The People’s Republic of China and India are two Asian global powers in the non-Western part of the world, with their huge populations, fast-growing economies and distinct political cultures. The increasing diplomatic and economic influence of the two countries has increased the importance of Sino-Indian relations. They are the two potential countries that can greatly change the global balance of power. The question is whether they are partners or rivals. Today, I will try to answer this question briefly.
The history of close cultural and economic relations between China and India dates back to ancient times. The two nations and civilizations peacefully coexisted until very recently. The historical Silk Road served as an important trade route between the two countries and stabilized relations between the two countries. However, the stable relations began to change in modern times when foreign powers started to intervene in the domestic affairs of the two countries.
However, bilateral relations were largely restructured after the Communist regime had controlled China in 1949 and when India gained its political independence in 1947. They followed different but similar paths during the Cold War. Both countries tried to resist the bipolar world system. China had waged proxy wars in different countries with the West but had ideological and political differences from the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, India led the establishment of the non-aligned movement, which rejected alignment with or against any superpower.
Furthermore, although India recognized communist China in 1950, the two states began to clash on certain issues. The most critical conflict was over the border dispute, which led to several small-scale wars between the two states in 1962, 1967 and 1987. With the end of the Cold War, they decided to freeze their problems, at least for a while.
Unfortunately, border disputes have come to the fore again in Sino-Indian relations since 2013. Border disputes between the two countries have not yet been resolved, and reports of Chinese soldiers entering Indian territory have appeared repeatedly in the Indian media. Both countries have increasingly deployed more military infrastructure in their border areas as border conflicts have escalated in recent years.
Besides the border disputes, there are many other issues in Sino-Indian bilateral relations. Although the two countries have managed to reestablish diplomatic and economic ties between them since the late 1980s, there are too many problems between the two countries. Today, it seems that China and India represent two different, largely mutually exclusive, Asian civilizations. Although China has represented an Asian version of communism, India has been experiencing liberal democracy, albeit problematic.
First of all, both domestic politics and foreign policy orientation of these two countries have changed dramatically during the current administrations. On the one hand, China’s political regime is traditionally controlled by a political party; however, recently, a strong leader, Xi Jinping, has dominated the political system. On the other hand, India is rapidly moving away from liberal democracy and the culture of peaceful coexistence. Thus, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi cut the branch that it sits on by otherizing other belief systems in the country and introducing an ultra-nationalist political system. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate the policies of these two authoritarian regimes.
Second, despite deepening economic and strategic ties, India and China have many problems to overcome. China became India’s largest trading partner and the two countries improved their strategic and military relations. However, India faces a trade imbalance from which China largely benefits.
Third, China and India follow a zero-sum relationship in the Asian continent. India has been opposing the Chinese expansionism in the Asian continent. For instance, Indian armed forces clashed with the Chinese military troops in 2018 over the Doklam Plateau, a border issue between China and Bhutan. Armed conflicts have escalated in different parts of the border since 2020, some of which ended up with the killing of soldiers from both sides. Similarly, China has expressed its concerns about India’s military and economic activities in the South China Sea, whose status is disputed. Beijing is not happy about India’s allowing exiled Tibetans to engage in anti-China activities. To weaken the Indian position, China has strong strategic bilateral relations with the most anti-Indian state, Pakistan.
Naturally, India is concerned about this strategic relationship. Moreover, India worried about Chinese sympathy toward pro-independence paramilitary groups in the occupied Jammu-Kashmir.
Fourth, they compete with one another in different parts of the world, such as Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their national interests require them to pursue unilateral “national” rather than multilateral policies. The introduction of different unilateral global projects, namely the Road and Belt Initiative (BRI) and the Indian-Mediterranean corridor, is a clear indication of the rivalry and tension between the two countries.
The future of bilateral relationships between these two Asian giants is very important not only for the Asian continent but also for the rest of the world. The two countries continued to follow different paths and maintain their conflictual positions against one another, but still trying to get closer to one another. They come together in several common international platforms, such as G-20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and try to improve similar political and economic perspectives.
In short, as two leading non-Western powers, China and India agree on what they oppose but not what they want. Therefore, it will take a long time to harmonize the national interests of these two rising powers. In conclusion, it isn’t easy to guess the direction of bilateral relations between these two countries in today’s transitory global system.