India-China: a zero-sum rivalry?


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LOOKING back at 2017, future historians may well see the year as a point of inflection in India’s relations with China. The two countries were engaged in the longest military stand-off since the Samdorong Chu crisis of the late 1980s. The significance of this stand-off, however, will likely be regarded as broader than the number of days it took to resolve the situation without recourse to force. Rather, it may be seen as symbolizing and accentuating the Sino-Indian rivalry – one that was driven by factors other than the traditional bilateral problems of the disputed boundary and the question of Tibet. To be sure, it is a risky venture to anticipate the judgment of posterity: not least because the manner in which historians will see these times will depend on the state of India-China relations in their own times. All the same, the prognosis for the relationship is not particularly positive after the developments of 2017.

The Sino-Indian relationship has passed through three broad phases in the past seven decades. In the first phase from 1950 to 1958 the development of bilateral ties was enabled by their ability to cooperate on wider issues, ranging from the Korean War to Afro-Asian solidarity. Their subsequent inability to resolve or manage disputes over the boundary and Tibet set the stage not only for the war of 1962 but also a cold peace that persisted until 1989. During these three decades, the boundary dispute dogged the relationship and both countries struggled to craft a fresh paradigm of engagement.

The meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Rajiv Gandhi in December 1988 inaugurated a new phase in the relationship. It was based on the understanding that the unresolved dispute should not hold the relationship hostage and that they needed a peaceful external environment to focus on their economic development. Over the next two decades, India and China managed to stabilize the LAC and made substantive progress on the boundary dispute. More importantly, their economic ties strengthened and they cooperated again on the global stage.

We are now in another phase where core disputes are quiescent yet both countries seem unable to respect each other’s key concerns. This stems from the growing strategic footprints and economic heft of both countries. China has registered its presence on India’s land and maritime periphery for some years now. But its footprint in these areas is set to increase considerably. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative ties South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region to China’s global economic and strategic ambitions in an unprecedented fashion. In this larger context, China is less willing to be solicitous of India’s long-standing concerns about such issues as terrorism emanating from Pakistan or Chinese naval activity close to Indian waters. Hence Beijing’s continued support for Pakistan based terrorist outfits in international forums and its aggressive drive to shore up ties with countries in India’s neighbourhood – the controversial Free Trade Agreement with Maldives is only the latest episode.


India too is a rising power with its own economic and geopolitical interests. Notwithstanding the asymmetry of power between the two countries, India’s widening circle of interests does rub up against China’s growing strategic activism. This is evident, for instance, in India’s increasingly vocal stance on the South China Seas. Apart from concerns about disruption of trade that might arise from the ongoing militarization of the maritime disputes in the area, India now sees itself as an ‘Indo-Pacific’ power with geopolitical interests in ensuring that China does not unilaterally alter the rules of the game in the entire region.1 Similarly, China’s attempts to thwart India’s membership in the Nuclear Supplier Group cut against New Delhi’s desire for a greater role in the international security order.

In short, the major sources of friction in India-China relations now arise not from the older bilateral disputes but wider issues. The major developments of 2017 – India’s stance on the Belt and Road Initiative, the Doklam stand-off, the launch of a formal quadrilateral dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia – reflected and accentuated this new trend.

The year began with intimations of greater cooperation between China and India on economic issues – harking back to the early months of Prime Minister Modi’s tenure before the relationship began to head South. The advent of Donald Trump called into question the continuation of a stable, open international economic order – one that benefited both China and India. In this context it was desirable, as the Indian Foreign Secretary observed, to aim at ‘a more stable, substantive, forward looking India-China relationship.’2


Yet, the fact remained that the changing global context impinges upon China and India rather differently. The prospect of a trade war sparked off by Trump’s imposition of tariffs is surely a major cause for concern to the Chinese leadership. But they also know that United States does not hold all the chips. For one thing, China can retaliate against American exports on a range of things from aircrafts to soya bean. More importantly, American tariffs will undercut global value chains and the accompanying deep integration of regulatory systems – commercial laws, taxation, intellectual property rights – fostered assiduously by the United States in the past. While this will hurt China in the short run, it also provides Beijing an opening to reorient economic integration in Asia under its leadership and on more congenial terms. Indeed, given the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the rolling out of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing possibly has the perfect setting in which to pursue a more ambitious agenda of connectivity and integration across Eurasia.

Unlike Beijing, New Delhi does not have many cards to play. Despite repeated avowals of interest, India’s record in fostering economic integration even in the subcontinent is under-whelming. Nevertheless, New Delhi firmly refused to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative. India’s refusal to join the jamboree in Beijing in May 2017 was justified on the grounds that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor violates India’s sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir, and that the entire initiative was not transparent or consultative. Thereafter, India and Japan announced the launch of an ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’.


