A measured tread to the future


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THE dominant paradigm in which India-China relations are generally analyzed is essentially one of competitive power politics. Within this dominant paradigm, two broad strands may be discerned. The first entails looking at the post Cold War world as providing a new world of opportunities for cooperation in a number of fields. The competition between them takes on somewhat benign contours and far greater possibilities are visualized for the two countries to work in tandem to refashion the new emerging world order along more multipolar, democratic and equitable lines. The other strand views the two countries as locked in a ‘balance of power’ politics, their relationship characterized by rivalry for regional dominance and their long term strategies predicated on their objective of playing an influential role in the emerging world order.

These two virtually exclusivist viewpoints appear rather static and somewhat at odds with the dynamism of global politics, particularly in the post Cold War world which appears to be characterized by shifting alignments, changing interests and a more integrative approach to strategic concerns. The situation in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the socialist bloc and that which prevails in the post Kosovo world for instance, requires a far more nuanced and layered interpretation of relationships than that offered by the above approaches. Not only that, with the forces of globalization and the dominance of the capitalist world economy, a new set of forces are bearing down on old notions of power and sovereignty.

Furthermore, an entirely different set of concerns are moving onto the national agendas, viz., concerns regarding the environment, finite sources of energy, poverty and underdevelopment. Graver challenges are emerging with greater threat potential than simply military ones – cross border terrorism, narco terrorism, ethnicity and fundamentalism, among others. This is not to suggest that the strategic concerns of the past are no longer valid or that the asymmetry in India and China’s respective power positions is no longer critical. The point is that those strategic concerns and power equations have to be assessed and analyzed in new, flexible and inclusivist paradigms.

Events over the past year and a half at the global, regional and domestic levels have brought about a discernable change in the attitude of both countries towards the outstanding problems between them. A sense of urgency and greater purpose seems to mark the policy initiatives and overtures from both sides as well as the interaction and discussion between them. These developments were primarily three: the Indian nuclear explosions of May 1998, the U.S. led NATO bombings of Kosovo and the ‘mistaken’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the Pakistani adventure in Kargil. An additional factor is that of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and associated separatist movements in China’s Xinjiang province. All these can be seen as cumulatively having contributed to once again reasserting the centrality of India-China relations in the region as well as virtually elevating India in China’s worldview.

There are five sets of complex, multidimensional issues which can in fact be considered as constituting the problem areas in India-China relations. Some of these are old, others new; some a legacy of the Cold War and others a result of the fallout of the end of the Cold War. These issues are, by their very nature, unlikely to be resolved soon and will continue to exercise the minds of leaders and policy makers well into the next millennium. The manner in which the two countries deal with and mange them will shape the nature of this relationship in the years to come.



Ever since May 1998, the Indian nuclear tests have dominated India-China relations. It was not until Jaswant Singh’s visit in June 1999 that a semblance of normality returned. The problem is not just a bilateral one however. The stand that China has taken as a permanent member of the Security Council (P-5) and as one of the five nuclear nations (N-5) is also a factor in the way in which the issue will be dealt with between them. But we shall return to this later. Any analysis of India-China relations inevitably, and necessarily, begins with the border problem. This can justifiably be described as the root of all discord, the source of suspicion and mistrust and the most difficult/intractable of all problems between India and China.

It is not our objective to go into the historical background of this problem or describe the events which led to the 1962 war. Suffice it to say that despite the profusion of writing by researchers and journalists and memoirs of officials and army personnel from India, the non-availability of official records continues to be a source of frustration and amazement. Not only does it prevent a definitive and conclusive assessment, but by keeping the actual course of events under wraps, it continues to deny us the opportunity to come to terms with that debacle.



It was Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China at the end of 1988 which re-launched the India-China dialogue in general and the border question in particular at the highest political level. The setting up of a Joint Working Group (JWG) to explore the boundary question finally brought India-China negotiations out of cold storage. The expectations that the border question was finally nearing resolution did not quite materialize though. However, the decade of the nineties, till the Indian nuclear explosions, can in retrospect be seen as the most cordial phase of India-China relations since 1962.

