What India Gets Wrong About China
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What India Gets Wrong About China


This Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit India on June 8 on behalf of Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is yet another sign of a growing thaw in Sino-Indian relations after years of chilliness between the two countries.

The reason the Sino-Indian relationship was so frosty in the first place is largely the result of misconceptions on the part of both India’s elite policymakers and nationalists. To understand Indian attitudes towards China, it is important to go back to the 1962 Sino-Indian War, in which China decisively defeated India.

Prior to 1962, relations between China and India were fairly warm during the 1950s as a result of post-colonial bonhomie and Asian solidarity. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru coined the now famous Hindi phrase Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers) and envisioned a new socialistic Asia led by an India and China that had moved past great power politics.

However, the unresolved Sino-Indian border cast a shadow over relations between China and India. The Sino-Indian border was never clearly demarcated, although the British established certain lines that roughly defined the boundary. These lines however, were open to some degree of interpretation and placed territories claimed by one nation under the administration of the other. By the late 1950s, it became clear that China and India were locked in a dispute over two regions, Aksai Chin, along the western portion of their shared border and Arunachal Pradesh (South Tibet) along the eastern portion of their shared border. While India administered Arunachal Pradesh, then the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA), China administered Aksai Chin, through which ran the main western route between Xinjiang and Tibet. Thus Aksai Chin was of enormous strategic importance to the Chinese. Beijing needed the road link to bring troops into Tibet, which had recently come under the control of the People’s Republic of China.

Ironically, this territorial situation was a reversal of historical claims, though even those were not definitive. Parts of Arunachal Pradesh, especially the city of Tawang (a major Buddhist center) were indeed part of Tibet and Tibet had definitely come under the suzerainty of the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century. While there is some debate over how pre-Westphalian notions of sovereignty and territoriality apply to the transition of states into modern nation-states, British and Russian treaties and maps dating from the 19th century acknowledge Tibet as a constituent part of China. On the other hand, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which was bound to British India, exercised a loose claim to Aksai Chin. In both cases, prior to the 20th century, Tibet and Kashmir were autonomous and exercised loose control over their respective regions, which only came under effective state control with the establishment of the modern states of China and India. Nonetheless, both countries continued to claim both territories.

Thus the situation in 1962 was one where two countries disputed two territories, with each exercising control over one. The Chinese solution was to legitimize the existing situation, thus establishing a permanent de facto boundary. However this solution was rejected by Indian Prime Minister Nehru, an idealist who had just recently participated in an independence movement that was largely based on ideology. The legacy of this sort of thinking was that Nehru and many others in the Indian establishment acquired a self-righteous manner of thinking that held that the Indian position was morally correct and that if they stuck to it without wavering, others would eventually see the righteousness of their position.

However, the Chinese did not think in such moralistic terms. For the Chinese, the Indian position was rigid and inflexible and Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai bemoaned the unwillingness of Indian leaders to negotiate. The Chinese foreign policy world view, then as now rooted in realpolitik, proved to be very different from Nehru’s. Instead of discussion and negotiation, Nehru moved Indian troops up into territory administered by the Chinese, a doctrine known as the Forward Policy. This attempted change of the status quo led to a Chinese military response, thus beginning the 1962 war. However, in India, Chinese military action was portrayed as a betrayal and an act of aggression. India’s jingoistic media did a lot to help create this impression and alternative viewpoints were not widely available because the Indian government’s classified report on the war, the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, remained hidden from the public until recently leaked.

This has led lead to some speculation that India’s previously ruling Congress Party may have deliberately misinformed the public about the nature of India’s past interactions with China in order to create a sense of martyrdom to cover up for its failures during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The report remained classified in order to assist the party’s political prospects rather than for any sound strategic reason. Australian journalist Neville Maxwell, who leaked the report, said as much in an interview, arguing that it was necessary for the truth to be revealed so that India’s attitude towards China could change from one marked by delusions of victimization to one that acknowledged the mistakes of the Nehru government.

