The dynamics of Sino-Indian relations are constantly evolving. The bonhomie between the two nation-states formulated in the late 1940s, marked by the notion of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ and the adoption of principles of peaceful coexistence with the 1954 Agreement, its breakage during the war in 1962 and the years that followed, the efforts to rebuild relations towards the end of the twentieth century, coupled with signing of a series of agreements, to the border and geopolitical issues that have come to overwhelm the Sino-Indian relations in the recent years. Alternatively stated, India and China have largely maintained peaceful relations over centuries (as civilizations, colonies, and nation-states), which have been oftentimes threatened by the underlying border disputes and geopolitical ambitions culminating in conflict and competition. As such the Sino-Indian relations have been transcendental and even tumultuous, especially today as the violent clash in the border region (Galwan Valley) has reversed the peaceful bilateral relations forged over the years.
So, what does the future hold for the bilateral relations between the two parties? What are the lessons that we can learn from history, and how can India achieve its glocal and international geopolitical, including maritime, and economic goals for future all the while balancing its relations with the neighboring China? In order to find answers to these questions, this article borrows from the traditional theories of International Relations. It is important to mention that since all possible solutions suggested are future-oriented, they are vulnerable to both external and internal changes that may occur after the time of this paper being written.
Notably, looking from a historical perspective, irrespective of how strong and stable the relations between India and China appear to be, the nature of and stability in their relations has come to hinge upon external conditions and dynamics instead of their own bilateral ties with each other. For instance, China’s close ties with Pakistan has been a cause of concern and mistrust towards Beijing for New Delhi.[i] Another instance is the restoration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD 2.0) in 2017-18, undertaken by the United States, Australia, Japan, and India[ii], which accentuates the regional insecurity of Beijing.[iii] The QUAD has essentially been formed to counter the growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, to keep in check and balance the rapidly growing regional power asymmetry in Asia, and to achieve equilibrium. Arguably, this nexus among the ‘liberal’[iv] nation-states harks back to the realist theory, a perspective according to which the QUAD countries are ultimately counting on deterrence (building ability to defend from and counter any attack) and balance of power (equilibrium and restoring the so-called ‘symmetry’) to counterbalance the Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
To trounce the trust deficit between India and China, who are seemingly caught up in a competition for power and influence in Asia as well as the world, endorsing a multipolar system of world order, whereby there can be more than one hegemon[v], becomes key. As such, partaking in multilateral arrangements and agreements, as the liberalist international relations theory suggests, can help recreate a rules-based order. Evidently so, both India and China have taken steps in this direction as they have been engaging bilaterally as well as multilaterally (for example, BRICS and SCO), which can be further built upon in order to negotiate the conflict issues instead of allowing their regal pride to inflate into a rupture in their relationship. There is a plethora of empirical evidence to the liberalist school’s (mainly by Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine) assertion that international institutions and organizations help reduce military conflict, which is a necessary aspect for India-China relations. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has played a prolific role in curtailing proliferation between adversary states such as Brazil and Argentina.[vi]
However, a key point to note here is that defection becomes more likely if there is opportunity for cheating and escape without any significant costs or punishment. Therefore, engagement of three or more states in an international arrangement ensures regular monitoring of states’ activities compelling all states to commit to cooperating, thereby installing a ‘balance and check mechanism’.
