The Future of China-India Relations
gfiles|October 2019
China and India are rising almost simultaneously.
Dr Liu Zongyi

Their bilateral relationship is of critical significance to the regional and world pattern, but this relationship is very complicated. With the advancement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia and India Ocean Region, India’s strategic suspicions of China have accumulated. Indian strategists government believe that there is some geostrategic design behind the BRI. India has adopted opposing, delaying, and hedging measures toward different parts of the initiative. donglang (doklam) standoff revealed India’s strategic ambition and its dissatisfaction towards China’s regional policies. India hopes to counterbalance China through strengthened strategic and security cooperation with countries including the United States (US), Japan, Australia, Vietnam, etc. however, the Sino-Indian relationship is, in essence, a competitive symbiotic relationship. India’s China strategy must still strike a careful balance between cooperation and competition, economic and political interests, and bilateral and regional contexts. President Xi and PM Modi have reached many consensuses during Wuhan informal meeting, but India’s adjustment of policy towards China is a tactical one, not a strategic one. It is very difficult to change the mindset of India’s strategic elites who will decide India’s policy towards China in the future.

China-India relations: cooperation and disputes

As two members of G20 and Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRJCS), China and India share extensive common interests on issues such as the reform of the international financial system, climate change, and international trade negotiation. Especially in the face of unprecedented changes in the world today as well as uncertainty and instability in the current international situation, it is necessary for the two countries to enhance cooperation against the backdrop of rising protectionism in the West, especially the ‘America First’ doctrine championed by the Donald Trump administration and the apprehensions of a China-US trade war. China and India have also cooperated on myriad regional issues like regional economic integration, the Afghanistan issue, and the crackdown on terrorism. China is one of India’s largest trading partners, and their economic collaboration will inject vigorous impetus to the Indian economy.

Admittedly, there are many unsolved questions left over by history between China and India, among which the border dispute is the biggest obstacle to the bilateral relationship. The Sino-Indian border issue is a very complex one and has been brewing since the British Imperialist invasions of India and China. In the 1960s, a military conflict erupted between China and India over territorial misunderstandings. That conflict became an excuse for India to rejuvenate its arms inventory culminating in India becoming a full-fledged Nuclear Power. Besides the boundary problem, other issues such as ChinaPakistan relations, dalai lama issue, trade deficit, and water resources issue also hinder the promotion of ChinaIndia relations. These problems force India into harbouring a deep-seated distrust towards China. Especially with the growing economic gap between China and India, some Indians are losing self-confidence gradually when they look at China. The Indian mass media and some Indian strategic scholars frequently propagate ‘Chinese incursion’ and ‘China threat’ which exposes their lack of confidence. This distrust among the two countries can be exploited by some Western countries to disrupt Sino-India relations.

BESIDES, with the swelling of China’s economic activity in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, especially in recent years with the advancement of the BRI, India’s strategic suspicions of China have aggravated. Some Western countries have taken advantage of this to fan the flames of the strategic competition or even confrontation between China and India. Western scholars forged and hyped China’s ‘String of Pearls Strategy’ in the Indian Ocean, and the Indian side accepted it.

India’s attitude Towards the belt and road initiative

The BRI is the top-level design of China’s opening-up and its economic diplomacy in the new era. It is a geoeconomic initiative. In the report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, we can find that the BRI has both internal and external implications. Internally, the BRI is one of the concrete measures of balancing regional development, together with the coordinated development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, and the development of the Yangtze Economic Belt. Externally, the BRI is the priority of making new ground in opening China further through links running eastward and westward, across land and over sea, by giving equal emphasis to ‘bringing in’ and ‘going global’, following the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration, and increasing openness and cooperation in building innovation capacity.

India’s position and role in the BRI are significant. India is regarded as one of the four key countries along the BRI by some Chinese experts. It is not only because of India’s population, labour resource, and a huge market but also because of India’s political influence over the South Asian and Indian Ocean countries. India’s attitude towards BRI will affect these countries’ positivity to participate in BRI, and China needs India’s cooperation on terrorism, regional stability, and security of BRI.

When China initiated the twenty-first-century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in 2013, the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his national security advisor Shivshankar Menon expressed support and interest. however, the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed India’s attitude toward the MSR and BRI after he came to power.

Indian strategists and the government believe there is some geo-strategic design behind the BRI. Some Indians think that the twenty-first century MSR is just an alternative name that sounds more pleasant and is used to replace the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. Also, some strategists regard the BangladeshChina India-Myanmar (BCIM) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as parts of the twenty-first century MSR because both corridors lead to the Indian Ocean. India opposes CPEC and delays the process of the BCIM economic corridor and puts forward its own interconnectivity projects. India initiated Project ‘Mausam’, Cotton Route, Spice Route, or Sagar Mala projects, and upgraded its ‘look East’ Policy to ‘Act East’ Policy, to hedge the twenty-first century MSR. India is very active in driving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

MOREOVER, the Indian press has also given much coverage to the US plan to restart the New Silk Road and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor initiatives, both of which they claim will rival Beijing’s BRI and New Delhi will play an essential role in it. India also speeded up its cooperation with Iran and Afghanistan to build Chabahar Port and International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). One week after the forum met in Beijing, India held the 52nd Annual General Meeting of the African Development Bank Group in its western State of Gujarat. At the meeting, PM Modi pitched for an ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor AAGC’, in actuality a duplication of the ‘freedom corridor’ designed by his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe during his Japan visit in November 2016. In the eyes of Indian media outlets, this Asia-Africa connectivity initiative is a counter to China’s BRI.

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