downgraded its enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama and made a concession to Beijing by renaming Taiwan in its national airline maps. In return, China has agreed to give greater market access to Indian pharmaceutical and agricultural exports. However, it is India’s more nuanced approaches to the Indo-Pacific region and China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative that provide the strongest indications that the two countries are seriously emphasising a relationship reset.
India has perhaps been the world’s most passionate opponent of the Belt and Road Initiative – it was one of only two countries to boycott a May 2017 summit on the project in Beijing. (The other was Bhutan.) Its opposition mainly stemmed from objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the portion of the Belt and Road project that runs through the Pakistani-held Kashmir region that India claims. But India also stressed that the initiative was asymmetric in its effects and endangered recipient countries with unsustainable debt burdens and environmental harm.
The India-China thaw has not led India to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative. But New Delhi notably declined to participate in an infrastructure counter-initiative sponsored by the United States, Japan and Australia. Meanwhile, China has once again issued invitations to India to join the Belt and Road Initiative, calling the country a ‘natural partner’. And India is talking up projects that involve China connecting India’s less developed northeast with Southeast Asia and Chittagong Port in Bangladesh.
Modi’s recent keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security meeting held in Singapore, was very different from his defence minister’s speech the last time India attended the event in 2016. While Modi repeated what has now become standard Indian political rhetoric about upholding the ‘freedom of navigation’ and a ‘rules-based order’ (an implicit reference to the South China Sea), he also spent significant time assuaging Chinese concerns of a budding alliance among India, the United States, Japan and Australia designed to counter the rise of China. Modi stated that he did not see the Indo-Pacific as ‘a strategy or as a club of limited members nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate… and by no means directed against any other country’. And the Indian prime minister emphasised his belief that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, rather than any one great power, is central to the future of the Indo-Pacific region.
It takes two to tango
What could explain the shift in their relations? Domestic affairs are one key reason. Modi is entering an election season that has become more competitive than he expected a year ago, and any new Doklam-like distraction could be a spoiler for his campaign. In Beijing, Xi is under pressure from internal party debates. But the reasons go beyond domestic politics in both countries.
It is clear now that India came out as the worse-off party in the Doklam crisis. Though New Delhi succeeded in halting Chinese road construction in the southern part of the plateau – at least for the time being – Chinese troops did not leave the northern portion. If anything, they have bolstered and entrenched their presence there. Indian troops, on the other hand, have entirely vacated the plateau and returned to their positions within uncontested Indian territory.
Additionally, India has suffered a series of strategic setbacks over the past year with some of its South Asian neighbours, who it has long aimed to secure in its sphere of influence. In Nepal, a coalition of communist parties seen as pro-Beijing won the country’s 2017 national elections in a landslide, resulting in a government much less amenable to Indian influence. Since then, Nepal has begun a serious dialogue with Beijing on Belt and Road connectivity projects.
India’s fortunes also took a turn for the worse in the Maldives, where the government is actively inimical to Indian interests and has begun moving closer to Beijing. Meanwhile, US-Pakistani relations continue to deteriorate, even as the Pakistan-China alliance steadily deepens. Pakistan and long-standing Indian partner Russia have also begun cooperating on security matters. And Washington is much more transactional under US President Donald Trump, leaving India unsure of its level of support on China and Pakistan. All these developments put India at a significant geopolitical disadvantage, and its losses have been China’s gains.
However, Beijing’s strategic situation has also worsened in recent months. Its trade conflict with Washington is escalating, tensions are growing over Taiwan, and differences with the European Union persist. Any further deterioration in ties with India would present yet another distraction, whereas a relaxation of tensions would allow China to concentrate on the growing challenge posed by the United States and others.
Not a grand strategy shift
Though several global and domestic events have prompted India and China to cut back their antagonism, the thaw is not a fundamental shift in either’s grand strategy. India may be coming to terms with the realities of its power imbalance with Beijing and the potential benefits of limited cooperation. But its perception of China as its biggest geopolitical rival remains unchanged. If anything, China’s growing footprint in South Asia, including a deepening alliance with Pakistan, will continue to feed New Delhi’s anxieties. And China, while dismissive of India’s global power, continues to distrust its intentions and sees its growing convergence with Washington as a threat.
History provides a useful guide to what may lie ahead. Except for the violent decade of the 1960s, the India-China rivalry has never taken on the vicious cold war personality that has consistently characterised the India-Pakistan relationship. The last violent clashes on the Indo-Chinese border took place in 1967. Ties then gradually improved, particularly after the historic summit between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping in 1988 in the wake of a border crisis, which led to a major confidence-building initiative involving their disputed border in 1993. China, an ally of Pakistan since 1963, was notably neutral during the last India-Pakistan war in 1999.
Essentially, for two decades before 2010, India and China worked out a compartmentalised version of rivalry, keeping their powder dry and bolstering their domestic military capabilities while still cooperating closely on global issues such as trade and climate change.
That relationship began deteriorating around 2010, when China issued visas on separate sheets of paper for Indian citizens from Kashmir. India dropped all references to the ‘One China’ principle in response. Small-scale military incidents began to occur more frequently, with India alleging multiple Chinese incursions in territory claimed by New Delhi. Military standoffs escalated, with major incidents on the Depsang plateau in 2013 and at Chumar in 2014.
After coming to power in 2014, Modi went further than any previous prime minister in aligning India with the United States and Japan to balance China, and it played a key part in converting the annual Malabar naval exercise with the United States into a regular trilateral one involving Japan. Brief thaws punctuated this general trend of deterioration, including the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement and an apparently warm meeting between Xi and Modi soon after the 2014 Indian election, but relations were unmistakably deteriorating, reaching their nadir with the Doklam standoff.
Back to compartmentalisation
India has paused its assertive actions toward China since the Wuhan meeting, but it has simultaneously begun discussing a logistics-sharing agreement with Japan and will likely sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), a vital military communications-sharing pact with the United States this year. India will also focus even more strongly on a military buildup in the Indian Ocean, emphasizing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Ultimately, New Delhi is returning to a more nuanced and sophisticated China policy. It is again implementing the principle of compartmentalising its rivalry, but with a keener focus on bolstering military capabilities and an increasing readiness for more explicit bilateral security arrangements with China-balancing states, including Vietnam and Indonesia. But India will not join any multilateral treaty alliance or a military bloc in Asia aimed at China. (This will not be ideal from the standpoint of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, but a COMCASA signing will probably keep Washington happy for the time being.)
Capital-starved India will also put out a welcome mat for Chinese investment, not explicitly supporting the Belt and Road Initiative but effectively participating in it through backdoor means. (An early signal was provided by India’s announcement of a joint infrastructure project with China in Afghanistan.) India will deepen its participation in China-dominated initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. And if US-China tensions continue to roil global trade, as is likely, Beijing may offer more concessions of its own to New Delhi on the economic front.
All this amounts to a broader easing of tensions between the two Asian giants on multiple fronts beyond border security. But it still falls well short of a shift in grand strategy on either side. India and China will remain vigorous geopolitical competitors, but their rivalry is unlikely to take on the contours of a cold war in the foreseeable future.