India’s attitude towards China was distorted as a result of this attitude. India unnecessarily antagonized China by using rhetoric about countering China and saw threats where none existed. For example, many in the Indian establishment wrongly believe that China’s strategy of establishing commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean, known as the “String of Pearls” strategy, is directed against India. However, numerous independent analyses indicate that this Chinese strategy is commercial in nature and aims to secure oil routes from the Middle East to China. India only seems to be surrounded by this “String of Pearls” because it does not host Chinese facilities itself while its neighbors, which have friendlier relations with China, do.

In India, a narrative has grown of a great rivalry between two ancient civilizations competing to develop and overcome poverty. This however is far from the truth. It is true that there are occasional Chinese incursions into India but the extent and meaning of these are incredibly hyped by the government and media. In reality, these incursions are the result of routine maneuvers in an un-demarcated, mountainous region, the highest in the world. In truth, China has no master plan directed against India. India barely registers on the Chinese radar and the 1962 war is viewed as a minor border skirmish there. China really has no designs for conquering Indian territory. Doing so will yield no benefit for China, which would then have to deal with the administrative costs of maintaining control over a hostile population. Nor is China attempting to compete with India per se for resources, but is merely attempting to acquire resources for itself in order to strengthen its own geopolitical position in Asia.

Since 1962, China has moved on, giving India little thought. Instead, China has focused on its economy and other foreign policy issues which it sees as higher priority issues. China’s economy is now four times the size of India’s and Beijing sees the United States as its competition, not India. In short, India is simply not an issue for China in the way China is for India. It is time for India to move on and improve its relations with China. Economic relations with China have been a source of prosperity throughout the region and can be for India too. India’s policymakers have long argued against economic links with China but have failed to understand that such links will benefit both countries and improve relations by interlocking their economies. If China is able to trade with Japan and the United States, countries it considers rivals, then India should be able to trade with China. Furthermore, despite their geographical proximity, Indians show very little interest in learning about and understanding Chinese culture and language, preferring to be oriented more towards the West. This too must change if India is to improve its relations with its neighbor.

India has neither the ability nor the need to compete with China. It is a waste of time and resources for India to attempt to keep at par with China, which is way ahead of India economically and militarily. China has the ability to translate its economic might into creating a modern industrial base for its military, a luxury India cannot yet afford. India is still largely dependent on arms imports. Instead, India’s goal should be to achieve enough military capability on its borders to be secure without overshooting the mark in a misguided attempt to equal Chinese military might. More than military might, this requires the right mixture of firmness and flexibility— firmness to demonstrate that India is worthy of respect and flexibility to show India is willing to move on. The way to do this is to strengthen India’s infrastructure and military capabilities in territories it controls in order to deepen its claims to those regions as the Modi government has recently indicated it plans to do. On the other hand, India has to be willing to cede its claim to Aksai Chin, or at least indicate that the issue is on the back burner and will not be an obstacle towards normal relations. Aksai Chin is of minimal importance to India, which has never controlled it or attempted to do so, due to the logistical difficulties of controlling a region on the Chinese side of the Himalayas.

This is not to say that India should bend over backwards to accommodate China. Given the history of their relations, it is unlikely that China and India will become close partners or friends anytime soon. India’s closest friend and model in East Asia will remain Japan. Yet, it is possible for India to move from suspicion and rivalry to a more neutral position on China, one that stands up for Indian rights while remaining cooperative. The main characteristic of the Sino-Indian relationship should be economic, something that Prime Minister Modi seems to understand. Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat and an admirer of China’s economic policies, visited China and promoted trade between his state and China. It is likely that under him, India as a whole will also open up more toward China and move beyond its delusions of a hostile China bent on harming India. Perhaps the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit will be a step in this process, as India’s new government seeks to improve India’s relations with all its neighbors and reverse the failed foreign policies of previous governments.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an Editorial Assistant at The Diplomat.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief