Will the India-China rivalry ever end - Hindustan Times
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Will the India-China rivalry ever end

BySriparna Pathak
Mar 27, 2024 10:50 AM IST

This article is authored by Sriparna Pathak.

Previously, mentioning India and China often evoked a sense of Asian solidarity, anti-colonialism, and rising economies. However, that has undergone a sea change since 2020, when China unilaterally attacked India at the borders and tried to change the status quo by force. Today, the mention of India and China cannot be separated from the perpetual border dispute and ever-increasing Chinese military aggression. The point to note in the context of the Chinese attack in 2020 is that it was not the first one and was not been the last one; 1962 remains a bitter memory for India, while China often reminds India of the debacle in 1962 and how it taught India a lesson.

India and China talking past each other. PREMIUM
India and China talking past each other.

In 2020, the Chinese State-run Global Times stated that history will repeat itself if India makes the same mistakes as in 1962. What China comfortably forgets is that when it did try to attack India again in 1967, the Indian armed forces under then prime minister (PM) Indira Gandhi were better prepared after the Chinese betrayal in 1962 and India pushed back against Chinese onslaught at Nathu La and Cho La. This time, Indian forces triumphed and restored the parity between the two countries, while reviving India’s pride after the defeat earlier in 1962. Since then, several incursions, and limited wars including 1987, Doklam Valley clash, the Galwan Valley clash, and the Yangtse Valley clash of 2022 have happened. No other country except India has seen so many onslaughts from China!

Besides territorial disputes, the two have a plethora of disputes in other realms ranging from the ever-increasing trade imbalance in China’s favour, lack of equal market access to Indian products, existence of several tariff and non-tariff barriers against Indian goods and services, weaponisation of the Brahmaputra waters, Chinese disinformation against India, cyber warfare and espionage. A quick look at events from just the first half of March this year shows the extent to which India-China relations are abnormal. On March 11 this year, China stated that it “strongly deplores” PM Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh and that it has raised concerns with India. PM Modi inaugurated a number of development projects, including the Sela Tunnel, which is an all-weather strategic link for Tawang and Kameng districts of the state, near the Line of Actual Control. India’s ministry of external affairs rejected the Chinese statement on March 12 and stated that the country “doesn’t stand to reason” as Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. On March 13, the Global Times stated that China has no intention of engaging in an arms race with India, and hoped that both sides could view each other as opportunities rather than threats. On the same day, Chinese spokesman Wang Wenbin said that China supports Maldives in upholding its territorial sovereignty. Wang was reportedly reacting to the first batch of Indian military personnel leaving the Maldives. On the same day, on March 13, Global Times stated that India should not engage in protectionism against Chinese goods to accelerate local smartphone manufacturing because that is futile, and India will be deeply disappointed by the result.

As visible from these events in just the first two weeks of March 2024, China keeps playing on its hot and cold game with India, attacking India at various fronts, in various realms, and then preaching to India about how India and China should cooperate. Beyond the boundary dispute, which is often used as the lens to judge India-China relations, it is pertinent to understand that there is a deeper problem at play here, which ensures that any sort of cooperation between the two in any realm will only be temporary. The rivalry between India and China has a historic and perceptional reason. The rivalry did not start as a territorial dispute, and the problem is simply not about the border. Positional rivalry is the norm in the relationship. It involves two powers in a region that jockey for power. The positional rivalry began as early as the 1940s. Both the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Kuomintang (KMT) shared the view that India is a rival. Even before India’s Independence, both had hostile views of India as they saw India as a successor to the state of the UK. Both the KMT and the CPC had and have memories of the 19th century where Indian soldiers as part of the British imperial army were used to suppress the Boxer Rebellion. They saw India as an extension of the British Empire, even though the Empire was ending. Mao even stated that India is like a child tied to the apron strings of its colonial masters.

Under then PM Jawaharlal Nehru, India inherited the borders that India saw as inviolable and it did not want to concede territory, and prized its sovereignty. Tibet was invaded by China in 1950, but Tibet had an independent status from 1914-1949. India conceded the extraterritorial privileges that it had inherited from Britain. PM Nehru had hoped that by addressing China’s concerns in Tibet, he would reach an understanding on the border.

When PM Nehru did raise the issue with Zhou Enlai about Chinese maps showing Indian territories as Chinese, Zhou in a very cavalier way stated that the maps were KMT maps and that the PRC had not had time to check them! PM Nehru in good faith, blindly accepted the Chinese statement. Nehru wanted to spend on the country’s economic development and probably did not want a war with China. But that did not help.

The glaring positional rivalry is visible from the fact that in August 2023, just weeks before the final G20 summit in New Delhi, China stated that the theme of Vasudeva Kutumbakam is not valid since it is in Sanskrit which is not a UN language! The logic that the G20 is not the UN, and that the decision of the theme is the prerogative of the country holding the presidency did not matter! The rationale here was unleashing micro-aggressions to derail India’s successful presidency of the G20. A few days later China released its “standard maps” showing Indian territories and territories of a host of Southeast Asian countries and Russia’s as its own. Several countries including India raised objections to the baseless maps. However, China issued a statement only in response to India’s objections and commanded it not to read too much into the maps. The current status of the relationship is far from normal, and given China’s historical and perceptional views of India, the relationship can never really be a normal one.

This article is authored by Sriparna Pathak, associate professor, Chinese Studies and International Relations, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

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