2017: A Tough Year for China-India Relations

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2017: A Tough Year for China-India Relations

The China-India relationship stands at a crossroads. Can both sides overcome last year’s frictions in 2018?

2017: A Tough Year for China-India Relations
Credit: Flickr/ Indian Ministry of External Affairs

2017 was an extremely difficult year for China-India relations. With military tensions close to their disputed border, increasing competition in their neighborhood, and growing strategic mistrust, Beijing and New Delhi’s relations reached a nadir in 2017. Happily, the damage 2017 has inflicted on the relationship between the two Asian giants is not irreparable. Nevertheless, it reflects larger trends and indicates that Sino-Indian relations increasingly stand at a crossroads, with growing likelihood that they could go in the wrong direction. Hence, New Delhi and Beijing need to start rethinking their relations in 2018.

The past year witnessed several episodes that seriously damaged China-India relations and put them on a downward trajectory. Several of these were serious but rather routine, such as the tensions around the Dalai Lama’s visit to the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh and China’s continued blocking of the bid to design Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. However, these were minor compared with three episodes that shook bilateral relations and had serious strategic consequences.

The most important such episode was the unprecedented Doklam military standoff, a two-and-a half-month test of wills prompted by China’s construction of a road in territory it disputes with Bhutan, not far from a strategically key section of the China-India border. The standoff featured unprecedented Indian military involvement in its two neighbors’ territorial dispute and a shockingly strong Chinese reaction, which included implicit military threats against India and a massive media campaign against New Delhi, the first such campaign against India in decades.

What made the Doklam standoff particularly intense was its linkage to two important issues. One is the China-India competition for influence in Bhutan, which reflects the wider competition for influence in South Asia prompted by China’s growing power in the region and India’s desire to protect what it sees as its own sphere of interest. The other is the unresolved and increasingly unstable China-India territorial dispute, which has seen growing militarization in recent years, a destabilizing competition to build infrastructure around the de facto border, and frequent incidents, including large standoffs in 2013 and 2014. Both issues indicate the tightening of the China-India security dilemma. While the Doklam standoff was eventually resolved, likely to avoid derailing the September BRICS summit in Beijing, it has left a deep sense of mistrust between the two sides.

India’s decision to boycott the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit held in Beijing in May, which even Chinese adversaries such as Japan and the United States attended, was another major blow to China-India relations. To China, the boycott was not only a signal of India’s hostility to its most important international project, but also an affront both to Beijing’s self-image as international leader and, personally, to the BRI’s champion, President Xi Jinping. The most important immediate reason for this unprecedented snub was the fact that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the crucial Pakistan leg of the BRI, includes projects in Pakistan-held Kashmir, which India claims, thus legitimizing Pakistan’s position on the issue and establishing facts on the ground.

However, at deeper level, India’s decision to not attend reflected New Delhi’s profound unease with the BRI, a project that in its eyes would extend Chinese power in South Asia, encircle India, and bring Beijing and Islamabad even closer. Hence, the episode underlined the tension between Beijing’s push to build a new, China-centered economic and political order in Asia and the Indian Ocean Region and India’s deep suspicion of such an order. It also demonstrated that the economic promise of Sino-Indian relations, embodied in the opportunities the BRI offers, cannot override strategic concerns, a conclusion with worrying implications for the future.

The last event that quietly damaged China-India relations in 2017 was India’s decision in November to join the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia with a naval component. Beijing has opposed the Quad as a potential anti-Chinese alliance of democracies aimed at containing it and checking its maritime rise in the Indo-Pacific; that opposition played a major role in the dialogue’s earlier abandonment. India’s decision to join the resurrected but still somewhat amorphous Quad inevitably reflects its worries about China’s growing power and assertiveness, particularly in the Indian Ocean, and Delhi’s readiness to hedge against them. It also matches well with India’s gradual rapprochement with the United States, which has accelerated under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and which is partly motivated by a desire to hedge against the Middle Kingdom.

Thus, the Quad decision feeds into Beijing’s growing, albeit somewhat exaggerated, fear that India would join the United States and Japan in containing Beijing, a suspicion which has long silently poisoned China-India relations. The Quad decision also impacts Sino-Indian relations by involving India more deeply in China’s maritime disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, although Delhi has refrained in its statements on the Quad from mentioning freedom of navigation and overflight and maritime security, subjects related to the disputes. In sum, India’s decision to join the Quad is a reflection of the intensifying security dilemma between the two sides and the growing role of the larger geopolitics of Asia in their relationship.

