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Whither India-China Relations?

The recent extraordinary outpouring of public animosity in India and China towards each other should give us pause and encourage introspection. When the only space that India and China seem to be focused on occupying is the geopolitical, when the dynamics are mainly about power balancing, when only higher growth and trade statistics are at stake and when vital issues are bandied about cynically as "cards" in a great game, the stature of two of the oldest civilisations in the world is immeasurably lowered. It bears repeating that situations appear intractable not because we are unable to see the solution; rather, it is because we are unable to see the problem.

Whither India-China Relations? Alka Acharya or the need to “stand up to the Chinese aggressive tactics” and on the Chinese side on “going to war against India over Tibet” and on the possibility of carving up the country into 25-30 smaller states. The Indian

The recent extraordinary outpouring of public animosity in India and China towards each other should give us pause and encourage introspection. When the only space that India and China seem to be focused on occupying is the geopolitical, when the dynamics are mainly about power balancing, when only higher growth and trade statistics are at stake and when vital issues are bandied about cynically as “cards” in a great game, the stature of two of the oldest civilisations in the world is immeasurably lowered. It bears repeating that situations appear intractable not because we are unable to see the solution; rather, it is because we are unable to see the problem.

Alka Acharya ( is with the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

he meeting between the Indian and Chinese prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao at Hua Hin, Thailand, on 24 October 2009, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, appears to have succeeded in arresting the recent escalation of tensions and the virtual war of words in the media with regard to bilateral relations over the last two months.

This initial exchange was then taken further when the foreign ministers of the two countries met on the margins of the trilateral Russia-India-China foreign ministerial dialogue in Bengaluru, India, on 26 October. According to the statement released to the press on both occasions, these meetings, which sought to exchange views on “all aspects of bilateral relations”, were “fruitful” (Sandeep Dikshit, “India, China Decide to Step Up Dialogue”, The Hindu, 28 September 2009). It is not clear whether, and to what extent, all issues of contention were actually discussed. Nonetheless, taken together, these meetings once again underscored the vital necessity of keeping high-level political channels of communication open and in frequent use.

Media attacks on each other or official protests from both sides, with regard to the contentious/controversial issues, have been witnessed in the past as well. We may recall the time in 1998 when former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s letter to the then United States president Bill Clinton citing China as the rationale for the Indian nuclear tests, was “leaked” to the press. The recent phase, however, is distinguished by an unusual severity and the duration for which it was carried on. Not only that, the ambit of mutual recriminations was also wider than before, as both sides saw a variety of unfriendly think-tank analyses, academic discourse and blog-writing by “netizens” also joining issue, forwarding and exchanging “alarmingly frank” discussions and opinions. On the Indian side we read about the possibility of a Chinese attack in the near future

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media – print and electronic – blitz appeared to be indefatigable and for nearly two months it became the platform for discussions from a variety of perspectives, and for a critical look at India’s China policy. Disquieting conjectures on each and every development that occurred, the so-called hard-realist analyses of the fundamental nature of the relationship and the true motives underlying China’s strategy of incursions, were abundant. Strategic assessments on both sides, dominated by balance of power perspectives, have acquired greater prominence since mid-2008 when India and the US appeared to be moving closer than ever before and China was seen to be obstructing the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation deal when it was debated in Vienna.

‘Aggressive Hype’

Most of the recent writings did take on board the expanding and broadening nature of the relationship today and the need for caution; some discussed scenarios of confrontation and/or conflict which were pronounced as eminently avoidable. In the process, many developments, inevitable in the course of greater economic engagement between India and China, were also filtered through this prism of mistrust and suspicion. The occasional voices of sanity were simply overwhelmed by the discourse of conflict and contention. The “aggressive hype” from the media resulted in an unprecedented admission from no less a personage than the prime minister of India that “his government had been negligent as far as information flow to the media on this sensitive issue was concerned” (Neena Vyas, “India in Touch with China on Incidents”, The Hindu, 19 September 2009). And this was probably for the first time that the Indian media was not only “asked” by the government not to “overplay” the border incidents, but the government also announced its intention of taking legal action against the journalists who had reported a supposed case of firing

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across the border when two jawans were injured (The Hindu, 20 September 2009).