Politically, too, India began playing an active role in crafting a coalition of like-minded powers that were concerned about China’s growing aspirations and clout. This fit well with the Trump administration’s desire for a closer strategic relationship with India. Announcing his policy towards Afghanistan-Pakistan in August 2017, the US president pointedly stated that the United States had been ‘paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.’

In the most significant departure from past policy, Trump went on to accord India a critical role in its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Acknowledging India’s contributions (to the tune of $3 billion) to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, he added: ‘but 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.’ The strategic partnership with India would now encompass South Asia as well as the Indo-Pacific.3

New Delhi naturally welcomed this announcement as it suggested that Pakistan might not be as great a stumbling block in India-US relations as it had been in the past. Although there was skepticism about how far the Trump administration would actually go in holding Pakistan accountable for terrorism, there was also relief that India’s strategic relations with the United States would continue to grow under Trump. Meanwhile, political ties between US and China were turning cold over the latter’s unwillingness to lean as heavily on North Korea as the former desired.


It was in this context that the Japanese proposal of reviving quadrilateral cooperation was embraced by India and the United States as well as Australia. Yet the United States remains the most unpredictable element in this arrangement. The Trump administration needs China to prevent the situation in Korea from boiling over. More importantly, the US president’s short-sighted and temperamental approach to international affairs is well established and will cast a shadow on the functioning of the quadrilateral too. The manner in which longstanding allies such as Britain and Australia have been treated in the past few months does not inspire confidence about the strategic reliability of the United States.

At the same time, the challenge of coping with Chinese presence on India’s strategic periphery is unlikely to diminish. If anything this is likely to increase – as suggested by the Doklam stand-off. The crisis stemmed from China’s decision to construct a road in the area disputed with Bhutan and adjoining the Indian state of Sikkim. Although India-China have an international border in Sikkim going back to the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890, the boundary between Tibet and Bhutan is disputed and hence the location of the trijunction remains contested.

The Chinese decision to unilaterally build a road stemmed from multiple considerations. At the operational level, the Chinese have long sought to widen their room for manoeuvre in this area. The construction of the road could enable them to outflank Indian military deployments in East Sikkim and make straight for the vital Siliguri corridor connecting West Bengal with the northeastern states. Strategically, the Chinese have sought to maintain their edge in border infrastructure and ensure that India does not catch up. Hence, the new forms of Chinese military activity along the border over the past five years. At the political level, the Chinese move signalled the acceleration of Sino-Indian competition along the South Asian periphery. By picking on Bhutan, Beijing was clearly testing New Delhi’s ties with its closest partner in the region.


Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this prolonged stand-off was the unwillingness of both sides to use opportunities for diplomatic settlement until late in the day. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Beijing in May 2015, India and China issued a well considered joint statement. The first section of the document, subtitled ‘Strengthening Political Dialogue and Strategic Communication’, stated: ‘Full use will be made of the opportunities provided by the presence of their leaders at various multilateral fora to hold consultations on bilateral relations and issues of regional and global importance.’4

Yet, when such an opportunity was presented at the G20 summit, both sides went out of their way to insist that they had not sought a meeting. Against the backdrop of a serious stand-off along the border, there could be no starker proof of the increasingly zero-sum character of Sino-Indian relations.

Eventually, both sides did well in agreeing to a sequenced withdrawal and in refusing to comment on what, if any, understanding had been reached with China’s plans to build a road in the area. Beijing’s desire to secure the Indian prime minister’s attendance at the BRICS summit was evidently the main reason for their agreeing to a mutual withdrawal after dismissing the idea for several weeks. It is not clear, however, that either side has drawn the right conclusions from this incident.


While the Chinese official and media pronouncements persist with the tone of condescending overconfidence, the Indian strategic community has not been clear-eyed either. Many in the latter claimed that the Chinese backed down because their verbal threats failed to work and they were in a weaker military position in the area. A combination of resolve and tough-minded diplomacy, it was argued, could prevent future military stand-offs with China from escalating.

This chain of reasoning is not just dubious, but also potentially problematic, for these ‘lessons’ might well end up making future crises more difficult to resolve. The Doklam stand-off needs to be seen for what it was: an indication of the steady deterioration in the ability of India and China to deal with such situations.