There were two landmark agreements in 1993 and 1996: the first during Narasimha Rao’s China visit, was an Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Border Areas; the second during Li Peng’s South Asian visit was an Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. The latter was hailed as virtually a ‘no-war pact’, and between them the two agreements did manage to enhance the atmosphere of cordiality and goodwill.

There was also a slow but distinct turn in China’s South Asia policy in which a more even handed approach towards both India and Pakistan replaced the overt tilt in favour of Pakistan. This was witnessed fairly unambiguously during Jiang Zemin’s South Asia visit in November-December 1997 when he advised the Pakistanis to put the Kashmir problem on the back burner and focus on mending relations with India.

This was also their approach as far as the India-China border was concerned. The policy seemed to be to ‘temporarily shelve’ or freeze contentious issues till more propitious circumstances came to prevail. In the meanwhile, both countries would concentrate on strengthening and intensifying cultural, economic and commercial interaction geared to mutual benefit and advantage. Common interests, carefully nurtured, would thus help keep suspicion and ill-will in check. In the process, some crystallization of both government and public opinion would provide the pointer to an eventual settlement.



The approach to the border in the post nuclear period continues to be characterized by this sentiment. Given the undefined nature of the disputed areas and an inability to evolve acceptable parameters for settlement, the progress so far has been somewhat like ‘one step forward two steps back’. There are unlikely to be any dramatic breakthroughs. The argument that the uncertainty over settling the border dispute is not in India’s interests is indeed persuasive. The longer uncertainty regarding the border prevails, the greater the chances that the asymmetrical power positions, or unforeseen circumstances, or both, would once again bring the two countries on a collision path. Undoubtedly, in shelving the ‘problems left over by history’, the lessons of history must not be forgotten. The matter has to be tackled within a long term strategic perspective, evidence of which is not quite forthcoming on the Indian side. More important, both the proposals made and the understanding reached, has to be clear and unambiguous.

Yet another issue in India-China relations is that of Tibet. Officially the Chinese have admitted that the Indian government has not encouraged, fostered or promoted the Dalai Lama or his growing international profile. But the existence of a substantial Tibetan refugee population and a Tibetan government-in-exile on Indian soil does complicate the scenario. Additionally, a prominent section of the Indian elite is extremely favourably disposed towards the Tibetan aspirations for independence. Equally, within the community of Indian strategic analysts, there are some who champion the notion of an independent Tibet acting as a buffer between India and China. Chinese strategic literature has often expressed doubts about India’s adherence/commitment to Tibet being a part of China.



Under the circumstances, there seems to be virtually no likelihood of any change in India’s official policy as regards Tibet. Any other option, given the current power balance, would be nothing short of folly. As it is China loses no opportunity to condemn/protest what it sees as Indian acquiescence in the activities of the Tibetan ‘splittists’. The point may be made that perhaps there is not enough appreciation in India about Chinese apprehensions regarding Indian intentions vis-a-vis Tibet. The post Pokhran II phase in fact saw the reiteration of pro Tibetan sentiments in India, though the Government of India quickly distanced itself from such sentiments. The defence minister’s views on the Tibetan question will be sure to create problems as well.

The Indian nuclear tests threw into sharp relief Indian concerns about Pakistan’s China connection and the nature of nuclear cooperation between them. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese policy towards the subcontinent in the post Cold War period has been undergoing a change in favour of a more even handed approach. In their reaction to the Indian, and shortly thereafter the Pakistani, nuclear tests, the Chinese were far more critical of India than Pakistan. They saw the latter as essentially reactive in nature compared to the Indian tests, which were seen as without any provocation. Of course, Vajpayee’s letter to Clinton had been responsible for much of the harshness of the Chinese reaction.



There is a fairly strong conviction within India that Pakistan’s nuclear build up and technological knowhow is largely of China’s making. As pointed out in the context of the discussion on Tibet, there is insufficient appreciation in India regarding the Chinese apprehensions about Indian intentions vis-a-vis Tibet. However, the same could easily be said about Indian apprehensions regarding the nature and extent of Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear build up, which is obviously targeted at India.