Within China, anti-India sentiments have begun to be reported and written about. Not known for pulling its punches, the People’s Daily, the communist party-controlled national newspaper, came down heavily on what was perceived as media hype on border disputes and the “China threat” cliché. According to an article in the People’s Daily, “(P)ublic opinions (sic) within India were quickly churned up into a roaring sea against China and the Chinese people” (Li Hongmei, “Indian Media Stinks Up Public Opinions”, People’s Daily Online, 15 September 2009). Neither is it unknown that within the defence and strategic circles, suspicions of and wariness towards India are often written about especially in the context of Sino-Pakistan ties. An article on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), widely reproduced in the Indian media, quoted an unnamed retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) official to the effect that within the PLA, the “enemy most spoken of (was) India” (as reported in Times of India, 28 September 2009).

The carefully-crafted strategy of what may be termed the “incremental engagement” that we observed over the past decade and a half between the two countries, appeared dangerously close to unravelling as the official exchanges got harder, and public opinion seemed to take on more confrontationist hues and responding “appropriately” to the perceived aggression became the test of one’s patriotism and credibility. Even general readers in India would have found it difficult to make sense of this Tower of Babel – not all of it either useful or intelligible – as different newspapers carried entirely different assessments from one day to the next. Thus one paper cited some security agencies dismissing the incursions

as mere ‘pinpricks’ and not really intended at any confrontation with India….the so-called adventures by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on the border may thus have been aimed as reminders of China’s might in South Asia…India has decided to not only let bygones be bygones, but also not get unnecessarily ‘provoked’ by off-and-on Chinese transgressions of the Line of Actual Control even in the future. New Delhi would continue to promote economic cooperation, joint ventures wherever possible and mutual investment

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(Bharti Jain, “India to Overlook PLA Pinpricks, Focus on Biz Ties with Beijing” The Economic Times, 28 September 2009).

The very next day we were informed by another paper, again citing “an authoritative security source” that they were

worried about the growing nexus of United Liberation Front of Asom with the Chinese security agencies…that Ulfa chief Prakash Baruah was in touch with the officials of security agencies in China and seeking their support in establishing bases in areas bordering India….(and) sent a team of Ulfa rebels, which included some of its overground sympathisers in this connection, to China recently” (Manoj Anand, “Ulfa’s China Links Worries India”, The Asian Age, 27 September 2009).

Military Pronouncements

Air Chief Marshal P V Naik assessed the Indian aircraft strength as only one-third of China’s, but also added that there was adequate development on the border (The Times of India, 24 September 2009). Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee and Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta in an address to the National Maritime Foundation warned that China was India’s primary challenge and admitted that India neither has the “capability nor the intention to match China’s military strength”, but added that “common sense dictates that India needs to cooperate with China rather than confront it” (Manu Pubby, “Don’t Have Capability or Intention to Match China Force for Force, says Navy Chief”, The Indian Express, 11 August 2009). Coinciding with the reports of increased border incursions, were also various reports on upgradation and strengthening of the army and air force – normal and legitimate activities for any country, but projected by some sections of the media as intended to “counter China” (TOI, 26 September 2009). It cannot be the case that the modernisation of the Indian armed forces is China-specific but the references and comparisons of the overall Indian force strength, technological levels and preparedness were all with respect to China. It would be very surprising if the general reader felt that the only option now was to seek the protective security umbrella of the US. An odd article decried these unfavourable assessments of Indian capabilities vis-a-vis China in the context of

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the incursions, as leading up to the facilitation of US arms sales to India. This, of course, brings up yet another twist in the tale as we come up against the processes and politics of arms purchases.

Historical factors, the legacy of 1962 and the uneasy aspects of the India-China relationship are only one part of the picture, hence little purpose would be served in undertaking a psycho-cultural analysis of this phase. There are other dimensions

– the “defence” imperative, the shaping of India’s strategic ties, the dynamics of the electronic and print media industry in terms of the cut-throat competition for ratings, domestic politics particularly of the right-wing nationalist variety and the world wide web, which add to the complexity of the scenario. More to the point would be to look at the core issues amid the tons of newsprint and try to examine how they are influencing the direction and development of India-China relations. In retrospect, three issues stand out, requiring some degree of discussion.

