Tenuous at Best: The Future of India-China Relations

Despite increased economic and strategic relations, India and China face a number of key issues that will dictate their relations today and for years to come. Moreover, their relations will establish a more or less stable South and Southeast Asia, as the two navigate their economic and security aspirations in the region.  But much of this is not new. After all, for decades, Sino-India relations have been marked by a mix of land and maritime border disputes, broken up with moments of attempted diplomacy. In recent years, China’s increasingly close economic and security ties with India’s arch rival, Pakistan, has worried Delhi and increased tensions between the two regional powers; this, combined with cultural clashes, and the struggle over control of the so-called String of Pearls, will force India-China relations to a head over the next decade.

However, unresolved issues between the two countries will lead to deteriorating relations and decreased regional, and even global, security should they not be resolved. Considering the current trajectory of Sino-India relations, the next decade will only be marked by more tension and instability, cementing the Cold War between the two nations as they fight for political and economic influence across the region, while navigating tensions surrounding a number of factors: China-Pakistan relations, cultural clashes between the two, and tensions around the String of Pearls.

China-Pakistan Relations: Sweet as Honey
It is impossible to speak about China and India without closely examining how China’s increasingly close ties with Pakistan have aggravated tensions between the two. Experts not that China’s relations with Pakistan are “driven by a desire to keep India tied up in South Asia.”

China’s economic assistance in Pakistan, coupled with its assistance in helping Pakistan develop its nuclear program, leaves India in a precarious position wherein one of its regional rivals, Pakistan, is being bolstered by the other, China.The People’s Republic of China treats Pakistan as a “low-cost secondary deterrent to India,” which Pakistan welcomes as it considers China a “high value guarantor of security against India.” China is often seen as using Islamabad to “box out” its regional rival, India, in the broader region.

Nuclear Proliferation in Pakistan
A 2013 poll conducted by the Lowy Institute also found that 83% in Indians consider China a threat, only second to Pakistan (which came in at 94%). This is largely because of its possession of nuclear weapons, its assistance in Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, and the India-China rivalry and competition over resources in the region. China, however does not view India as a major nuclear threat, and in fact believes that India’s nuclear program is geared more towards bolstering its own domestic standing, while ensuring that it has a way of saber rattling towards Pakistan.

A report from the Carnegie Endowment found that “if considering India’s capabilities and intentions statically, China does not see India as a security threat due to the capability (especially technology) gap and the no-war bottom-line intention threshold.” The report further emphasizes that the only reason China is at all concerned about India’s nuclear program is only in relation “the unresolved Sino-Indian border issue, as well as the presence of the ‘Pakistan factor’ in Sino-Indian security relations.”

In response to these concerns, China has worked diligently to build Pakistan’s capabilities. There are serious concerns worldwide that China is violating the Nuclear Supplier Group’s safeguards, particularly as it helps build two nuclear power plants in Karachi and as it supplies “missile-related items,” as well as tanks, artillery, aircraft, and naval vessels. Intelligence notes that China may have helped Pakistan develop solid-fueled ballistic missiles (the Shaheen series), which shortens the time needed to launch missiles. Pakistan’s new medium range ballistic missile, the Ababeel, may have been modeled on China’s own short-range ballistic missiles.

China has been integral in assisting Pakistan increase its conventional, missile and nuclear capabilities. With China’s help, Pakistan has developed short-range missiles and low-yield tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to deter conventional attacks from India via “deterrence by denial.” Most of the nuclear warheads Pakistan has produced in the last decade are TNWs. Pakistan’s TNWs have a destabilizing effect on the region as it “lowers the threshold” for using nuclear weapons, increases India’s vulnerability, and necessitates each side maintaining a credible second strike capability (SSC). Pakistan’s TNWs could move India to fully implement its ambiguous Cold Start strategy, as evidenced by plans to deploy 500 battle tanks close to the border. TNWs may encourage India to move away from its “no first use” policy and to launch a preemptive first strike if it believes an attack is imminent, in accordance with the “use it or lose it” mentality.

The tit-for-tat nature of India/Pakistan’s efforts to diversify delivery systems, bolster anti-ballistic missile defense, and test technology may force an arms race between India and Pakistan, with no possibility of an arms agreement. India has responded to a “two-front threat” by modernizing its arsenal via its anti-ballistic missile defense systems, as well as by developing its triad, particularly its SLBMs. India’s Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile tests have also aggravated China, which believes the ICBM challenges its nuclear autonomy in the region. Pakistan may be also moving toward a triad, having already tested its Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile (January 2016) and its first submarine-launched cruise missile (January 2017).