Bilateral ties, international society, and interdependency:
One of the first formulators of the English School (ES) of international relations, Hedley Bull[vii], asserted, “when two or more states have sufficient contact between them, and have sufficient impact on one another’s decisions to cause them to behave as parts of a whole.” According to this school of thought, nations tend to work together if they have a shared understanding of rules, norms, and institutions (diplomacy, war and law). These are the factors that bilateral and multilateral arrangements largely depend upon. The ES embarks upon a ‘thin’ difference between an international society and international system.[viii] For instance, the kind of relations that India shares with the different Asian countries is comprised as being part of the international system, and the relations among the South Asian nations forged mainly through SAARC will be termed as an international society. Additionally, interactions between SAARC and other non-member Asian countries can be described as being within the comprehensive international system. As such, it becomes necessary for the two countries, India and China, to come together as a society and work together to negotiate the differences. It is important for the Indian policymakers to acknowledge that, speaking from the perspective of an ‘Anarchial Society’ as promulgated by the ES, China continues to see itself as a champion against the West[ix] while the Unites States is one of India’s strongest allies. India needs to strike a balance between the two to ensure that neither of its relationships, that with the West and that with China, adversely affect the other. Instead “a triangular relations”[x] similar to that suggested by Martin Wright in the 1970s among the US, USSR, and China, can be pursued among the US, India, and China.[xi]
Interdependency can also be developed on the basis of climate change. As both countries strive to prepare for climate related issues (including the projected floods in India from July to September, increased streamflow in the Indus Valley basin, China’s dam-building activities related risks, and earthquakes)[xii]. As such, there can be established deeper communication channels to share data and research, thereby establishing efficient early warning signals. In any case, infrastructure activities undertaken by China near Kashmir, criticized and rejected by India[xiii], may lead New Delhi to perceive any changes as deliberately manipulated by the Chinese, irrespective of whether it is true or not. Therefore, maintaining transparency with respect to climate and border developments becomes key in rejuvenating the Sino-Indian relations. From an Indian perspective, while the onus of taking the first step clearly lies on China as it is actively engaging in infrastructure projects at the bordering region, India remains obligated to take the opportunity as and when it presents itself. Negotiations, according to the liberalist school of thought, are rooted in a set of conditions and automatically reverse if any of those conditions are violated. Therefore, a long-term perspective is very important in shaping those arrangements.
The Realist theory of International Relations advocates two main strategies to manage national [in]security — deterrence and Balance of Power.[xiv] Deterrence is rooted in building significant (defence) force to use against a ‘threat’. However, the liberal thought impinges upon the significant collateral damages and risks that a full military offensive pose to both internal and external affairs of the country. For instance, the military, arms, and ammunition build-up by the Islamic state group in the twenty first century directly contributed to feeding the anti-western stance of the local population.[xv] Similarly, increasing spending on defence to counter the ‘perceived’ Chinese threat entails a risk of developing harsh outlook of the ‘democratic’ Indian population towards China, which in turn may render useless or at the least limit all reconciliation efforts by India. Immanuel Kant, one of the first scholars to articulate the liberalist thought, argued that owing to high military spending, the country has “…no money to spare for public educational institutions or indeed for anything which concerns the world’s best interest (for everything has been calculated out in advance for the next war)”.[xvi] Another disadvantage directly associated with high military spending is what is known as the ‘spiral model’[xvii]. According to this model, any attempts to increase and expand security aspects can be perceived as a threat by a neighboring state. This also applies in the case of India and China. Therefore, as India announced a larger defense budget and an expansion of its nuclear arsenal, it needs to be very cautious of how this may impact its relations with China, against which it already has developed sufficient deterrence capability. Steps such as pre-notification mechanisms, non-intersecting hence non-competitive defense acquisitions, bilateral defense arrangements, and even strategic arms reduction can be taken up to overcome these issues.
The theoretical logic notwithstanding, after the 2020 violent exchange between the two militaries, India has been amping up its nuclear capacity, which some critics and thinkers have suggested to be trap.[xviii] A feasible and lucrative step, with respect to China as well as New Delhi’s own national concerns would rather be agree upon a set of bilateral and multi-lateral arrangements that denounce the use of materiel between the two and look forward to a potential non-proliferation and arms reduction at least up to deterrence capacity.