The first is the issue of boundary incursions, which have become a regular feature for quite sometime now – not surprising, since for the greater length of the boundary, there is not even a mutually agreed Line of Actual Control (LAC). As has been clarified on various occasions in the past, the difference in perception regarding the LAC has led to frequent intrusions and in accordance with the procedures laid down in the bilateral agreements of 1993 and 1996, the situation is accordingly dealt with. A great deal of outrage therefore arose from a report, “confirmed…by a highly placed intelligence source, who is not authorised to give information to the media”, regarding injuries to two Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel, resulting from firing on the border (Nirmalya Banerjee and Prabin Kalita, “2 ITBP Jawans Injured in China Border Firing”, The Times of India, 15 September 2009). This was described as the “first breach of the 1996 Agreement” by which both sides had pledged not to open fire despite provocations. The very next day, an MEA spokesman refuted this report (The Hindu, 16 September 2009). The Chinese government as well denied it. Following the spate of media reports about the incursions, the Indian minister of state


for defence, speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Leh (Ladakh) refuted the charge that India was underestimating the threat perception from China. He reiterated the problem of “different perceptions” but said that “(T)he number of incursions is the same as last year. So there is no need to be concerned” (The Times of India, 27 September 2009). This had earlier been stated by the Indian foreign secretary as well (The Indian Express, 20 September 2009). There were also some reassuring official words from the Chinese. Commenting on India-China ties, Sun Weidong, an official at the Asia Department of the Chinese foreign ministry, who had earlier been posted as political counsellor in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi said,

Do we regard the relationship as good or bad? We believe the mainstream is good. There has been sound momentum in the 21st century and we have begun to widen strategic cooperation (The Hindu, 16 September 2009).


The Joint Declaration of 2003 was recognition of the fact that the old frameworks and approaches had become bureaucratic cul-de-sacs and therefore Vajpayee’s visit and the appointment of the Special Political Representatives at that time, was of pathbreaking significance. And yet, the fact remains that the optimism generated by the 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for settling the boundary question was rather shortlived. Article VII of this Agreement, which stated that both sides “shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”, was interpreted as an eventual acceptance of Arunachal Pradesh as part of India, by China. A year later, the Chinese appeared to be overly finessing their reading of this critical clause when the Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi met the then Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee on the sidelines of a multilateral meeting in Hamburg and appeared to suggest that this article was not in the nature of a mandate. Chinese think tank researchers and scholars have pointed out that there was a great deal of criticism of the 2005 Agreement within China

– there were many who believed that China was diluting its territorial integrity and conceding to India’s demand for legitimising the legacy of British colonialism. The negotiations between the special political representatives appeared to make no progress, seemingly bogged down on the issue of Tawang and the undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust, inevitably surfaced with greater vigour. The momentum towards a political settlement and compromises based on mutual accommodation and adjustment seems to have run out of steam.

Fortunately, the existing structures and mechanisms have not collapsed under the onslaught – but their credibility has been questioned and therefore seriously affected, because the progress in/alleviation of the problem has not kept pace with the expectations generated. The alternative to what is apparently an impasse is not to leave it be for the present, hoping that over a period of time something will work itself out – that is not only inherently conservative, but also, as the wise ones tell us, leaves the matter open to a torrent of change, not all to one’s liking.

Dalai Lama’s Proposed Visit

The second, but related controversy, is with regard to Arunachal Pradesh. The Dalai Lama and his activities may be seen as the thorniest issue by far in the entire imbroglio. In comparative terms, the Chinese responses to the reported incursions were standard ones. The strongest protests from China were directed first at the proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang. They also expressed their annoyance at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the state during the election campaign. It in fact became the occasion for one of the strongest official statements by the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs so far. Dispute notwithstanding, Chinese diplomatic finesse/sophistry took a back seat and the Indian prime minister’s visit was denounced in a highly tactless manner, calculated to offend. Referring to the prime minister as “the Indian leader”, the foreign ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu, went on to state that

China expresses its strong dissatisfaction on the visit…to the disputed area in disregard of China’s grave concerns. We urge the Indian side to take China’s solemn concerns seriously and do not stir up trouble at the disputed area with a view to ensuring the sound development of China-India relations (sic) (…/t6 20094.htm).