In June 1999 for instance, even as the Kargil conflict was underway, China and Pakistan signed an agreement to develop and manufacture an indigenous advanced fighter aircraft, the Super 7. As usual the Chinese government claimed that the arms deal was not aimed at any third country and only meant to provide ‘self-defence capability to Pakistan’ with whom they have a ‘time tested friendship’. However, the Chinese made a special effort to project what has been termed a ‘neutral’ posture during the Kargil conflict. It could be argued that the absence of an unambiguously pro Pakistan statement in a situation where a clear violation of international norms had occurred, does not entirely amount to ‘neutrality’. Nonetheless, by not supporting Pakistan in a clearcut manner, the Chinese position, along with that of the U.S. and a large majority of the international community, contributed to bringing the Kargil conflict to an end with greater dispatch. To that extent the Chinese attitude was widely welcomed in India. Nonetheless, Pakistan is likely to be a rather long term factor in India-China relations.

Pokhran II constituted the second major occasion since 1962 (the first being the Sumdurong Chu incident of 1986) in which India-China relations became crisis ridden. It is not our objective to go into the events and developments of the post May 1998 period which are only too well known by now. Suffice it to say that the sharp and bitter exchanges that followed raised grave doubts about the validity of the general belief that India-China relations had achieved a mature and more enduring basis for the resolution of their outstanding problems.



In the initial phase of the post Pokhran II period, there were two dimensions to the Chinese position. The first related to the implications of Vajpayee’s letter to Clinton in which he cited China as the major reason for India’s nuclear tests. This angered (and also hurt) the Chinese tremendously, causing a setback to the process of confidence building that had been underway. (So much so that the Chinese unilaterally decided to indefinitely postpone the JWG meeting.) Not only was it seen as having been done with ‘the purpose of finding an excuse for the development of (India’s) nuclear weapons,’ but it also had the effect of pushing aside the substantive aspect of the questions pertaining to India-China relations raised by Pokhran II.

The second aspect related to the Chinese stand as a P-5 and N-5 member. The post Cold War has seen the Chinese placing a great deal of emphasis on their role as a responsible and responsive member of the global community and as a major upholder of the global nonproliferation regime. They have therefore been reiterating the Security Council decision 1172 that India should sign the NPT and in effect roll back its nuclear programme. In other words, there is no question of recognizing either India or Pakistan as nuclear powers. This has also prevented them from extending the benefit of their own earlier logic of self-defence for going nuclear to India. They in fact stress the drastically different global situation of 1964 (the year the Chinese exploded their nuclear device) to that prevailing in 1998. The world opinion is now definitely against nuclear weapons and India is going ‘against the tide of the times’ quite apart from having forced Pakistan to follow suit and thus unleashed an arms race in the subcontinent. In the Chinese view, nuclear competition, and therefore instability, in South Asia has to be taken very seriously indeed and the onus for this lies squarely with India.



As mentioned earlier, it was Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh’s visit to China in June 1999 that finally ‘untied the knot’ in bilateral relations caused by the May 1988 nuclear tests. This brought about a definite change in Chinese attitude and behaviour. First, they agreed to put the ‘hurt’ behind them as indicated in their acceptance of Singh’s explanation that India did not consider China a threat. The contradiction between the position of the Indian defence minister and the foreign minister was glossed over. This, while impliying a certain understanding on the part of the Chinese of the logic of India going nuclear, did not exempt India from signing the CTBT and the NPT. That, according to the official Chinese view, would be the best conclusion possible to the nuclear imbroglio in the region.



Second, they responded positively to Singh’s proposal for a security dialogue, the nature and contents of which would be decided over a period of time. A security dialogue had been mooted before Pokhran II which had not gone very far. There continues to be a great deal of ambiguity about the levels at which this dialogue should be initiated and the gamut of issues that would be addressed. It is also not clear at this stage how the two countries would tackle the nuclear issue, though the need to bring it into the ambit of discussions has been recognized.

It has been suggested at non official levels that although China would be unable, and unwilling, to accept India as a de jure nuclear power, a de facto acceptance could form a basis of the discussions in a separate dialogue between them. Given that understanding, proposals regarding ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons cannot be made or considered within formal, governmental frameworks.