CPEC: Checking India, Controlling Pakistan
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has further entrenched China in Pakistan, as it aims to modernize its transportation infrastructure, including by building new industrial parks, railways, and roads, that will link China’s Xinjiang region to the Port of Gwadar. The recent agreement, worth over $50 billion, between China and Pakistan has become one of the latest sticking points between China and India. CPEC is one of China’s most ambitious projects under its “Belt and Road” campaign, but India continues to oppose the corridors established by CPEC as a matter of “sovereignty.” China is also using CPEC to further investment in Pakistan’s energy infrastructure, as it builds “power plants in power-starved Pakistan to produce 10,000 MW electricity.”

Control over the Port of Gwadar is significant to China as almost 80% of China’s oil travels from the Strait of Malacca to Shanghai—a distance of over 16,000 km that takes 2-3 months to make. The Port of Gwadar, however, cuts that transport distance to only 5,000km.  China Daily has reported that China’s projects and infrastructure in Gwadar will ultimately be able to provide 16,400 MW of energy to the energy-starved Pakistan. In addition to the construction of highways and railways, China is building a “network of pipelines to transport liquefied natural gas and oil… between Gwadar and Nawabshah to transport gas from Iran,” effectively cutting the 12,000 km travel distance to about 2,000km.

India may be right to be concerned, however, as China ramped up investment this month and continues to tout CPEC as its “flagship project” under its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) campaign. Scholars fear that too much Chinese emersion in Pakistan could transform the latter of those into a Chinese vassal state heavily dependent on Beijing for its political, economic, and security needs. India continues to show displeasure with Chinese efforts to build infrastructure and develop projects in areas that remain disputed between India and Pakistan. India has further complicated China’s CPEC plans as it also lays claim to the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. A Chinese-built highway also crosses through another disputed area, further aggravating tensions and raising security concerns in New Delhi. China, however, continues to insist that CPEC is not a show of military or political strength, but simply an effort to help develop Pakistan and bolster its own economy.

China has attempted to allay India’s CPEC-related fears by inviting India to join CPEC, even exploring for a moment changing the project’s name though it  did not in the end. Earlier this month, China’s Foreign Minister reiterated the invitation, also using the opportunity to reemphasize its support for Pakistan’s hold on Kashmir, saying that “As for the dispute of Kashmir, China’s position remained unchanged. Also, CPEC has no relationship with the dispute in certain regions. I want to reaffirm to the Indian friend if India wants to take part in the OBOR, there are many channels and ways.”

Chinese scholar and author, and Director of the Centre for European Studies at Renmin University, Wang Yiwei, says that India overstates any perceived security threat associated with CPEC: “This is a project, not a military to contain somebody. [India worries] about the Indian Ocean.. about China’s influence in the Indian Ocean…. about the port…. [but if you visit the port now] there are hospitals, airport and industrial park.” Before Chinese development, Wang insists, Pakistan faced a great deal of suffering, and China’s investment in energy saving thousands from dying from power shortages.

Ahead of China’s “Belt Road Forum” (BRF), slated to be held May 14, 2017, Beijing has continued to invite India to attend. Perhaps to entice New Delhi’s participation, one state-run think tank in China, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), has hinted that Beijing should take note of India’s concerns regarding CPEC and the OBOR project at large: “Any transnational projects involve concerns of different countries. We need to coordinate that to strike a balance to be acceptable to all parties. If we can’t reach that balance, maybe we can stop it for some time.” Whether China would truly pause any projects in disputed areas remains to be seen, and as China is wont to do, could simply be using mouth pieces to manipulate the narrative around CPEC and India’s concerns regarding it. Despite all of this, the likelihood of India attending the forum is low and the likelihood of CPEC further aggravating tensions over Chinese influence in Pakistan and land disputes very high.

Culture Clashes: Perceptions of the Other
There are also intangible tensions between the two nations, as India perceives that China does not respect the nation, its people, its culture, or its position as a rising power. This is evidenced in China’s attempts to thwart India on the international stage, for example by refusing to endorse India’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council and China’s protests about giving India member into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The conflict between the two nations can also be seen in the suffering economic ties between the two countries. Economic ties, which could in theory drive better relations between the two nations, have fallen. And although investment in each others’ nations has grown, it is nowhere near the amount of investment the two nations have with other countries.

