China-India Relations: Moving Forward by Keeping to the Original Aspiration and Addressing the Burden of the Past

By Lin Minwang

In 2017, China-India relations have developed in a way that exceeds the expectations of most people. Chinese and Indian troops were locked in a stand-off in Dong Lang (Doklam) for as long as 71 days, plunging the bilateral relations to a historical low since the end of the Cold War. This, undoubtedly, dealt a significant blow to the relations. 

On the other hand, Chinese and Indian leaders have made conscious efforts to undo the damage caused by this incident. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a bilateral meeting on September 5 during the BRICS Xiamen Summit. President Xi underscored that China and India mustuphold the fundamental view that the two countries are each other’s development opportunities, not threats. He expressed the hope that India could view China’s development in a correct and rational way and that the two countries should show the world that peaceful co-existence and win-win cooperation is the only right option for China and India. When attending the China-Russia-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in New Delhi on December 11, 2017, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that both China and India should follow through the important judgements of the leaders, forge consensus in wider areas and turn it into more concrete measures so as to increase positive fundamentals for the bilateral relations and build up positive energy for exchanges between the two countries. Wang’s statement received positive responses from his Indian counterpart. 

China-India relations are poised to restart. Admittedly, past differences may have an impact on the relations going forward. To remove or address these differences, as President Xi often said to Prime Minister Modi in their meetings, the two sides must respect and accommodate each other’s concerns and deepen political trust. Only by taking a historical perspective and keeping to the right strategic direction can the two sides always pursue cooperation as the theme of their relations. 

1. The Belt and Road Initiative should not be an obstacle in China-India relations.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has aroused suspicions and misgivings on the Indian side since it was put forward by China. India has been opposed to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the BRI. On April 25-26, 2017, India resumed the building of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC). The third BCIMEC meeting was held in Kolkata, India, two and a half years after it was suspended. Nevertheless, India remains unchanged in its attitude toward the BRI.  

By making goodwill gestures, China has welcomed and encouraged India to be part of the BRI. At the BRI workshop hosted by the Observer Research Foundation on April 21, Liu Jinsong, Minister of the Chinese embassy in India, explained China’s position. “CPEC is a project to improve people’s lives. China has no intention to involve itself in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. China’s position on Kashmir remains unchanged. China may consider extending CPEC to link it with the BCIMEC and India’s North-South Economic Corridor. Synergies could also be created between India’s Project Mausam and Spice Route and China’s BRI. 

However, China’s efforts have received no active responses from India. And India has chosen to interpret them in a different direction, believing that these proposals don’t fundamentally address its concerns. India held the view that its absence at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) will make China feel uneasy and that whether India’s presence at the forum is crucial for China. To this end, India’s foreign ministry issued a spokesperson’s statement before the BRF to solidify its position.  

The BRF held in early May highlight the exception of India on this matter. To India’s surprise, Japan and the US, out of people’s expectations, participated in the BRF. In particular, the US government confirmed sending a high-level delegation on May 12, which was described by India as a U-turn. The support from the US and Japan accentuates the fact that India does not fit in the big picture. As other South Asian countries have all rallied behind the BRI which is, too, generally accepted by the international community, India only shows its opposition for opposition’s sake.  

As part of their efforts to undercut the BRI, Japan and India pull together on the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). India also advances connectivity with neighboring countries, promotes the building of the Chabahar Port in Iran, and restarts the construction of the highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand. China welcomes greater contribution by India to the economic development of the countries in the region and hopes that the connectivity promoted by India could be complementary with BRI projects. As President Xi said, China “wishes the best for friends and neighbors” when pursuing neighborhood diplomacy. Big countries, he said, “complement each other and work for continued progress”. International politics should not become a wrestling ground. 

That said, India has also demonstrated some flexibility. At the China-Russia-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in December 2017, the three parties reached consensus on promoting connectivity on the Eurasian continent. “The three countries will, under the principle of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, promote policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity. The connectivity initiatives of the three countries should be aligned and complementary instead of undercutting each other, so as to form economies of scale and promote regional integration.” This points out the direction for China and India to end confrontation on the BRI.

2. India wants to be the pillar of America’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy”?

The assumption of office by US President Donald Trump in January 2017 also had an impact on US-India relations. Yet, the Modi-Trump meeting in June enables the US-India strategic partnership to continue. 

If the US and India develop their relations with China as their common, hypothetical enemy, it will, without question, hurt India’s strategic interests.In the statement released after the Modi-Trump meeting, the two countries committed to follow four principles in the Indo-Pacific, which are obviously directed against China: i. reiterating the importance of respecting freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce; ii. calling upon all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law; iii. supporting regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment; and iv. calling on other nations in the region to adhere to these principles.Such statements are obviously directed against China’s policy on the South China Sea and the BRI. They also highlight the lack of independence of India’s diplomacy and its endorsement of US diplomacy. 

