Are India and China destined to be adversaries?

Editor: Manas Gubbi
April 8, 2021

The two Asian giants, India and China, with their demographic and economic clout, have led to the shifting of the center of gravity of the world from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific- signifying the rise of the Asian system.1 In this Asian Century, the future of Asia and the globe are going to be intricately linked to the evolution of the relationship between India and China,2 the ‘Rim-land’ countries,3 which are rapidly emerging as the geographical fulcrum of the 21st century.4

The recent discourse on Sino-Indian relationship is negatively coloured by the bloodshed at Galwan that took place on June 15, 2020. The actions of China on the border in Ladakh represent an abrupt disruption of the modus vivendi that was characterised as the Rajiv Gandhi–Deng Xiaoping consensus.5 Though disengagement at the Pangong Tso is a welcome step, the military standoff at the three friction points- Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang plains, is yet to be resolved.6 This bloodshed at the border and the resultant hostility, which is termed by Brahma Chellany as the ‘tipping point’7 raises an important question- Are the two geographical neighbours destined to be adversaries?

Evolution of the relationship

The Civilisation States8– India and China – had mutual interactions in terms of trade, travellers and the teachings, in the ancient past. Most notable has been the spread of Buddhism from India to the East-including China.9 China’s relationship with British India was largely adversarial, directed by the colonial hand of the Empire. Indians were perceived by the Chinese as tools of Anglo-American diplomacy.10 Over a period of time, the relative differences in each other’s historical evolution and contextual experiences shaped their worldview in a vastly different manner.11 

After the Chinese aggression in Tibet, for the first time, the two civilisations became immediate neighbours. China has evolved as an inward-looking power with deep suspicions about the external world. The relative isolation of China and its apparent lack of appreciation of global reality has been termed as the Great State Autism.12 China’s intentions and ambitions were probably mis-read by India, when it came to the dispute regarding borders. The result was the 1962 conflict, which left deep scars on the Indian psyche and cemented Chinese position in Indian consciousness as an untrustworthy adversary.

India made several attempts to rebuild the relationship with China. However, China had a different prism of looking at India. The 1998 nuclear test by India, the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement and the India-specific exemption by the NSG may have contributed to Chinese fears about Indo-US alignment. The resultant Chinese aggressive strategy is characterised by Brahma Chellany as “wen shui zhu qingwa” in Chinese language, meaning ‘slowly heat the water to kill the frog.’ 13 The evolution of the foreign policy of both nations during these times followed different trajectories. Presently, strong nationalist leadership in both countries and the climate of deep mistrust tends to define the bilateral issues as a zero-sum game

From the Indian perspective, there is a need to realistically assess the asymmetry between the two countries in terms of their economy, military and their respective international clout. Indian assessment about China fluctuates along a spectrum, with a hostile China at one end and a friendly China on the other.14 To maintain peace with China, India has been too sensitive to Chinese concerns. Such sensitivity has been missing in Chinese approach towards India. The behaviour of China in the context of India, at the bilateral, regional and global fora, have given enough reasons to suspect China’s intentions vis-a-vis India’s aspirations. The examples are Chinese obstructionism when it comes to India’s proposal for United Nations Security Council reform, demand for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the issue of cross-border terrorism.15 The bilateral relationship between the two countries can be analyzed along the following  seven prominent dimensions.


After the occupation of Tibet, China has claimed Aksai Chin in Ladakh in the western sector in India and it refuses to accept McMahon line as the legal boundary in the eastern sector. However, the same line has been accepted by China while settling its border issue with Myanmar.16 China maintains ambiguity and displays a lack of urgency in dealing with the border issue. This has led to skirmishes on the border whenever India tries to defend against the Salami-slicing manoeuvre by China. These actions and assertiveness of China are not only a challenge, but may turn out to be a security nightmare for India.17 The incongruence in the perception of both countries, about where the actual border lies, adds fuel to the fire. But what India sees as betrayal, China considers it strategy. The deployment of deception as a strategy is celebrated in Chinese folklore.18 China needs to take firm steps to settle the neighbours’ anxieties, who see the Chinese expansionism as Lebensraum.19


Reports suggest that China plans to build 60GW hydro-electric projects on the Brahmaputra River.20 China has recently approved a Mega Project on the Yarlung Tsangpo in the Grand Canyon that it forms before it enters the Indian territory.21 This dam, which would be located in an active seismic zone, would produce nearly three times more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. The construction of  large dams and the probable plans for diversion of the water towards the north by China, may have significant negative impacts22 on the interests of downstream countries. It is an expression of hydro-politics, rightfully viewed as a threat by India.23 The fact that China has not signed a single water-sharing agreement with any of its lower riparian states,24 speaks volumes about Chinese intent. Despite occasional assurances from China against diversion, there are good reasons to believe that faced with the water crisis, China would not hesitate to act in its narrow self-interest.25 The unilateral punitive suspension of hydrological data sharing arrangement by China in 2017 stands as an example of China’s coercive approach.26 There is a need to build an alliance with other lower riparian states to negotiate with China and evolve a water-sharing architecture for South Asia.  


