In the latest dispute between China and India, scheduled talks on border issues were cancelled over a row regarding a speech by the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. This is the latest diplomatic flare-up between the world’s most populous countries. In a Q&A, Head of the Department of Political Science at the South Asia Institute,  and Professor of Political Science at the University of Heidelberg, Subrata K. Mitra,  looks at the current state of the relationship and whether there is an escalating Sino-Indian rivalry.

Mitra explains that both countries recognize the importance of the bilateral relationship and its strength is seen in increased levels of trade between the two countries and regular high-level visits. But the media in both countries are contributing to escalating rhetoric and the two countries need to find ways to promote a more balanced discussion about relations in the public sphere. 


What is the current relationship between India and China?

There is an overall positive trend in Sino-Indian relations, as seen in supporting statistics. In 2004-2005, total trade figures jumped from 13 billion dollars to 20 billion. In 2008, China became India’s largest trade partner, and last year trade between the two countries reached $62 billion annually. In the field of defense, China and India have also established an annual defense dialogue and hold regular joint counterterrorism exercises.

Setbacks in the relationship do occur but it is difficult to say how much of this is due to real concerns and how much is a tit-for-tat game. The border clearly remains an unresolved dispute. China, for its part, still lays claim to most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China asserts is part of Tibet and since 2007 has referred to the area as “South Tibet.” Similarly, while India has acknowledged China’s sovereignty over Tibet, it has not changed its stance on the McMahon Line as the boundary. Since 2003, fourteen rounds of talks have been held on the border issue and, while no breakthrough has been reached, the mechanism provides a forum through which the two countries can address complaints about incursions and the build-up of defenses.

Despite the occasional flaring up of bilateral tensions and acrimony in the press, policy in India toward China has so far been highly pragmatic and driven primarily by economic concerns, leading to an issue-based attitude toward coalition building within multilateral fora like the World Trade Organization. A key concern for India, however, is the large Indian trade deficit. In 2010 alone, India’s exports to China were $20 billion lower than those of China to India. The concerns over the trade deficit are compounded by the fact that a huge proportion of Indian exports to China are raw commodities—ores, slag, ash, and cotton—with little value adding capacity. India’s imports from China are much higher value-added manufacturing items which is in part due to China’s greater manufacturing efficiency but also due to Chinese non-tariff barriers.

How is China perceived by the Indian people?

The living memory of the Indian forces’ traumatic defeat in the 1962 border war with China continues to affect Indians’ opinion of China. When George Fernandes, former Indian defense minister, described the Chinese as “India’s enemy number one” in the 1970s, the statement drew a sympathetic chord among many Indians. However, more recent surveys reveal a picture that is more nuanced and complex.

A Pew Global Survey in 2010 showed that 42 percent of Indians see Lashkar-e-Taiba as the greatest threat to India, followed by Pakistan at 33 percent, then the Naxalites at 16. Only 3 percent of Indians see China as the greatest threat. The report also notes that the United States enjoys a largely positive image, with nearly two-thirds expressing a favorable opinion, although this was down from 76 percent in 2009. By contrast, only 34 percent see China favorably.

While opinion surveys have their shortcomings, when several surveys concur, even partially, they help build a trend. The Pew findings have a distinct echo in polling from BBC World Service. There has been a steady decline of mutual positive perception between China and India over the years. The most significant fall is in Chinese opinions of India, where between 2009 and 2010, approval fell by 14 percent. Indian opinion of China has risen from a low of 22 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2010. Both are now roughly at the same level of around 30 percent approval, which is lower than the high point of 2005.

In regards to India’s opinion of China, the trends can perhaps be explained by growing anxiety about China’s rise, especially in terms of the competition for energy resources and manufacturing capabilities. While a strong lobby in India argues that China’s growing economy is good for the region and for India, the Indian government has been cautious regarding Chinese foreign direct investment. China’s expanding military might is also viewed with a growing sense of wariness that has manifested publicly, including in a 2009 statement by Admiral Suresh Mehta, India’s naval chief, warning that India was no match for China militarily.

Does growing nationalism in India have an impact on foreign policymaking in Delhi? How does this impact Sino-Indian relations?

