2019 was neither a good year nor a bad year for China-India relations. It was just passable. China and India managed to safeguard the recent improvement in their relations in the face of various challenges that threatened to disrupt ties. However, the two sides made little substantive progress in resolving their major disagreements or putting their relationship on a sounder long-term basis.
While such a state of affairs raises questions about the sustainability of the improvement in China-India relations, the status quo is difficult to overcome. It simply reflects the background factors that have molded China-India relations in recent years.
To understand China-India relations in the past year, it is necessary to examine the bilateral and geopolitical background that has shaped them. On a bilateral level, the experience of crisis and partial reconciliation in the previous two years fashioned China-India relations in 2019. In 2017, the 73-day Doklam standoff between Chinese and Indian soldiers rocked China-India relations amid fears of military conflict. The greatest bilateral crisis in decades, Doklam erupted amid escalating competition between the two giants in Asia and the Himalayan belt, more assertive Indian policy on the “Tibet issue,” an increasing security dilemma partly fueled by closer U.S.-India relations, and the advancement of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia, as well as tensions over the two sides’ territorial dispute. The Doklam crisis served as a warning to both sides that the tensions caused by their competition and by their unresolved border can easily escalate and derail their relationship.
The next year, in 2018, the two sides engineered a badly-needed thaw during the informal summit at Wuhan between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The summit established a mechanism of informal meetings between the leaders of the two sides, helped them understand and partly assuage each other’s concerns on a number of issues, and refocused relations on cooperation. In short, in the shadow of Doklam the Wuhan summit put relations on an upward trajectory. However, crucially, Wuhan did not resolve any of the underlying sources of tension between Beijing and Delhi.
On a geostrategic level, the relationship between China and India in 2019 reflected two larger developments on the international stage in recent years. One is the growing competition between China and the United States. This competition has pushed Beijing to improve relations with New Delhi, both to avoid a potential Indian drift into Washington’s camp and to allow China to focus on the American challenge by keeping its southern flank stable. Nevertheless, China has been careful to not make substantial concessions to India for fear that these would reward New Delhi’s tilt toward Washington and increase India’s demands on Beijing.
For New Delhi, the U.S.-China competition presents a mixed bag. On one hand, it undeniably gives India some leverage over its more powerful Chinese neighbor. On the other, it complicated Delhi’s fine balancing act between Washington, a key but overbearing partner needed to hedge against China but carefully kept at arm’s length, and Beijing, a rival which India can ill afford to turn into adversary.
The other geostrategic development is the continued, albeit slower, expansion of China’s BRI in South Asia. Inevitably, this expansion increases the tensions between India, which regards the region as its strategic sphere of pre-eminence, and China, which seems interested in integrating some or all of South Asia in its orbit to establish an economic and strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. The BRI’s continued expansion into South Asia and toward the Indian Ocean has also pushed China closer to Pakistan, through which the crucial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes, at the inevitable expense of its relations with India.
Against this bilateral and geostrategic background, three characteristics have marked China-India relations in 2019. First, the two sides have sought to keep the momentum of improving relations that was generated by the Wuhan summit. While the last year has seen this momentum slow, with tensions over issues such as Kashmir and growing disillusionment with the “Wuhan spirit,” China and India have not given up on their improved post-Wuhan relationship, aware that the alternative is the costly and dangerous deterioration of relations. The commitment to improved relations was embodied in the informal Mamallapuram summit, a follow-up to the Wuhan summit, which demonstrated that the informal summit mechanism between the countries’ leaders and their personal relationship will play a central role in managing relations. China and India have also sought to build confidence and expand cooperation by joint international projects. For instance, in June China and India made a tentative attempt to revive the long-planned Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, while in November they presided over the second edition of a joint training program for Afghan diplomats agreed during the Wuhan summit.
The two sides also made concessions to each other in 2019 to keep the upward trajectory of relations. China took a relatively balanced position during the Indo-Pakistan military crisis that followed the Pulwama attack and might have even mediated to de-escalate tensions. Beijing also agreed to stop blocking the UN from listing Masood Azhar as terrorist, a long time Indian complaint, after some hard bargaining and international pressure. For his part, Modi clearly bowed to Chinese sensitivities when he did not invite the political head of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a Taiwan representative to his second inauguration in 2019 as he did to the first one in 2014. Moreover, the Indian government consistently sought to sideline the “Tibet issue” in the past year and remained completely silent of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
Admittedly many of these attempts to keep relations above water are more form than substance. However, as progress on substantive differences has been very small, form matters. It has become a way to build greater confidence, calm nationalist passions, and avoid renewed descent into confrontation.