There have also been suggestions that the above need not be a hindrance to the security dialogue, since a clause in the 1996 Agreement about neither side using its ‘military capability’ against the other can be interpreted broadly to include nuclear capability as well. It is obvious, therefore, that this is a complex issue and one is not at all certain about the depth and range of the meeting ground between them, particularly as regards the strategic situation in South Asia, the post Kosovo situation and the common concerns regarding the U.S. notwithstanding. The positive fallout has been with regard to the common perception that confidence building measures have not only to be revived, but also intensified.

An issue which is certain to take on bigger and wider dimensions not just at the bilateral and regional but also at the global level, is that of Islamic fundamentalism and cross border terrorism and the shape that these may acquire. The Chinese are apprehensive that this could well escalate into something more serious, particularly in the light of the developments in Xinjiang. It may be recalled that the violent campaign launched by the Uygurs since the mid-nineties has gradually intensified and the likelihood of its escalation into a separatist or secessionist movement could well spin beyond the capacity of the Chinese state to handle.



There have been reports of riots, bombings, killings, assassinations of Uygur leaders who are perceived as ‘pro Chinese’ and demonstrations of independence. There is sufficient evidence that the Chinese are taking this matter seriously, though they view the problem essentially as a domestic one. The official media has projected it as a ‘law and order’ problem and the government has adopted tough measures, including legislation of anti-terrorist laws to deal with what is seen as seriously ‘harming national security’. Barely a month ago, 18 Muslim separatists were sentenced to between one and 15 years in prison for spreading ‘splittist theories’ in Xinjiang and ‘for undermining the unity of the motherland.’

Pakistan’s role in instigating cross border terrorism and insurgency in Kashmir has been a grave problem for India, particularly since the government of Pakistan has acknowledged that it continues to provide moral, political and diplomatic support to the militants in Kashmir. That support lately took the form of actual hostilities as Pakistan sent its regular troops in the guise of militants into Indian territory resulting in a heavy loss of lives. As India moves towards cooperation and consultation, especially with Russia and the United States against state sponsored and cross border terrorism, China’s own worries over Pakistan’s role in this regard and the possibility of spillover effects of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, would require some action on its part.



At the domestic level, China is likely to continue to step up efforts to control and contain the wave of unrest and violence unleashed by the ‘national separatists and religious extremists.’ On the external front, China would most likely take up the issue with Pakistan, as it reportedly already has, as well as discuss ways and means with Russia and other countries of Central Asia, particularly Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan for building a broader defence against this threat. This is thus an important issue on which India and China are likely to hold broadly similar and common positions.

The problem is two fold: on the one hand, the economic development of these areas which are quite backward with large pockets of poverty and the absence of adequate educational and health facilities, which in many ways is the root of the problem, has to be accorded top priority. On the other, the state has to control violence without facing criticism about human rights violations, thereby inviting international intervention. The need for a common platform to counter external pressure and evolve common strategies is therefore quite compelling and we are likely to see definite steps in this direction in the future.

The ‘mistaken’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia by the U.S. led to a strong anti-U.S. wave in China and a reassessment of the PRC’s global strategy. The post Kosovo world is clearly a unipolar one, dominated by the U.S. which gives a new edge to the problem of hegemonism. A fresh impetus was thus provided to the process of creating new alliances and strengthening relationships since it was clearly beyond the capacity of any one single country to meet the emerging challenges. This has led to a renewed emphasis on India-China relations and their role in the global scenario. It is in this context that the revival of the India-China-Russia strategic alliance has to be understood.

Indo-Russian relations have generally been on an upswing in the post Cold War period with the Russians strongly supporting India’s claim for permanent membership of the Security Council and the signing of agreements on the transfer of advanced technology and strengthening military ties. On the other hand, the Chinese and the Russians entered into a ‘strategic partnership’ in November 1998 during Jiang Zemin’s visit to Russia. This was aimed at blocking ‘the development of elements of confrontation in their relations, [and] encourage cooperation.’ It was also sought to be made clear that this was not an alliance or aimed against third countries.