Enhancing Trade and Economic interdependency:
Looking back on the traditional liberal thought in International Relations, liberals like Kant, Paine, and Cobden pressed upon the advantages of building economic interdependence. Economic interdependence can be best defined in terms of the extent to which states are interconnected through the flow of capital[xix], goods, and services[xx]. While it is true that economic ‘independence’ and not ‘interdependence’, as Gaddis[xxi] argued, of the West and the East was a key reason for the long-standing peace (hence, ‘Cold’) at the time of the Cold War, liberals have argued that interdependence serves as a causal mechanism for decreasing conflict. This is because leaders of the economically interdependent states are bound to incur heavy economic as well as political costs in case of conflict. Employing the neoliberalist thought or “neoliberal institutionalism”, which focusses on free trade, deregulations, privatization, and low tax allows room for greater cooperation between states.[xxii] It especially draws attention to ‘relative’, instead of ‘absolute’ gains, as per which states are less likely to defect because the strong economic interdependence and the benefits they are mutually gaining, including avoiding the cost of conflict and the otherwise lingering ‘threat’. As such, India and China can both deepen their economic ties, also suggested in 2017 in a Seminar hosted by the Vivekananda International Foundation.[xxiii]
Additionally, who is to say that China will not defect from any of the signed bilateral arrangements? Despite the pre-existing bilateral agreements of 1993,1996, and 2013 signed by both the parties, the terms of the agreements were violated as the Galwan Valley dispute of 2020 took a violent turn[xxiv].
Overlooking the Ideological differences:
Interestingly, the Liberalism theory of International Relations, which arguably came to be “the defining feature of the late twentieth century”[xxv] with the fragmentation of the USSR, maintains that ‘democracies’ behave differently than others. Emphasizing upon the ‘democratic peace theory’ — that no democracies have or will go at war with each other[xxvi] —, it maintains that democracies, as compared to other systems of governments, are least likely to initiate or amplify conflicts and that democratic countries engage more in international investments and trade, seeking cooperative solutions, as well as political liberty.[xxvii] As such, there pre-exists an unavoidable democratic-communist ideological divide between India and China. Perhaps building a sense of security will allow for fading away of these ideological differences between the two parties. Owing to the securitization theory, the focus is brought directly to “referent objects” and sectionalized security. As such, the theory identifies five sectors: “the economic, the societal, the military, the political and the environmental sector” and draws attention to any specific threat/s in each of those sectors threatening a specific referent object. For instance, in the environmental sector the referent object would be climate, species or ecosystem, and in the military sector, the state becomes the referent object itself.[xxviii] Furthermore, the theory emphasizes the role of political and public discourse that while initially only describing the reality, comes to constitute the reality affecting decisions and changes. Therefore, the political and public discourse regarding China as a whole may come to play an important role in shaping the relations. While previously media has been used as a tool to further propaganda against the Indian government[xxix], same tools can be used to strengthen Sino-Indian relations.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the soured India-China relations, embodied in the shape of violent border clashes, geopolitical competition for influence and power, and maritime security in the South China Sea and the IOR, there are certain factors that indicate both nation-states can still and are likely to rebuild their ties in several areas. One of these factors is the historical evidence. Following the military standoff in 2017 in the bordering region Doklam — one of the first conflicts between India and China to involve a third party, Bhutan, as India, in favour of its longstanding ally Bhutan, positioned troops in the bordering region to thwart the Chinese efforts to build a road into the territory claimed by Bhutan — both the nation-states have attempted to strengthen their diplomatic and economic ties using tools like state visits and informal summits (Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping met for a personal and informal meeting in Wuhan in 2019), which culminated in “the bonhomie and stability of India-China relations, noticed in 2018 and now to 2019…”[xxx] Nonetheless, there still remains a daunting reality that the efforts ultimately failed, and so did the series of arrangements. Perhaps, what was missing from the plethora of bilateral agreements mutually signed by both the parties was long-sightedness as well as a holistic approach. Perhaps the countries, especially China, need to have more at stake to prevent defection.
