India-China relations are often seen through the prism of their bilateral disputes. Indeed, the border dispute between the two is generally seen as the biggest hurdle to improving ties. But it could be argued that disagreements such as that over the border in Arunachal Pradesh are only a symptom of the larger problem that exists between these two Asian giants, namely the inevitable and increasing competition between two rising powers.
While the simultaneous rise of powers need not always result in a clash, the four major powers in Asia – established powers Russia and Japan, and newly rising China and India – have had troubled historical relations, contributing to deep-rooted mistrust and mutual suspicion. With the exception of India-Russia and India-Japan relations, the baggage of history is weighing on almost all bilateral relations. It may be true that this century will be an “Asian century,” but it can’t be said with certainty that it’s going to be a stable and peaceful one.
India and China have certainly gone through their share of ups and downs in their relations over the last six decades. Currently, their relations are probably on an upward curve, but one based on trade and raw economics. And while their bilateral trade has climbed to $60 billion, there has been a simultaneous rise in tensions. Improved economic relations don’t necessarily mean better ties overall, as has been demonstrated with U.S.-China relations, as well as those between Japan and China and Taiwan and the mainland.
So, if improved trade ties haven’t resulted in better political and strategic relations, what are the key issues that are holding the two back? Historically, it used to be the border issue, China’s relationship with Pakistan and the rest of South Asia in general, and China’s policy on Jammu and Kashmir specifically. But over the past decade, the emerging Asian strategic framework and the global role for each of these rising powers has been an important factor.
Sadly, this is only likely to get worse. As India’s influence increases within Asia and beyond, there are bound to be problems between Beijing and New Delhi as the two are seen competing for influence and resources. For instance, China is increasingly wary of India’s closer engagement with Japan, South Korea and some Southeast Asian countries. The Chinese leadership appears equally wary of India’s “Look East” Policy as it seems to believe that this will dilute Chinese influence in the region. India has improved its trade ties with Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries, and there appears to be an increasingly strategic component to relations.
On the other hand, India has remained concerned about China’s ever-growing reach into South Asia, particularly in Pakistan. Of all the South Asian countries, it is Islamabad that most closely shares China’s strategic interests, and their interests vis a vis India have been crucial in cementing relations between the two. For Pakistan, Kashmir is an unfinished item on the agenda of the partition of the subcontinent. India’s sensitivity over Kashmir is matched by China’s worries about Tibet. China believes that New Delhi has ulterior motives regarding Tibet, and the very fact that the Dalai Lama and as many as 150,000 Tibetan refugees live in India continues to irk Beijing. For a country that’s actively engaged in image building as a responsible power, the shortcomings of China’s ethnic policy isn’t something China likes to be reminded about.
Complicating India’s relations with China was the fact that the George W. Bush administration saw a greater role for India and Japan in the emerging Asian strategic framework. The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal in 2005 furthered China’s anxieties, and the fact that the United States took the lead in altering the global rules so that India could engage in international nuclear commerce wasn’t well received by Beijing.
Ultimately, it’s India’s increasing role and influence that’s the crux of the issue. Although India and China both acknowledge the role of the other in the emerging Asian strategic order, they have different conceptions over how this will all pan out. India has continued to adopt an accommodative and inclusive approach in shaping this new architecture, while China has followed an exclusivist approach that appears to be directed against India, Japan and the United States.
Beijing has argued that its rise is peaceful, but as China’s military and economic strength grows, India may not be prepared to see an Asian order dominated by any single power. Given such trends, it’s likely that competition for influence between these new powers will be a significant feature of the Asian century.