Inevitably, immediate recollections came up of the former Chinese ambassador to India Sun Yuxi’s statements on the eve of the visit of the Chinese President Hu Jintao in November 2006 to India, when he said that China claimed the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. The China factor – the incursions and the perceived threat – in the state elections also provided more grist to the mill. Not only that, it also provided the different political parties in the


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    state, grounds to raise some extremely legitimate demands regarding infrastructure and economic development, the unemployed youth and the disenchantment with New Delhi’s laggardly ways towards the north-eastern region as a whole (Subodh Varma, “7 of 8 North-east States Lag behind Average India Income”, The Times of India, 2 November 2009). The prime minister’s visit had also become essential in precisely this respect and the fact that within Arunachal Pradesh there had been much concern over the unseemly brawl in the Asian Development Bank, when India’s proposal for developmental projects in Arunachal Pradesh was stoutly opposed by China.

    The Chinese position that international bodies must not take a stand with regard to disputed territories cut no ice with India. And yet, around that time as well, the eastern army commander, who is in charge of the Arunachal Pradesh segment of the LAC, along with senior commanders in the Central and Northern commands, who directly oversee military deployments across the entire LAC, went for a week-long visit to China. They visited Tibet and were the first foreign officers to be taken to an airbase in Chengdu (Pranab Dhal Samanta, “The China Chill”, The Indian Express, 24 September 2009).

    Unquestionably, the Tibet – and the Dalai Lama – factor in the India-China boundary problem has complicated an already complex dispute. As pointed out earlier, the recent developments have also been the subject of debate and discussion among increasing sections of the Chinese people and Tibet is an issue which has drawn intensely nationalistic reactions – not all orchestrated or fabricated. Some thought must be given to the possibility that India is likely to be more and more caught in this crossfire in a variety of unforeseen ways, as was demonstrated by a scuffle between Chinese students and Tibetans in Chennai, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium.

    The finals of the 23rd FIBA Asian Championship were being played between China and Korea and about 200 Chinese – mainly students of Madras University – had come to cheer for their team. Cups and bottles were hurled after which some sloganeering and clashes took place.

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    Finally the police escorted the Tibetans out of the stadium (The Indian Express, 25 September 2009).

    Hardening Stances

    Within the Chinese political establishment as well, suspicions about the Indian role in Tibet have intensified – and that may well have contributed to the hardening Chinese stand on the question of Tawang/Arunachal Pradesh. Sections within the Tibetan dissidents have begun to announce their acceptance of the McMahon Line as the boundary between Tibet and India and their adherence to the Simla Convention of 1914. It may be recalled that the Indian envoy was not among the foreign diplomats invited on the trip to Lhasa organised by Beijing, before the Olympics. It may also be recalled that in October 2007, the Dalai Lama had announced the possibility of his successor being chosen before his own demise. Given the chasm of mistrust, this was bound to be viewed as having some Indian role. Beijing’s dialogue with the Dalai Lama appears equally bleak, and by condemning him in the strongest possible terms, they have drastically reduced their room for manoeuvre in the Sino-Tibetan negotiations. It is possible to argue that they are looking more at the implications for their own position vis-à-vis Tibet and that their apprehensions about the Dalai Lama making statements damaging the Chinese position or upholding the Indian standpoint are not entirely unfounded. The internationalisation of the Tibetan issue will not be an insignificant pressure on the Chinese either, but they must see that this is not of the Indian government’s making and Indian diplomacy must be exterted to that end.

    Once again, the need to sort out the boundary question must be emphasised. It is obvious that just as modern nationstates need oil and steel, they need defined, de jure borders. Having settled the boundary we could proceed to make it irrelevant and in all probability, once border trade really gets going and overland trade route connectivity begins to flourish, it may well become such. The dangers of keeping an issue like a contested boundary, over which there has been a war, on the back-burner indefinitely are yet again plain to see. The situation calls for greater flexibility and

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    collaboration than has hitherto been the case and the need to explore opportunities and avenues for creative improvisation and compromises. Far more intractable boundaries than ours have been resolved – there is hope in our case as well, provided our approaches are not fixed but open to accommodate the possibilities. For the moment it appears that Abba Aban’s pronouncement appears on its way to being fulfilled: “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”.