A Pew report released in 2012 provided a quantitative breakdown of India’s perceptions of the other. Indians generally have a majority unfavorable view of China, by a 44% to 33% margin. The Pew report found that the growing tensions between the two nations has resulted in mistrust around China’s intentions, with 40% of India’s Delhi urbanites viewing India’s relationship with China as one that is extremely hostile. More than half of urban Indians (about 53%) also expressed concern about China’s expanding economy, and its investment in the region, is worrisome.

The ongoing disputes—ranging from border conflicts to China’s relations with Pakistan—have only aggravated these perceptions and increased distrust among the two. They consistently attack each other in their media coverage, while lambasting the other for being responsible for tenuous relations. As noted by the Asia-focused Diplomat: “The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is campaigning against Indian newspapers—which form the world’s largest newspaper market outside China, and combine with hundreds of hypercompetitive news channels. The campaign is driven by the belief in Beijing that it is the media that has emerged as the segment of Indian civil society most hostile towards China.”

China has at times attempted to control India’s media coverage of the relationship between the two nations; already, China has a hand in Pakistan’s coverage of Beijing. This is a only a part of China’s larger soft power imposition, as it often uses media manipulation and “aggressive editorials [about] the Indian news industry.” The tone of each nation’s media coverage has only become increasingly hostile since 2008. For example, bloggers across China publish mocking editorials poking fun at India’s attempts to increase its military capabilities and lauding China’s own superior capacity (China’s military budget is about three-times that of India’s).

China, to its credit, is trying to learn more about its rival. However, this may nothing more than a guise to bolster its use of soft power in the region. China has gone so far as to establish China Radio International’s Hindi service, mostly catering to India’s rural population and enticing listeners with free radios. It has also paved the way for many Chinese universities to offer Hindi language training. This is in stark contrast to India, who remains largely in the dark about its neighbor and whose population is uninterested in the same type of immersion that China is pushing forth.

In September 2013, the two nations held an India-China media forum to explore ways to improve their bilateral relations, particularly in press coverage. While the communication channel was a good idea, there is yet to be any major changes seen in the perceptions of one another in the most public realms. However, the Lowy Institute’s 2013 polling on India’s desire of improved relations with China indicates some openness among India’s population, if not the government, to cooperate with China in bolstering the political and economic prowess of both nations. Two-thirds of Indians also desire that India strengthen its relations with China as well.

Unfortunately, without a substantial transformation in how each country’s media and government portray each other, public malcontent with the other country will only rise and the tensions and conflicts will not be ameliorated. Building a common understanding, mutual respect, and prioritizing cultural ties are one way for India and China to bridge the gap between them; however, nothing indicates that either country will waiver in changing the narrative about the other.

String of Pearls: Intention, Naval Power, and Economics
Termed by Booz Allen Hamilton in 2004, the “String of Pearls” is a phrase used to refer to China’s somewhat opaque intentions in the Indian Ocean as it invests in the development of ports and airfields to increase its access; bolsters its military might; and cultivates closer relationships with key regional players. The phrase, which refers to various ports and naval bases under Chinese influence, is predominantly used by the United States and India to describe China’s ambiguous intentions, but Beijing has never used the term. What Chinese analysts have said, however, is that India “must ‘get used to’ a higher-profile Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean…” and that “Chinese overtures toward Indian Ocean countries ‘will become more normal with more and more Chinese enterprises going abroad.’”

As the ports essentially surround India, what analysts have coined a policy of encirclement,  it is clear why New Delhi’s continues to be anxious about China’s intentions in the Indian Ocean. Is China’s intention in the Indian Ocean truly what it says, that is, purely economic? Or, as India worries, is China strengthening its naval posture in an effort to change the geopolitics of the region, to secure key maritime corridors, and to build alliances with countries that could help China check or balance against India? Or will, as a CSIS report reads, China use its “burgeoning diplomatic ties with its neighbors aim to create a noose that will choke India within its own periphery”?

This competition in the Indian Ocean has effectively created a classic security dilemma between India and China, one that could greatly escalate tensions between the two rivals over the course of the next ten years. Where China goes East, India responds by going West. Already, China has several ports across South and Southeast Asia, including in Pakistan’s Gwadar as was earlier discussed, that some analysts claim could be ultimately used as naval bases.