Second, in 2019 China and India worked hard to manage various bilateral points of tensions. Fearful that the many issues on which their interests clash would produce tensions or even a crisis that would disrupt their post-Wuhan thaw, the two sides tried to manage these issues. India’s change of Kashmir’s status in August was the most important point of tension that shook China-India relations in 2019, as Beijing brought the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council and leaned toward Pakistan’s position as India postponed regular talks on the border dispute. However, both sides ensured that tensions would not go out of hand and moderated their positions prior to the Mamallapuram summit. China suggested that Kashmir is a bilateral China-India issue and gradually toned down its position, while India insisted that Kashmir’s status and the formation of an union territory in Ladakh has no impact on the China-India territorial dispute, with which Kashmir is connected. The talks for the territorial dispute were rescheduled for December.
The disputed China-India border also caused tensions, maybe related to Kashmir, but these were managed very fast. In September a “scuffle” between Chinese and Indian soldiers took place in Ladakh but unlike many previous times the incident was immediately resolved after delegation-level talks. Similarly, the two sides have made efforts to manage the issue of India’s large trade deficit with China, which has consistently caused indignation in India. Following the Mamallapuram summit a new mechanism under the Indian finance minister and Chinese vice premier was set up to address the deficit and promote Indian exports and investment to China. In all these cases tensions affected relations between Delhi and Beijing but the two sides kept them within tolerable limits that did not threaten to upset the applecart of improved relations
Third, China-India relations in 2019 were also marked by the persistence of deep mistrust between the two sides, mistrust that severely limits cooperation and generates competition. Much of this mistrust is rooted in the inability of the two sides to resolve the numerous contentious issues that divide them. Such issues include competition in the Indo-Pacific and especially in South Asia, Beijing’s entente cordiale with Islamabad, India’s expanding rapprochement with the United States and Japan, the “Tibet issue,” the unresolved territorial dispute, the deeply unequal economic relationship between the two sides, China’s opposition to India’s accession to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), and the development of the BRI around India. Tellingly, none of these issues has seen much progress in the last year. Instead they either produced tensions between the two Asian giants, such as those over Kashmir, or served as a subtext of their foreign policies.
For example, New Delhi’s deep unease over China’s gradual construction of a China-centered economic order in Asia and its economic penetration in India played a major role in Modi’s decision to pull out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations in November. This unease also explains India’s continued opposition to the BRI, which was exemplified in New Delhi’s nonattendance at the second BRI meeting in April. India’s concern about China’s rise in Asia in 2019 also pushed New Delhi to pursue further development of the Quad as a hedge against China, as signaled by its agreement to upgrade cooperation in the grouping to ministerial level. Similarly, China continued in the last year to undermine India’s position in South Asia. In another episode of its quiet competition with India in the Himalayas, China agreed to build a railway from Tibet to Nepal’s Kathmandu, potentially a game changer for its position in the Himalayan country, and made a new push to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan.
In conclusion, 2019 offers good and bad news for China-India relations. The good news is that the improvement in China-India relations started at Wuhan has been secured and reflects the genuine commitment of the two sides to keep their relationship above water. This offers a rudimentary basis for further improving relations. The bad news is that the continued improvement in China-India relations is based more on the fear of confrontation than on any real agreement and mutual accommodation. Hence, it cannot produce any substantive progress on contentious bilateral issues. However, without such progress, the improvement in relations cannot survive on the long run.
Thus, the key task for China and India in 2020 is twofold. The two sides need to safeguard the improvement in their relations against disruptive tensions but also to make real, substantive progress on the issues that produce these tensions. Regrettably, this will not be easy.
Ivan Lidarev is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London who specializes in China-India relations and a former Visiting Fellow at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. His research has been featured in The Diplomat, The National Interest, East Asia Forum and The China Brief, among other publications.