By Abdul Wasay Ajmal
The relationship between India and China has seen sporadic turbulence throughout their shared history. After the partition of British India in 1947, Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru sought to establish cooperative relationship with China. Both countries, having aspirations to attain regional and great power status, sought to further their objectives through cooperation. This led to a series of high dignitaries’ bilateral visits during the early 1950s in which mutual cooperation and economic development were the main themes.
Nehru’s dream, however, was shattered when both countries went to war in 1962 over disputed himalayan border. A humiliating Indian defeat resulted in hiatus in the bonhomie. Post-Nehru, it was Rajiv Gandhi who picked up the baton and on his first visit to China in 1988, sought to re-establish friendly relations between the two countries. The relationship, however, soured again with border skirmishes occurring in Depsang in 2013 culminating in the Doklam Standoff in 2017. Recent Summits held in Wuhan and Mahabalipuram have been an attempt to de-escalate the situation but the current standoff in Ladakh has again raised tensions with no signs of reinstituting status quo ante despite Foreign Minister level parleys. The fissures in this relationship are well entrenched having geo-political, economic and military domains which will be explored in this article.
The World Order is in transition. Many observers have argued that the world is now moving towards a multipolar world with the United States and China as the main poles. This transition process has further been accelerated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. The US National Security Strategy stipulates China as the major strategic competitor, challenging her global hegemony in world affairs. In this context, US is propping up India to counterbalance China.
Indo-China contestation in Asia for regional order i.e bipolar vs unipolar has also set in. However, Chinese influence in the region is growing owing to her ever increasing economic and military prowess. China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship of the Belt and Road Initiative between Pakistan and China is on the track. Multi domain cooperation between China and Bangladesh; with China recently selling submarines to Bangladesh thereby increasing her dependence on China in military affairs. Nepal under Chinese influence is exerting autonomy vis-à-vis India. China-Sri Lanka economic cooperation is also on an ascendant path, Chinese company CHEC investing 1.4 billion Dollars in expediting the port city of Colombo, a project which is estimated to bring in 13 billion US dollars’ worth of investments and 80,000 jobs. A proposed multi-billion strategic partnership between China and Iran will further enhance Chinese influence in Iran vis-à-vis India. India views all these developments in her immediate neighborhood as steps undermining her influence in the region.
Therefore, Indian Policy allies itself with the United States in order to counter Chinese ambitions in South Asia. Upgrading the status of Quad, a strategic forum between Japan, India, Australia and US to ministerial level and Indian active cooperation with US/like minded countries in the Indo Pacific is to be seen in this context.
Economic strength is considered to be one of the hard powers of any state. China’s economic growth over the past 3 decades has been remarkable with average growth rate of over 6 percent. As of current statistics China has a 13 Trillion-dollar economy with global economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road project connecting over 60 countries. India on the other hand has a smaller economy of 2.179 Trillion dollar compared to China. Current Chinese trade with India is at a massive 89.6 Billion dollars. While this trade is important for both the nations it is only 6 percent of Chinese total GDP, whereas, with India it is 13 percent thus making it important for India to maintain trade relations with China. India’s trade deficit with China is 56.8 Billion dollars as of 2019 statistics. China continues to dominate the manufacturing sector, attracting major businesses around the world, promoting trade deals and mutual economic cooperation.
This creates a major impediment for Indian policy makers as it undermines its potential as a lucrative investment destination. Make in India, a flagship project launched with a vision to attract global investors to India could not flourish due to the dominating Chinese market in the region. Economic prowess further poses a direct threat to India as increased Chines military potential is a corollary of Chinese economic strength.
The 1962 War between India and China, which resulted in a humiliating defeat to India, is etched in the Indian memory. India and China boast a massive military force with China being the 3rd largest military power with a budget of 178 Billion Dollars followed by 4th largest military force India with a military budget of 61.5 Billion dollars. As of 2019, Chinese military is 5 times bigger than India. Chinese military superiority poses a direct threat to India as both share 3488 Km contentious Line of Actual Control which is neither defined, delineated nor demarcated. This has led to multiple skirmishes/standoffs across the LAC such as Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014), Doklam Standoff (2017) and the most recent one in Eastern Laddakh which has the probability to mutate into a limited war. China is a nuclear power too with almost twice the number of nuclear stockpiles as compared to India. China’s nuclear capability is the primary reason given by India for going nuclear in 1998. China is modernizing her military at a fast pace. According to a renowned Indian Defense analyst, Pravin Sawhney, Chinese capabilities in cyber, space and electromagnetic spectrum are unmatchable by India at present.
Indo-Chinese power struggle in South-Asia is not a new phenomenon. Under prevailing global environment, the struggle for regional dominance between India and China will further complicate the relationship between the two regional powers. China enjoys both military and economic dominance over India and continues to exert its influence in the region. Geo-political, economic and military irritants are likely to increase the probability of conflict in the region, in the near future. Indian policy makers view China as the primary rival towards their regional and global ambitions thus making the Indo-Chinese struggle for regional dominance an enduring one.
Abdul Wasay Ajmal is a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from National Defense University Islamabad.