India has responded to the security dilemma by expanding its own influence in the region, including by building up its military capacity and maritime surveillance capabilities in the region. For example, India build a base in the Andaman Islands (near the Strait of Malacca) and across the maritime corridors from which West African oil is transported. India has also worked closely with Iran to develop the Port of Chabahar in Iran as a way to link Central Asia to the Indian Ocean, although negotiations have been muddled in recent months. This location, in particular, is prime for conflict considering its close location to the Port of Gwadar.

With both China and India developing across the Indian Ocean, the clock begins to tick down as to when one or the other with undertake strategic campaigns of “sea denial” to hamper the other’s ambitions, whether security-related or economic. Using the Andaman Islands, India could essentially cut China off from the Indian Ocean, forcing Chinese vessels to pursue longer, more costly routes. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested that India can “act east” should it come down to it. This “acting east” could manifest itself in a number of ways, ranging from India conducting naval exercises in the Western Pacific or “making seen” its submarines in the South China Sea.

China, however, insists that its naval presence in the Indian Ocean is peaceful and that its driving interest is solely economic and commercial. In 2009, then Chinese President Hu Jintao sought to reassure the that China’s naval operations were an “important force in safeguarding world peace and development,” also noting that “China will never be a threat to other nations.” He further seemed to refer to India without name, by saying that China and its navy would “never seek hegemony, nor would it turn to military expansion or arms races with other nations.”

Maritime conflict could also easily escalate, or be aggravated by, China and India’s long history of border disputes, dating back to 1962. The two nations established the land-based Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in the 1990s, an agreement that dictates that India and China will respect, observe, and not overstep their lines. However, nearly every year since, India has lambasted China for allegedly violating the LoAC via “illegal patrols.” In fact, India and China have faced off along the LoAC a number of times, most recently in 2013 and 2015.

In 2016, China’s foreign ministry refuted an Indian report of Chinese violations, instead casting aspersions about Indian media (the war between the two nations’ media markets was discussed previously): “The Chinese border troops have been operating on the Chinese side of the LAC. Although the China-India boundary is yet to be delimited, the two countries have reached many consensus and agreements on safeguarding peace and stability of the border area… This issue is once again published by the Indian media outlets.”

The maritime race is where China may have the most to risk. Not only is it competing outside of its own backyard for naval supremacy, but it is clearly investing enough into the String of Pearls effort that if it does not find a return, for example on expediting its ability to meet China’s growing energy needs, then leadership could suffer at home. And for China, perhaps more so than India, regime survival is at the top of the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda. The continued vitality of China’s leadership is contingent on being able to ensure that its economy thrives. This has become increasingly urgent as China has failed to meet its GDP growth projections for the last few years.

Clearly, even with safeguards in place to prevent India and China from clashing over territory, they continue to do so, indicating that even a formal accord between the two regarding the String of Pearls is not necessarily enough to prevent the two from becoming increasingly aggressive over the next few years.

Hoping for the Best, Planning for the Worst
Relations between India and China, and whether the status quo Cold War will heat up into a full scale armed-conflict or warm into better relations is yet to be seen. The security dilemma resulting from China’s closer relations with Pakistan, the mutual disrespect and cultural clashes that dominate the discourse of both Indian and Chinese media outlets and government mouthpieces, and the growing maritime tensions between New Delhi and Beijing are massive obstacles to overcome. And if even recent history has proven, agreements between the two nations has done little, if anything, to quell ongoing skirmishes over land disputes that have now, in a sense, manifested in a stronger Pakistan, spilled out into the pages of newspapers, and poured over into the Indian Ocean.

Until both India and China can emphasize commonalities in their national and foreign policy strategies, for example combatting extremism, the next decade will, at best, hold only more of the same Cold War status. China must stop any land or water patrols that India may perceive as aggressive, while India must prevent strong arming and punishing China from taking advantage of the economic opportunities available in the region. The two nations may need to explore using multilateral or regional platforms or organizations to help them negotiate or settle boundary disputes; perhaps the two nations can explore signing a border defense cooperation agreement as did in 2013.

But either way, to prevent an escalation of tension into full armed conflict, India and China must begin to cooperate. As it stands, India and China are working towards the best possible outcome—cooperation—but have maintained focus on planning for the worst—all out war. For peace to prevail, they must build trust amongst their nations, cultivate respect for each other’s cultures, increase economic ties, and instead of fearing being dominated, relish the opportunity for competition with each other to drive innovation. Should either side forego this, they risk an escalated, possibly armed, conflict in the next decade that will shatter the region’s stability, and send political, security, and economic reverberations throughout the globe.


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