Did China agree to a mutual pull-out because threats failed to work? This is true in so far as India did not unilaterally pull its forces out of the area. But it is also a misleading claim because the Chinese threats did force India to take the situation seriously and embark on a sustained attempt at diplomatic resolution in the later stages of the stand-off. Did India enjoy a local military advantage in this stand-off? This may be true in a tactical sense. The Doka La post held by the Indian Army dominates the area below where the actual stand-off took place. But to extrapolate from this and claim that India has stronger logistics in the area or even a military upper hand over the Chinese in the Chumbi Valley is to betray an ignorance of the terrain and operational realities.


Strikingly absent in Indian commentary was any recognition of the most fundamental consideration from the Chinese standpoint. After all, the Chinese would have weighed the option of escalation against the interests at stake for them in building a road in Doklam. And the fact is that this is not an area of serious strategic interest for them. Certainly not important enough to have a military showdown with India and a consequent break with Bhutan. If anything, the Doklam area is of greater strategic importance for India, which is why India was so keen to forestall the Chinese move. In other words, the most salient aspect of the stand-off was the balance of interests between the two sides – and it was tilted towards India.

Beyond these questions lies the larger one of what the Doklam stand-off portents. Does it really suggest that a combination of resoluteness and diplomacy can prevent escalation in future military stand-offs with China? On the contrary, it more likely shows that the existing mechanisms to unwind such situations have weakened. Compared to the stand-offs in Ladakh in 2013 and 2014, the latest one took considerably longer to resolve.

The notion that India can pull off such things in future confrontations with China is deeply problematic. For one thing, the Chinese calculus of interest could be rather different in other parts of the disputed boundary. For another, drawing and internalizing such a conclusion could lead to avoidable overconfidence in the future. It is worth recalling that in the long run up to the 1962 war, Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in several stand-offs in which the Chinese desisted from using force despite issuing lurid warnings. This led India to believe that it could get away with running greater risks – an assumption that was badly belied in October 1962.

The key ‘lesson’ of this episode is the urgent need for both sides to work towards an understanding on mutual restraint and prevent a zero-sum dynamic from taking hold. Diplomatic history is replete, as Paul Schroeder reminds us, with such examples of managing antagonistic relations by associative means – also known as pacta de contrahendo.5 The Holy Alliance after the Napoleonic Wars stabilized Russia’s relations with Austria and Prussia – countries that had been its enemies recently and continued to compete with Russia along its periphery. The entente cordiale similarly helped stabilize Britain’s ties with its historic enemy, France. Contrary to popular wisdom, the entente was aimed not at a rising Germany but at managing Britain’s rivalry with France over colonial possessions.


What could be the elements of an agreement on mutual restraint with China? The 2015 statement spoke of ‘respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations.’ This should be narrowed down to primary concerns and core interests. For instance, Chinese military activism along the border is a primary concern for India. Not so the political cover it provides in the UN to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism. Yet, India should make it clear that Pakistani terrorism jeopardizes regional security – especially in the context of Chinese projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Both sides should also set aside aspirational or status goals: be it India’s desire for Chinese support on NSG, or China’s desire for Indian support on the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s leadership more generally.

As for the border, both sides could build on previous agreements. Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon has observed that neither side has explored the reference in the 1993 agreement (and subsequent statements) to the need for ‘mutual and equal security’ and for agreement on force levels.6 An accord based on these principles could help arrest the downward slide on the border and assure both sides of their core interests pending a boundary settlement.


It is easy to naysay the possibility of such a restraining pact. However, diplomacy is not about pessimism but realism. The alternative is to allow the relationship to turn into a zero-sum rivalry where every move by India or China is seen as inimical to the other. By way of analogy, think of a car that is heading down a winding mountain road and in which both the passengers are struggling to wrest control of the steering wheel. The vehicle may get past this or that treacherous bend in the road, but the possibility of its reaching the destination safely is not very high. Only posterity will tell whether the events of 2017 amounted to such a narrowly missed turn en route to a serious crash.



1. C. Raja Mohan, Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013.

2. ‘Opportunity for India, China to Form Close Ties: Officials’, Mint, 23 February 2017. Accessed at Opportunity-for-India-China-to-form-close-ties-officials.html

3. Remarks by President Trump on Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, 21 August 2017. Accessed online at https://www.white remarks-president-trump-strategy-afghanistan-and-south-asia

4. Joint statement of 15 May 2015, accessed online at _between_the_India_and_China_during_Prime_ Ministers_visit_to_China

5. Paul W. Schroeder, ‘Alliances, 1815-1945: Weapons of Power and Tools of Management’, in Systems, Stability and Statecraft: Essays on the International History of Modern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004, pp. 195-222.

6. Shivshankar Menon, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy. Allen Lane, New Delhi, 2016, pp. 27-28.