    The third set of concerns emerged from news reports that students from Kashmir going to study in China were being given visas on separate sheets rather than being stamped on their passports. Even though this report did not generate as much heat as the “incursions” what was plainly baffling was, as the media informed us, this had been happening for quite some time and had been brought to the notice of the Indian government nearly a year ago. Subsequently we were informed, again by the media, that the government had taken up the matter with the Chinese authorities. Not much transpired after that. The reference is to yet another disputed territory – in this case with Pakistan. India has in the past been subjected to considerable pressure on account of the Sino-Pakistani “special relationship” and its implications for Kashmir.

    It needs to be emphasised that a distinct turnaround had come about in India-China relations when the Chinese officially took a neutral position regarding the Kashmir issue in November 1996, during the then Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s visit to the subcontinent. This neutrality on the part of the Chinese should not be in question or under any cloud of uncertainty – any apprehension that this could be a pressure tactic or attempts at leverage could potentially prove a real setback. This issue might take some more effort to address as reports also surfaced of the Chinese assistance in infrastructure development in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the matter was taken up at both the prime ministers’ and foreign ministers’ meetings last month.

    After the 1962 conflict, the second major deterioration in India-China relations took place in 1998 after the Vajpayee letter to Clinton. It took more than a year for the


    ensuing tensions and doubts to be sorted out and bring the relationship back on track. The then Indian foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, during a visit to Beijing in mid-1999 publicly declared that India did not consider China a threat. Since then, the course of the bilateral relations moved rapidly as relations expanded, and particularly after Vajpayee’s landmark 2003 visit, economic ties took off. Today, China is India’s largest trading partner.

    As mentioned earlier, there are a slew of concerns emerging from an extremely rapid expansion in the bilateral economic/ commercial engagement. Business visas to Chinese are up fourfold in four years – from just 15,979 in 2004 to 58,658 in 2008. In 2009, 26,104 visas were already issued until June. This indicates growing levels of cooperation between Chinese and Indian businessmen as a business visa is issued to a foreign national only when they have an Indian company or businessman to sponsor them and their purpose is primarily explorative in nature. This is absolutely normal and should not be conflated with other concerns stemming from the dispute. Over and over again one is struck by the single-minded devotion with which China appears to pursue economic growth

    – their target of eventually overtaking the US seems to be a national obsession and it is evident in all the moves they make.

    Business Vistas

    This hard-nosed focus on business opportunities does not appear to falter, even in the present circumstances. There is a vital lesson here – it is apparently not such a Herculean task to keep on advancing further, while reserving differences. The complexities of the relationship were plainly in evidence during the meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China in Bengaluru. In the midst of the crucial parleys on the “irritants” in the relationship, the director of China’s largest government-owned software park, Tianfu, in Chengdu, Zhu Yunkai who accompanied the foreign minister, was busy exploring India’s software capital with a view to hiring middle and senior level managers for Chinese companies. Christine Du, the deputy director of this hi-tech


    development zone was contributing her public relations bit to dispel doubts about working and investing in China, which she projected as an extremely attractive destination, eminently suited to the Indian professional and culinary expectations (Saritha Rai, “As Foreign Ministers Meet, Chinese Scout for Indian Tech Talent”, The Indian Express, 28 September 2009).

    The recent extraordinary outpouring should give us pause and encourage serious introspection. When the only space that India and China seem to be focused on occupying is geopolitical, when the dynamics are mainly about power balancing, when only higher and higher growth and trade statistics are at stake, when it is merely “common sense” that will shape India’s posture towards China and when vital issues are bandied about cynically as “cards” in a great game, the stature of two of the oldest civilisations in the world is immeasurably lowered. It bears repeating that situations appear intractable not because we are unable to see the solution; rather, it is because we are unable to see the problem.

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