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India and China: agreeing to disagree

By Rupakjyoti Borah - posted Thursday, 29 July 2010

Various observers around the world have touted the 21st century to be an Asian century, but the most important requirement for that to happen is peace and tranquility between the two Asian giants, India and China. The ties between the two neighbours have seen their highs and lows. China and India are two ancient civilisations which have coexisted in peace for millennia. The Buddhist religion and Indian cultural influence spread to China from India while many Chinese scholars studied at ancient Indian universities like Nalanda and Taxila.

However, in the post-colonial period, relations between the two countries have been dominated by conflict, mistrust, suspicion and containment.

After India’s independence in 1947, its foreign policy was based on non-alignment and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru believed in friendship between India and China, based on his vision of a "resurgent Asia", which he thought would be a bulwark against Western imperialism. But India and Nehru received a rude shock in 1962 when Chinese forces attacked India. It was followed by armed skirmishes between the two countries in 1967 and 1987. Several rounds of talks have been held to resolve the disputed boundary question, though the achievements from these are not worth mentioning.


It was the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988 that broke the ice in the frozen relations between the two countries. Incidentally, this was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to China since Jawaharlal Nehru's visit way back in 1954. The visit ended on a positive note with the two countries agreeing to continue working to achieve a "fair and reasonable settlement while seeking a mutually acceptable solution" to the border dispute.

Agreements for maintaining peace and tranquility along the disputed border were signed in 1993 and 1996 while an agreement on the guiding principles for settlement was inked in 2005. However, even after this, there have been repeated incursions into the Indian side of the border by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which have caused a big question mark to be placed over the ties. The unfortunate consequence of this has been that the 2,520-mile frontier between India and China is the only one of China’s land borders that has neither been defined nor demarcated.

Problem areas

India’s nuclear tests of 1998 dealt a further blow to the relations especially after George Fernandes, the then Indian Defence Minister, publicly referred to China as India’s “enemy number one”.

India has also been wary of Chinese attempts to encircle India through alliances with countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Indian officials in the past have voiced their concerns that China is trying to choke it by adopting a so-called "string of pearls" strategy, which includes development of ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the construction of a road from China into central Nepal and the extension of China's Qinghai-Tibet rail link to the border with Nepal. India has also conveyed its displeasure to China over the issue of stapled visas to residents of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and has objected to China's construction of a $2 billion power plant in Pakistani-held Kashmir.

In November 2009, China raised a big hue and cry over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh has been in the news with Chinese claims for more than 90,000 square kilometres of Indian territory. China questions the 1914 McMahon line which serves as the border between the two countries and argues that the area now known as Arunachal Pradesh historically belonged to Tibet and since the Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh had a tributary relationship with the Dalai Lama, China can claim the whole province of Arunachal Pradesh.

Forging co-operation

Even so, what is worth noting is that the tensions over some areas have not precluded the two countries from co-operating in others. Economic relations between the two countries have been on an upswing. While most of the major economic powerhouses of the world have been affected by recession, China and India have successfully bucked the trend and are the two fastest growing economies in the world. While China is generally referred to as the “world’s factory”, India is known as the “world’s office”- an indication of their respective strengths in manufacturing and services. The combined population of India and China is nearly 2.6 billion, which is nearly 40 per cent of the world’s total population.


The increasing co-operation between the two neighbours was in view in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, during the December 2009 Climate Change summit, which has been dubbed as the “Copenhagen spirit”. During the visit of the Indian President Pratibha Patil to China in May 2010, she and the Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed that the Asian giants were ready to consider co-operation at international groupings and venues, like G-20, Doha and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The increasingly closer interaction between the two countries was also reflected in the decision to set up a Beijing-New Delhi hotline and the camaraderie witnessed during the last BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) summit meeting in Brasilia in April 2010.

India and China also share an interest in fighting Islamist terrorism in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though China has close ties with Pakistan, it also has worries over the links of separatists in its restive Xinjiang province with Pakistan-based Islamist militants. China is also wary of the American presence in Afghanistan, though it knows that the Taliban are as much a threat to the Chinese as the Americans.

India’s trade with China is growing by leaps and bounds. Bilateral trade between India and China has increased from $3 billion in 2000 to $51 billion in 2009. China is currently India’s largest trading partner with trade volumes expected to reach $60 billion this year. Several joint ventures have been concluded between India and China and many more are in the pipeline in the field of power generation, consumer goods, steel, chemicals, minerals, mining, transport, IT and telecommunication.

In the field of defence too, India and China have witnessed collaboration. The third Annual Defence Dialogue between the two countries was held in Beijing on January 6, 2010. Besides this, joint military exercises on counter- terrorism were held in Belgaum in India in December 2008. India and China are also co-operating in many other areas like finance, agriculture, water resources, environment and tourism. An India-China Partnership in Science and Technology has been established to boost co-operation in science and technology.

Lord Palmerston, former British Prime Minister had said “there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations, only permanent interests”. This has been true of India-China relations too, particularly in the recent years; but, it will take a lot from both the two sides to take the bilateral relationship forward. The increasing attention being paid to each other is reflected in the growing number of ministerial visits, bilateral agreements and co-operation in diverse fields. Both the countries have agreed to disagree on certain issues, but have decided to move on with their ties.

India has what can be described as a “zhengyou” relationship with China rather than a “pengyou” relationship. A “pengyou” means a superficial friend while a “zhengyou” is a real friend who admits to problems in the friendship, but at the same time works hard to overcome them.

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About the Author

Rupakjyoti Borah is a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK.

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