The Hot Peace Between China and India

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The Hot Peace Between China and India

Despite flashes of actual conflict along their border, and New Delhi’s increased outreach to the West, relations between China and India have never completely broken down.

The Hot Peace Between China and India

Karni Sena supporters shout slogans during a protest against China in Ahmedabad, India, June 24, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

Relations between China and Japan have often been characterized as a “cold peace.” As such, they have been stormy enough to create a massive rejection of China in Japan’s public opinion, and a solidification of the Japan-U.S. alliance, which entered a new stage with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s state visit to the United States this week. Yet, economic relations have always been strong, with a degree of dependence of Japanese firms on China, and a Chinese reliance on Japan’s market as well.

Not so with India. Flashes of actual conflict have happened, none as protracted as the triple challenge from China over Ladakh, Sikkim, and, indirectly, Arunachal Pradesh, since 2020. Soldiers from both sides have died in combat. China has built a network of bunkers, tunnels and fortified villages. India has mobilized 100,000 soldiers close to the front line and worked on its own logistical infrastructure. 

Even a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Arunachal Pradesh, a region that has been India’s since the British drew up the McMahon line in 1914, is enough to incur the ire of the Chinese government. Beijing always reminds India that it claims the state as Chinese land, as successive governments in Beijing never accepted the 1914 delimitation.

Therefore, this is at best a hot peace. India’s public opinion has gone the way of Japan’s, and New Delhi has increasingly turned westward – toward the United States, France, and others such as Israel – to supplement its aging Russian armament connection.

Yet, relations between China and India have never completely broken down. Certainly, India has taken steps to limit the China risk in its infrastructure and society – banning China from ports and rail construction, prohibiting Chinese apps, keeping Chinese telecoms out of Indian procurement, and rebuffing plans for massive BYD and Great Wall Motors automobile investments. This does not apply, however, to the overall trade and investment relationship. 

Bilateral trade passed $136 billion in the fiscal year ending on March 31, 2022, with a huge and rising deficit of $100 billion for India. In fact, Indian exports crashed while China’s sales to India continued their rise. And certainly BYD is happy to sell on the Indian market the cars it cannot build locally. Indian officials claim to be open to Chinese investments, hinting in January 2024 at Davos that the openness may increase as the border becomes quiet.

The potential long-term gains for either China or India are not clear. China seems to take a line from the ancient fable where the fox, unable to reach attractive grapes, proclaimed that “they were too sour anyway.” China’s India experts and the Global Times, the mouthpiece for foreign consumption, proclaim that India is “a graveyard for investment” and hype the known complexity of doing business there. 

Some non-Chinese analysts argue that China’s belligerent behavior, on three border theaters, has pushed India to further embrace a quasi-alliance with the United States, and a very strong strategic partnership with France that implies less conditionality on weapon procurement. But this is a result that Xi Jinping’s China has produced all over Asia. China does not seem to take actual notice of such developments as the Quad, AUKUS, a rising Japanese military budget, or the Indo-Pacific designs of Europeans that leave China aside. 

Xi’s China believes in the slow erosion of will in democracies, and that factor seems to weigh more than the present power balance. China’s new defense budget increase of 7.2 percent is significant. While the real economy certainly is growing at less than 5 percent, with slow price deflation, it is a banner year for Chinese military procurement. Considering its 450 ships, with increased projection across the Indian Ocean, and a large base in Djibouti, China is becoming strategically pre-eminent against all except the United States Navy, and even there, it can hope to match it in the near future. 

The situation on the border is maybe even more critical for India for several reasons. First, China’s tactics of erosion, with fake withdrawals followed by consolidation, have created facts on the ground that will be hard to erase. 

Second, it can be argued that for several years after March 2020, China had even more room to move forward. The imbalance of power between Chinese and Indian ground forces is even more flagrant than those of their navies. India’s military, hampered by long and weak logistical lines, could have indeed been defeated even further. A humiliation of this magnitude would have been a catastrophe for a government that is dependent on popular votes, with an opposition ready to pounce. A patient player who calculates his risks, Xi Jinping did not push his advantage that far. 

Slowly but surely, India is working to reduce its vulnerability behind the border. This is the basic argument behind its own armament drive, whether it is Made in India or procured from the West. Modi has also had to factor in the continuing dependence, even if dwindling, on Russian weapons and munitions. 

All of the above has dictated India’s diplomatic response and posture to the challenges from China, while paying some homage to India’s history of neutralism. As India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar skillfully put it, his concept of “multi-alignment” reflects a desire to combine the benefits of Western support while remaining open to other partners – including Russia, and potentially with China should the opportunity for negotiations arise. The relationship with France, also preoccupied with “strategic autonomy” and seeking to be “a power for equilibrium,” has been made easier by this thread that the two countries have in common. 

Multi-alignment also preserves the chances for India to exercise influence over the so-called Global South. There is no shortage of countries, including India, that tend to view the Russian war on Ukraine as “a conflict among Europeans.” But, conversely, there is not a long list of nations ready to side with India over China in a conflict over the Himalayas. 

In fact, India hardly requests direct diplomatic support for its position over the border issue. Clearly, it wants to preserve at all costs its freedom of maneuver, and prefers to rely on concrete deals with suitable partners. Yet, on significant issues such as Gaza and the Red Sea, India has disengaged from vocal partners such as South Africa and made a notable contribution to restoring freedom of navigation. And it has most recently diminished its purchases of Russian oil, reportedly refusing to switch to payments in renminbi. 

In a sign of its intensifying bid with Asian allies to collectively contain China’s aggressive attitude, the Biden administration, apparently on its own initiative, has formally declared for the first time its recognition of Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian territory, and simultaneously its opposition to any unilateral move or incursion beyond the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Even prone to doubts on the longevity of such statements in a volatile American political climate, this is an achievement for India’s diplomacy. Faced with a dire situation in the Himalayas, seeking support while maintaining the appearance of a balancing diplomacy on many issues, India is now pulling through these difficulties on the eve of a national election. Barring any strategic surprise from China, it should find itself stronger after this stage. 

India’s predicament of confrontation with China creates growing convergence with the European Union and its member states. Economic security issues, such as the diversification of supply chains or the risks of economic coercion, clearly bring Europe and India closer. Uncertainties regarding Xi Jinping’s China, its use of military power, and the extent to which it will directly challenge the international security order are clearly shared concerns in Europe and India. How to turn this shared risk assessment into real opportunities – the untapped potential question – is a pressing issue for EU-India relations.

This article was originally published as the introduction to China Trends 19, the quarterly publication of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne. Institut Montaigne is a nonprofit, independent think tank based in Paris, France.