[i] Naveed Siddiqui, “ ‘Iron Brothers’: China, Pakistan agree to safeguard common interest, strengthen cooperation in all areas”, Dawn.com (August 21, 2020)
[ii] Government of India, “Telephone conversation between Prime Minister and His Excellency Joseph R. Biden, President of the United States of America”, Ministry of External Affairs (February 8, 2021)
[iv] Jagannath P. Panda and Atmaja Gohain Baruah, “Foreseeing India-China Relations:: The ‘Compromised Context of Reproachment”, 138 East-West Center 1-8 (2019)
[v] Refer to Jagannath Panda and A. Baruah (2019)
[vi] J. Cirincione, J. B. Wolfsthal, M. Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear Biological, and Chemical Threats, 2nd ed (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2005)
[vii] Hedley Bull, The Anarchial Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 9-10 (Macmillan, London, 1977)
[viii] Xiaoming Zhang, “China in the conception of international society: the English school’s engagement with China”, 37(2) Review of International Studies 763-786 (2011)
[ix] Hedley Bull, The Anarchial Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 286 (Macmillan, London, 1977)
[x] Martin Wight, “The Balance of Power and International order”, In (ed.) Alan James, The Bases of International Order: Essays in honor of C. A. W. Manning, 114 (1973)
[xi] It is noteworthy that a lot of critics, scholars, and practitioners have expressed that China and the US share a complicated relationship. While China is aiming to expand its influence, the onus of retaining its hegemony in the international system now lies on the US. Nonetheless, the two countries are deeply interdependent, making any violent clashes (such as that with India in the past) or rescinding all diplomatic ties (that the US has done with many countries such as North Korea and Iran) a least likely scenario. As such, India could rather be a neutral entity in the ongoing trade gigantomachy or it could play an active role in ameliorating the relations between the US and china, like Pakistan in 1970s.
[xii] Sarang Shidore, Alexandra Naegele, Natalie Baillargeon, Carl Churchill, Rachell Fleishman, Madeleine Holland, and Christopher Schwalm, “Climate Change will worsen the India-China Rivalry- But There’s a Better Way Forward” The Diplomat (June 2, 2021)
[xiii] Bansari Kamdar, “What to make of India’s absence from the Second Belt and Road Forum?”, The Diplomat (May 9, 2019)
[xiv]Sandrina Antunes and Isabel Camisao, “Realism”, In (eds.) Stephen Mcglinchey, Rosie Walters, and Christian Scheinpflug International Relations Theory 15-21(E-International Relations Publishing, Bristol, England, 2017)
[xv] Refer to Sandrina Antunes and Isabel Camisao (2017)
[xvi] Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose”, In (ed.) Reiss H. Kant’s Political Writings 41-53 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1784).
[xvii] Charles L. Glaser, “Political consequences of military strategy: Expanding and refining the spiral and deterrence models”, 50(1) World Politics 171-202 (1992)
[xviii] Sanchita Chawla, “The Historical Trajectory of Sino-Indian Relations Part II: 1962 to Present”, Binding Bharat (n.d.)
Also see: Rajesh Busrur, “The India-China Nuclear Dynamic: India’s Options” 430 Observer Research Foundation Issue Brief 1-15 (2020); See also Frank O’Donnell and Alexander K. Bollfrass (2020)
[xix] E. Gartzke, “The Capitalist Peace”, 51(1) American Journal of Political Science 166-191 (2007)
[xx] B. Russett and J. Oneal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 139 (Norton, New York, 2001)
[xxi] J. L. Gaddis, “The Long peace: Elements of stability in the postwar international system”, 10(4) International Security 99-142 (1986)
[xxiii] “Seminar on India-China Relations and the Way Forward”, Vivekananda International Foundation (November 27, 2017)
[xxiv] Pranab Dhal Samanta, “Chinese action violates 1993, 1996, and 2013 border arrangements”, The Economic Times (June 18, 2020)
[xxv] Beth A. Simmons, Frank Dobbin, and Geoffrey Garrett, “Introduction: The international diffusion of liberalism”, 60(4) International Organisation 781-810 (2006)
[xxix] Indrani Bagchi, “Doklam standoff: China playing out its ‘Three Warfares’ strategy against India”, The Times of India (August 13, 2017)
Also see, Sanchita Chawla, “The Historical Trajectory of Sino-Indian Relations Part II: 1962 to Present”, Binding Bharat (n.d.)
Since the past two to three decades, China has been employing a “three warfare strategy against India” (referred to as san zhong zhanfa in Chinese) as per which it uses a combination of media (and public opinion), psychological, and legal forms of warfare.
[xxx] Jagannath P. Panda and Atmaja Gohain Baruah, “Foreseeing India-China Relations:: The ‘Compromised Context of Reproachment”, 138 East-West Center 1-8 (2019)