The concept of “nationalism” in this question alludes to two different and connected phenomena, namely, political and cultural nationalism, which forms part of the platform of political parties, and secondly, invocation of national interest by individual journalists and political commentators.

The first kind of nationalism is an expression of national cultural identity and patriotism that underpins the India’s “Hindu nationalist” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Seen as a champion of Indian identity and national power, the BJP has consistently defended the integrity of India’s borders and has long been identified with an assertive foreign policy. The nuclear tests of 1998 took place during the rule of the BJP.

However, the influence of the BJP’s brand of cultural nationalism as a factor in India-China relations needs to be tempered by the range of political and strategic views that are put forward by its policymakers and the fact that it no longer is in power at the national level. Even when the BJP was at the helm of a ruling coalition (1999–2004), relations between India and China stabilized, as seen when Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited to sign the 2002 memorandum of understanding between the two countries, an agreement that included bilateral cooperation in areas of tourism, space, science and technology, and river management. A visit by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing in 2003 added to the improved climate, with India acknowledging China’s sovereignty over the Tibet Autonomous Region and China recognizing Indian sovereignty over the state of Sikkim. The two leaders also agreed to set the first Sino-Indian border trade route, connecting Tibet with Sikkim. Subsequent visits by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2005 and President Hu Jintao in 2006 gave rise to several agreements and statements aimed at improving relations. 2005 saw the establishment of a Sino-Indian strategic partnership.

The fact of the matter is that over the past two decades, a deep bipartisan consensus has grown at the highest level of Indian politics with regard to a number of policies. These include the liberalization of the economy, globalization, secularism, nuclear policy, and the normalization of relations with Pakistan and China. As such, whether the BJP was in power or the Indian National Congress party, which has been at the core of the ruling UPA coalition since 2004, relations with China have remained an important priority. This is most apparent in looking at the trade relationship and visible in high-level reciprocal political visits and statements, emphasizing the mutual importance of good bilateral relations.

This brings us to the second kind of “nationalism” where individual journalists and policy commentators harp on their own understanding of India’s national interest. There is fierce competition within the Indian media—both print and electronic—for market shares of the audience. The media in India is prone to focusing on events likely to get public attention, and stories about the threat that China poses on the border, China’s growing assertiveness, China’s support for Pakistan, and the emerging rivalry over access to resources generate a lot of interest.

In this context, it is very important to understand the asymmetry with regard to the position of the media vis-a-vis public policy in India and China. India’s media are “free” in the sense that they represent only their views and not that of the government. On the other hand, the Chinese media are seen in India as the mouthpiece of the Chinese government. Thus, a “war” between the media of the two countries feeds on itself, for Chinese media reactions to the Indian media are then seen as official Chinese reactions, which then give a semblance of reality to the allegations of the Indian media and in return draw in sections of the Indian government, generating even more hostile reactions from the media.
We are thus in a situation of contained volatility where the media and individual commentators, drawing on unresolved issues of territory, unspoken fears of nuclear rivalry and political dominance, and ongoing competition over resources can stir up emotions on both sides. But the governments— aware of the potential danger of these sentiments damaging long-term trends beneficial to their own countries—have intervened promptly to bring the situation under control.

While the Indian media are prone to highlighting negative images of China, it must be remembered that the numerous news outlets operate independently of the government. In China, however, a number of key Chinese media sources, known to be mouthpieces of the government and the Communist Party, have issued provocative articles for instance advocating the break-up of the Indian Union. It will be imperative in the future for both countries to find ways to promote a more balanced discussion about relations in the public sphere.

How should China engage with India and the rest of the international community to resolve regional issues?

Recent years have seen a heightened Chinese sensitivity, especially on the issue of Tibet and the movements of the Dalai Lama, which may explain the increased assertiveness that has been on display in Chinese statements and actions toward India regarding the border and disputed territories such as Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.