These three episodes made 2017 a particularly tough year for China-Indian relations, with serious impact on how the two sides see each other. On the positive side, none of these events has done irreversible damage to bilateral relations. On the negative, all three episodes represent a particularly severe manifestation of larger trends that have adversely impacted the China-India relationship in recent years.

One such trend is the intensification of the Sino-India security dilemma, particularly along the two great powers’ increasingly militarized and disputed border, as seen in the Doklam standoff, and in the Indian Ocean, as represented by the India’s decision to join the Quad. Another trend is the increase in the China-India competition in South Asia, exemplified by the Doklam standoff, which involved Bhutan. Here it is worth pointing that Bhutan is an important arena of this competition, as Beijing hopes to move Thimphu to establish formal relations with China, resolve its territorial dispute with the Middle Kingdom — thus enabling China to put pressure on India in their territorial dispute — and weaken its traditional alignment with Delhi. Yet another trend is the increase in bilateral tensions over China’s push to build economic, infrastructure, and transportation links in Asia centered on itself. India fears that prospect would restrict its own economic and strategic space, a fear expressed in New Delhi’s boycott to the BRI summit. Finally, mutual mistrust has increased due to New Delhi’s growing closeness to Washington and Beijing’s fear that this would lead Delhi to form an anti-Chinese alignment with the United States.

These trends and the episodes of the last year clearly point to the emergence of a larger and much more worrying picture of bilateral relations. Two major, ongoing changes define this picture. First, the China-India relationship is in the process of transformation and is slowly arriving at a crossroads. The strategic and economic landscape of Asia has been changing as the rise of Chinese power transforms both Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, and fuels greater competition between the Middle Kingdom on one hand and the United States and Japan on the other. These tectonic changes are transforming the international environment in which the Beijing-Delhi relationship operates and mean that the relationship cannot continue as before.

Just as important, the competitive element of the bilateral relationship, expressed in the four trends above, which are likely to strengthen, has increased at the expense of its cooperative element, centered on trade, investment, and partnership on global governance issues such as climate change and reforming global institutions, all areas in which there has been little progress recently. This means that the underlying dynamics of China-India relations are changing, and the two sides will be forced by developments such as the BRI’s expansion and their growing security dilemma to come up with a new relationship.

Finally, China and India have found it much more difficult to manage their tensions and disagreements, as evidenced by the Doklam standoff and India’s boycott of the BRI summit, a signal that the present format of the relationship is not working. All this indicates that the China-India relationship is increasingly standing at a crossroads and the two sides will have to choose in what direction they will go, or, if they don’t, accept the road that inertia would choose for them.

Second, the Sino-Indian relationship is progressively deteriorating. As China has increased its presence around India and has begun to vigorously shape Asia’s strategic landscape to its advantage, India has adopted a much tougher and more decisive stance toward Beijing. The three episodes above clearly outline these dynamics. While this picture has been developing for a long time, it has emerged much more forcefully in recent years, as the rise of both powers has accelerated, Beijing’s influence in South Asia has increased and China has begun to establish the foundations of a new Asian order promoted through the BRI. This has enhanced the mistrust and the security dilemma between the two sides, already worsened by a long list of factors: instability on the border, the reinvigoration of the China-Pakistan alliance, the disappointing pace of Sino-Indian economic relations, naval and arms competition, and India’s rapprochement with the United States and Japan. The result has been a downward trajectory in China-India relations, which, if it continues unchecked, would turn the two sides into adversaries.

In short, China and India need to choose the future course of their relationship, and it is increasingly likely that ties would go in the wrong direction. The costs and risks of such a turn of events would be formidable, as would the missed opportunities for cooperation, trade ,and investment between Asia’s two giants. To avoid such an outcome, both sides need to rethink their policy vis-à-vis each other and reshape their relationship.

Paradoxically, in a way, the events of 2017 provide a good starting point. The shock of the Doklam standoff and, to lesser extent, the BRI boycott have sent a warning that things are heading in the wrong direction. Hopefully this shock would foster a debate on how to change policy and improve relations before further deterioration occurs. A good way to start this debate is by asking why relations deteriorated so much in 2017 and how to navigate and address the issues and trends which produced this deterioration. Inevitably, such rethinking would be painful as it would require changing established positions, confronting hardliners domestically, and making difficult concessions. However, it is much better than the alternative: the emergence of an adversarial relationship between Beijing and Delhi.

2017 was a very bad year for China-India relations, leaving a heavy legacy for 2018. However, it also leaves homework for Beijing and Delhi; to rethink their deteriorating relations. If the two sides do their homework well, 2018 and the coming years might see a sorely needed improvement in one of Asia’s most important relationships.

Ivan Lidarev is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London, who specializes in China-India relations.