The US seeks to advance its own policy in the region by raising India’s status. On August 21, Trump made a speech on the situation of Afghanistan and South Asia in Virginia, shedding light on America’s emerging South Asia strategy. “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” said Trump. Such a statement reveals Trump’s policy for South Asia. He seems to ask India to help the US address the issue of Afghanistan. And this will be the precondition under which the US allows India to continue to make money.  

In America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, India is assigned the same strategic role. The two countries strengthen strategic and defense cooperation. The US seeks to enhance India’s independent defense capabilities. Apart from intelligence sharing, the US gradually removes legal barriers for selling sophisticated weapons to India. The weaponry the US sells to India reach the same level of those sold to its allies, such as P-8 maritime reconnaissance jets, UAVs and aircraft carrier technologies. As such, the India-US defense cooperation is transformed from a buyer-seller relationship to one of co-production. 

The two countries also stay in communication on each other’s Indo-Pacific strategies. India’s Act East Policy is deeply aligned with the Indo-Pacific strategies of the US and Japan. An alliance with India, Japan and Australia as the major players has taken shape. The US, Japan and Australia are working to establish a leaders’ dialogue mechanism and a maritime security dialogue mechanism between the four sides. The US, Japan, Australia and India have also established bilateral dialogue mechanisms among themselves. For example, India-Australia Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Dialogue and US-India Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Dialogue. 

China is not against India establishing normal state-to-state relations with any major country. As India’s Act East diplomacy bears on China’s security interests, it is only natural that China reassesses India’s strategic independence on the diplomatic front. Yet, India is still uncertain about Trump’s foreign policy. As D.S. Hooda said in his article on the Indian Express, America’s diplomacy serves nothing but its own interests. India should be careful to be not used by the US. It is groundless for the US to accuse China of undermining the international rules-based order, because President Trump is the least observer of international norms. Therefore, he cautioned that India’s diplomacy must take its own national interests as the criterion. As China-US strategic competition may escalate, India must not seek to follow the US as the only diplomatic pursuit. 

In the face of multiple uncertainties, India does not embrace the US withouthesitation. In the 2017 DG-level dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia, India released a statement different from those of the other three countries. It made no mention of the rules-based order, freedom of navigation, maritime security or international law. Nor did it commit to deepen the dialogue mechanism. India wants to build a free, open, prosperous and inclusive architecture in the Indo-Pacific region, which is in stark contrast with the value-based alliance advocated by the US, Japan and Australia. 

China understands the independence of India’s diplomacy. India also needs to show sufficient respect to China’s security concerns. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once stated that India undoubtedly needs to build good relations with both China and the US. This, however, is not a zero-sum game. India has no intention or will it be part of any strategy to contain China. Such a big and vibrant country as China can never be contained. 

3. The future growth of China-India relations calls for more positive energy. 

China and India, two ancient civilizations and emerging market countries, have the same historical mission to develop and rejuvenate. With the same or similar views on the world trends and international affairs, the two countries should be natural partners for cooperation. 

In fact, China and India have similar historical experiences and national conditions. They need to identify what can bring the two countries together. Aamir Khan, the renowned Indian actor, visited China in May 2017 and was warmly welcomed by his Chinese fans as much as Jackie Chan is immensely popular in India. The Indian movie Dangal was such a hit in China that its box office taking is far higher than in India. It is almost impossible for the movie to be as popular in the European and American markets because of different national conditions and historical experiences. 

The imperative for China and India is to genuinely foster mutual trust. With trust, specific issues can be resolved on the basis of mutual understanding and accommodation. Without trust, some issues may simmer and produce spillover effects that erode bilateral relations. As such, Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that the two sides improve strategic communication at all levels, resume already established dialogue mechanisms, and deepen practical cooperation in all areas while managing existing differences and maintaining peace and tranquility in border areas. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj responded by saying that as two major developing countries, India-China relations go beyond the bilateral scope and have regional and even global implications. The commonalities between India and China far outweigh their differences. The two countries should enhance strategic communication, increase strategic trust, and must never allow differences to turn into disputes and disputes into conflicts. India is willing to resume all bilateral mechanisms and promote cooperation with China in all sectors. At the same time, the two countries should properly manage their differences and jointly maintain peace and tranquility in border areas. Only when India and China join hands can an Asian century really come. 

With the restart of their relations, China and India must never forget why they started. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, put forth the vision for the revival of Asia and held the conviction that a truly Asian century will only come when China and India both rise. As the two countries continue to rise, they should all the more keep to this aspiration, because “when China and India speak in one voice, the world will listen”.  

Lin Minwang is Research Fellow of the Institute of International Studies andDeputy Director of the Research Center for South AsiaFudan University.