As the United States recalibrates its interests within the greater South and Central Asian region, it seems likely that India will play a growing role either as a pivot to or counter-balance of China. While New Delhi is reluctant to surrender its traditional claim to an independent foreign and security policy, the possibility of a U.S.-India alignment is a looming possibility. As a result, China may be recognizing that it needs to woo—rather than challenge—India’s emergence as a major regional and extra-regional player. Hence, a few of China’s original standpoints may require reassessment—for example, the position that China has taken on India’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

A peaceful and prosperous South Asia is in China’s long-term interest because poverty and instability in South Asia could threaten stability on China’s periphery and south-west frontiers. While China and India’s multilateral cooperation in South Asia would definitely contribute to a better future for the region, this type of cooperation has yet to be realized. As China’s neighbor and the most powerful country in South Asia, India is of considerable importance for China. In fact, if China could become a “mutual friend” of both Pakistan and India, it would contribute more to regional peace and stability. This will eventually serve India’s interests as well. However, due to the historical burdens in India-China relations and the lack of mutual trust between them, it will take time for India to realize this. Part of the problem arises from the memory that the current generation of leaders have of the traumatic defeat of 1962, and the fear that China will continue to undermine India’s territorial integrity. The enormous changes that have come about in China post-Mao have not yet become common knowledge in India’s political discourse.

China should do more in this respect to win India’s trust and gradually push a closer strategic partnership with India. Accepting India’s nuclear status, helping India secure a seat in the UN Security Council, and resolving the territorial dispute in the Eastern Front are high on the Indian agenda. Indian support to the Tibetan diaspora, focused on the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in Dharamsala are issues where China would like India to be more understanding of Chinese sensitivities.

How does China’s relationship with Pakistan affect Sino-Indian relations?

China’s relationship with Pakistan touches on three sensitive issues that are of great importance to India’s national security, namely territory and borders, nuclear issues, and access to the Indian Ocean. When the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan following the country’s nuclear test in 1998, China stepped in to become the country’s largest arms supplier and helped Pakistan develop an indigenous weapons industry. Even more importantly, China played a crucial role in Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

More recently China’s strategic and commercial objectives have come to the fore in its decision to develop a port at Gwadar in Pakistan (which is located about 180 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz), adding credibility to claims that China is attempting to encircle India. Similarly, China’s ambiguous position on the Kashmir conflict—and the fact China’s acquired territory in Pakistani-administered Kashmir—makes it party to the conflict and adds to India’s lingering suspicions about Chinese intentions. It has been argued in the past that China, through its relationship with Pakistan, seeks to contain India and maintain its status as a regional, sub-continental power, and no more. But as Pakistan’s relations with the United States worsen while India’s relations with the United States improve, the rules of the game may be changing. 

In the Sino-Pakistan relations it has been the strong military ties and the issue of Kashmir that disturb India most. In this context China needs to manage the relationship with Pakistan in a proper manner so as not to arouse too many misgivings in New Delhi. At the same time, China’s own stakes in Pakistan also need understanding from India. Pakistan is China’s door to the Islamic world and an important partner in the battle against Islamic extremism. Pakistan’s location is also significant for China in securing energy routes for its economic development, and, at the strategic level, Pakistan is an important balancing card to play in India-China-U.S. equations.

From the Indian point of view, China’s relations with Pakistan have contributed to a deterioration in regional stability by enabling Pakistan to counter-balance India by developing nuclear weapons and missiles. More recently, the access that China has gained through Gwadar to the Indian Ocean is likely to accelerate the emerging rivalry. While China may have had the leverage in the past to restrain or discourage Pakistan from engaging in or perpetuating hostile relations with India, it has either not been able to or has chosen not to encourage Pakistan to engage constructively in resolving major regional security issues, choosing instead to maintain a low profile, as seen for example in Afghanistan.

In South Asia, some believe, China has implemented a more balanced policy since the 1990s. It has taken into account the perception of India to develop relations with other South Asian countries. Some observers note that China has taken a relatively neutral position on the sensitive issues between India and Pakistan since then.

Over the years, the Sino-Indian relationship has also acquired an independent dynamism and cannot be easily hamstrung by the strong alliance between China and Pakistan. The drive of India-China ties comes from within each country—the need to further economic development and to forge better understanding. The two, despite their differences, are destined for deeper economic interdependence.

Relations in the Sino-Pakistan-India triangle can be best described as contained volatility. With each of these countries armed with nuclear weapons and beset with fragile inter-community relations that spill over into terrorism, the imperative for institutionalizing dialogue and mutual understanding has never been stronger.