Regarding bilateral trade, China insists on de-coupling of trade and border issues. China is presently the largest trade partner of India, $92.68 billion in 2019, though the imports from China in India have gone down after the recent clashes in Galwan.27 Chinese investments do play a role in the growth of unicorns in India, as nearly $4b were invested into Indian Start-ups in 2019.28 But this falls short of the $20b investment which was promised in 2014 by the Chinese leadership.29 Despite recent decline, the trade deficit for India with China is nearly $46b, which is unsustainable.30 China has been less sympathetic to Indian concerns about ballooning trade deficit, despite representations from the Indian side. China continues to create roadblocks to the entry of Indian software sector, pharmaceuticals and the automotive exports in its market.31 This unfair approach of China fails to inspire confidence in India. It is pertinent to mention that India needs to build a strong economic foundation for her to exercise global influence.


India, due to her geographic extent and geo-strategic location, has a prominent position not only in S.Asia, but also the Indo-Pacific. Through her Neighbourhood First policy, India aspires to project herself as a major power32 in Asia. China too, seeks to extend its footprint in S.Asia by enlarging its sphere of influence. The intense contestation for influence by the two giants in the neighbourhood countries makes such participation a zero-sum game. The aggressive engagement by China in India’s neighbourhood33 and countering of Indian interests, has been termed as the Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.34 Examples are Chinese support to Pakistan, its stand on Kashmir and the political interference in Nepal, to name a few. 

In these countries, China is not only using its hard power, but is also deploying its Ruan Shili, which in mandarin translates as soft power, to achieve its strategic goals.35 In the words of C. Raja Mohan, while the two countries follow their own respective versions of Monroe Doctrine, they are bound to step over each other’s toes. Being hybrid powers- land and sea- the competition may spill over the adjoining seas in the form of String of Pearls vs. Necklace of Diamonds.36 This is termed as the Nested Security Dilemma, which refers to the negative externality of this competition on the interests of neighbouring countries.37 In this context, India’s choices – to protect her interests and to expand her strategic autonomy – depend on her engagement with two groups of countries. The first group comprises the countries in her neighbourhood and the other being the countries in China’s neighbourhood.

The Blue Waters

India envisions herself as the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which she considers as her strategic backyard. However, due to limitation of matching material capabilities, India realises that she needs to cooperate with the like-minded nations to evolve governance architecture for the IOR.38 Similarly, the S.China Sea is economically important for Indian interests, in terms of oil and gas exploration, and freedom of navigation as per international norms.39 For its own purported economic interests, China unveiled and began the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese expectation that India would eventually align with the BRI was shattered by the determined refusal by India to join the same.40 The Indian opposition to the project was cemented when China announced the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Further, the Chinese proposal to develop a number of ports in the Indian Ocean— Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar—has raised security concerns in India. The Chinese expansionist behaviour and the incidents occurring at the northern border strengthen the narrative of these ports being a strategic enterprise rather than an economic one. 


India aims for the rise of Asia, which has adequate space for the growth of both the neighbours–India and China. However, the vision of the Chinese leadership is unipolar Asia led by China.41 China’s rising military power, economic dominance and technological advancement—compounded by growing nationalism in the domestic sphere—may increase friction with India, as both countries jostle for their rightful place under the Sun. As Harsh Pant mentions, the actions by China in the recent past tend to give an impression that China does not respect Indian security concerns and is dismissive of India as a major global power.42 India needs to understand the way in which China perceives the world. It is possible that Chinese behaviour towards India is a part of this larger calculus, rather than just the bilateral equation.

One cannot deny the role that Tibet plays in colouring the Chinese perception against India.43 Without a quid-pro-quo, India had accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Yet China continues to harbour doubts about India’s intentions. The existing misunderstanding needs to be addressed soon, as the Dalai Lama succession issue may create uncertainties in future. Through dialogue and appropriate signaling, both countries need to build trust and settle the unresolved historical issues- including the border.44 But the fact is that China has nearly 17 territorial disputes—on land and the sea—with its neighbours.45 China needs to deal with the countries in the world as equals, not from the primordial notions of its superiority. The Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks about “a community of common future for mankind”, but the inspiration for the same seems to be drawn from the concept of Tianxia– all under heaven as a one family.46 It highlights the centrality of China, The Middle Kingdom, in the future world order, displacing the USA. In his book, On China (2011), Henry Kissinger says that China is not comfortable with the Westphalian system.47 It is through this prism that China looks at India’s relationship with the USA. It may prefer India to remain a developing country and a sub-regional neighbour who doesn’t challenge its dominant position, either in Asia or globally. The foreign policy of China seems to disregard the rise and the influence of India, as it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge India as an independent global player.48 This explains China’s persistent obstructionist approach to the Indian interests.  