It was in March 1999, during Russian Prime Minister Primakov’s India visit, that the idea of a strategic alliance between India, China and Russia was mooted. At that point, neither China nor India responded positively. The post Kosovo situation saw the revival of this concept, which in any case had never been fleshed out properly and the contours of which have yet to take shape. The Chinese response this time round, at least at the unofficial levels, has been slightly different.

It cannot be denied though that the impetus for the alliance has been the recognition of the undoubtedly arrogant military offensive launched by the U.S. and the possibilities for intervention in their own backyards. There is a recognition by all three countries that this is indeed a unipolar moment in international relations. Despite the formal status of Russia and China in the United Nations, the ease with which the U.S. overrode all protest and virtually ignored these countries in launching its bombings, must undoubtedly have been a jolt, if not a shock.



There is certainly no intention to antagonize the U.S. since all three countries have a huge stake in the maintenance of normal relations with the sole superpower. The Chinese have also consistently reiterated their ‘peaceful, independent and non-allied foreign policy formulated by Deng Xiaoping.’ Russia and India as well, no less than China, are in need of advanced technology and are dependent on aid from the U.S. dominated global financial and economic institutions. The relationship of each of these countries with the U.S. involves aspects of both ‘contention and collusion’, which is not easy to resolve. In fact, over the last year, all three had to face up to this duality in a major way.

Last June, Russia was in deep economic crisis and had to be bailed out with massive World Bank assistance. Clearly, this would not have been possible without U.S. concurrence. During the Kargil conflict, the U.S. prevailed upon Pakistan to bring an early end to what could easily have been for India (as also for Pakistan) an extremely long drawn and costly affair, both in terms of human casualties and hardware. And most recently, the agreement between the U.S. and China on the latter’s entry to the WTO, has seen the Chinese making wide ranging concessions to U.S. commercial interests, despite the friction between them over the bombing of their embassy. Many of these concessions are in fact related to issues on which the Chinese had long refused to compromise.



Each of the three countries thus came up against situations which offered very little by way of alternatives, virtually forcing them to accept and reconcile with the enormous power and capability of the U.S. The proposed ‘strategic alliance’ will thus have to take into account this objective reality.

In all probability therefore, it will not be the strategic aspects of the alliance which will be the focus of initial discussions, and in the short term the three countries will be negotiating more in the bilateral mode. There would obviously be a more determined effort to explore economic exchanges, discuss the areas of common concern such as environmental problems, energy requirements, cross border terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and possibilities of military cooperation. Efforts would also be directed towards projecting the relationship as an exercise in regional cooperation rather than as an emerging pole in the post Cold War world.

In addition to the objective reality of the global scenario, which imposes definite limits on this trilateral relationship, there are certain realities of the India-China relationship in particular which would act as constraining factors. For one, there does not appear to be any definite opinion in favour of such an alliance in either China or India, either at the official level or within the semi-official think tanks and research community. There seems to be at best a guarded sort of ‘wait and watch’ attitude.

Second, there are far too many hurdles in their relations which need to be sorted out before any shared strategic perspective, either at the global or regional level, can emerge. Moreover, China would at this point be extremely reluctant to appear on a common platform with India on the strategic situation in South Asia. Such a step would run counter to its policy of broad neutrality towards India and Pakistan, which was most recently in evidence during the Kargil conflict. Besides, the Chinese would never discard their ‘time tested’ relationship with Pakistan, particularly at a time when the nuclear factor has complicated power equations in the subcontinent. It cannot be denied, however, that the alliance of these three substantially independent powers could prove to be a major countervailing group, if the idea does get off the ground.



Despite the rather uneven and at times slow progress in sorting out problems, and the unfortunate ease with which suspicions and tensions seem to flare up, a realistic assessment of the manner in which new conditions and opportunities could be utilized, needs to be undertaken. The process of engaging the two countries at various levels and on as broad a front as possible should gather greater momentum. This would facilitate airing of doubts, continuous debates on wide ranging issues, and help enlarge areas and avenues of cooperation.

India-China relations in the years to come should make resolute attempts at shedding the baggage of the past. An unnecessary romanticizing of the past should be avoided. The positive aspects of earlier policies such as Panchsheel should be reiterated and refurbished with the new reality. There are miles to go and a realistic discourse would be the first step.