The Quadrilateral Initiative —between USA, Japan, Australia and India—was established in 2007 as an initiative from the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe.49 The initial attempts to formalise it as a military arrangement were thwarted by the strong reaction from the Chinese establishment.50 Australia and India were wary of provoking the Dragon and being viewed as a part of anti-China alliance. The gradual escalation of tensions between China and the members of the Quad, especially India, led to re-evaluation of the choices of these nations. The Chinese insensitivity towards India’s interests and aspirations, China’s announcement of CPEC as a flagship project, India’s refusal to join BRI, China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, India’s assertive stance in geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, and the recent aggression by China in the Western sector, represent the gradual erosion of mutual trust. The two countries seem to be locked in a negative spiral, with each successive step leading to escalation of tension between the two. According to the security analyst Brahma Chellaney, the Chinese aggression in Ladakh region of India was a precipitating factor for a fundamental shift in the Indian approach towards the Quad.51 India not only shed her initial reluctance and ambivalence, but decisively agreed to define the grouping in military terms. The Chinese enterprise of the BRI and the CPEC has convinced India to move closer to the US and collaborate with regional powers to evolve structures like Quad, BIMSTEC and IOR-ARC, to maintain the balance of power in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.52

By calling it the ‘Asian NATO’, China attempts to shape the narrative regarding the Quad. India needs to be careful not to get trapped in the Chinese discourse on the issue. India’s approach to the Quad has to be interpreted from the prism of plurality and strategic autonomy, that form the fundamental basement complex of the Indian Foreign Policy. With the global order in a flux, India seeks to restructure her choice architecture in a manner that protects and promotes her national interests in the region and beyond. In this context, the Quad allows India to enlarge the choices available to effectively deal with the Chinese attempts to freeze the existing asymmetry in the bilateral relationship. Yet, one cannot conclude that Indian agenda in the Quad is ‘Containment of China’, a concept central to the foreign policy of the United States of America. Rather, India supports a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific which is inclusive.53 This clearly highlights that India supports China’s presence in the region, albeit in a rule-based framework evolved through consensus. The Quad grouping, utilising its diplomatic weight, can convince the Dragon that it can emerge as a major global power, but only if it adheres to rules evolved to secure peace and stability in the region and beyond.54

However, the mere presence of the United States of America, the characterisation of the Quad as the ‘Arc of Democracy’, and the common binding glue of Anti-China sentiment, is bound to ruffle Chinese feathers. In the Covid19 Pandemic, the recent decision by the Quad to promote India as the base for vaccine manufacturing, has dented China’s plans to dominate the Vaccine Silk Route.55 The disruption in the global supply chains during the pandemic and the excessive dependence of these chains on China, especially for semiconductors and the rare-earths, has led to initiatives like Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) by Japan, Australia and India, and the “rare-earth procurement chain” by the Quad members.56 

In the similar context, the concepts of the ‘Quad Plus’ and the ‘Blue Dot Network’ offer India a platform to increase her participation in global supply chains. This would boost exports and propel the Quad as an economic alliance for India.57 At the time when the Sino-US relations have reached a nadir, India would be walking on the razor’s edge, as these developments may negatively influence future Chinese actions towards India. The Chinese newspaper, Global Times, has already described Quad as a negative asset for the BRICS.58 

The way forward 

In the light of their geographical proximity and their aspirations, both the countries would try to follow, in the words of Shiv Shankar Menon, a minimax policy—minimizing threats and maximising gains. Both countries, located at the heart of the global geopolitics of the 21st century, aim to shape the global order, which is in flux presently. In such a situation, it is natural that both would have to learn to deal with one another, for the Dragon and the Elephant to tango.59 China needs to show a greater understanding of India’s pursuit of her interests and the Indian doctrine of multi-alignment.60 China also needs to be mindful of the fact that adversarial relationship with a major rising power like India is not in the interest of Chinese aspirations for global leadership. If a reset is to be attempted by both countries, it is China who would have to show greater flexibility in making amends, as it has clearly more to lose from bilateral confrontation than India.61 The bilateral relationship  may remain adversarial in the near future— with elements of cooperation and competition, both. In essence, the mantra can be—“Cooperation when feasible, Competition when necessary; but Communication at all times.” 

The other C- Confrontation, though sometimes may become inevitable, is better if avoided by following the principles of Panchsheel.62 The former Foreign Secretary of India Shivshankar Menon argues in his book, ‘Choices’, the prime objective of the Indian foreign policy must be to create conditions favourable for the growth, transformation and rise of India. India needs to work with the like-minded democratic countries, regionally and globally, in weaving a Spider-Web that alters the external incentive structure available to China. India can be assertive, yet supportive of China, by evolving an appropriate choice architecture that nudges the Chinese towards a more cooperative stance. A confident India need not necessarily be confrontational. However, India needs to take concrete steps to encourage Chinese scholarship, including language and culture, to be able to deal with it better. It is pertinent to quote the historian Jacques Barzun, who had said, 

“To see ourselves as others see us is a valuable gift, without doubt. 

But in international relations what is still rarer and far more useful is to see others as they see themselves.”63 

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.


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Adinath Rohamare
Adinath Rohamare
5 days ago

This article was very insightful , covering all the dimensions of this India-China relationship

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