Published Twice a Month
October 12, 2018 – November 13, 2018

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

China-India Relations: Towards Détente

By Kanti Bajpai


Suddenly, after a difficult 4-5 years, China-India relations seem to have moved into a more positive phase. Differences over a number of nettlesome issues have reduced, and the discourse between them has grown more normal. Indeed, something akin to a Sino-Indian détente is quite visible: they are rivals but must manage the relationship better for a variety of reasons.

China-India relations are defined by nodes of interaction at the bilateral, regional, and global levels. At each level, a perceptible change in diplomatic tone has occurred since the summit meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Wuhan on 27-28 April 2019.

At the bilateral level, the defining issue is of course the border quarrel. But there are at least two other matters that come into play: New Delhi’s stand and actions on Tibet; and the flow of water in the Brahmaputra river. In all three areas, the two countries have signalled a reduction in differences and tensions.

After the Doklam standoff in the summer of 2017, Beijing and New Delhi have taken steps as in the past to improve communications between the two governments and militaries. The hope is that there will not be a repeat of Doklam which was the most serious confrontation between the two armies since the tensions in Sumdurong Chu in 1986-87.

With respect to Tibet, in March/April 2018 and just weeks prior to the Wuhan meeting, New Delhi tried to reassure Beijing by ordering that no government functionary should attend the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile. It also emphasized that the Dalai Lama and Tibetans were not permitted to carry out any political activities on Indian soil.

As for the Brahmaputra river flows, China stated that it will resume providing hydrological data to India. For a year prior to this, in the wake of the Doklam crisis, despite the China-India agreement, it had stopped giving India updates on water flows.

At the regional level, too, China and India have clearly tried to avoid stepping on each other’s toes beyond a point. China’s relations with Pakistan are the most divisive issue here but competition in the Indian Ocean area is also a worry as is Afghanistan.

While China and Pakistan continue to be “all-weather friends”, Beijing has tried to meet some Indian concerns. These relate to New Delhi’s insistence that China take action on Islamabad’s inactions on terrorism. Indian diplomats and Prime Minister Modi have lobbied with China to take a stand against the harbouring of Hafeez Saeed and Masood Azhar, two well-known extremist leaders in Pakistan. Beijing has long blocked the UN from actions against both. However, China is now prepared to consider any further information on Masood Azhar that India is willing to provide; and it stayed neutral when Pakistan was put back on the ‘grey list’ of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which aims to curb money laundering and terror financing.

Pakistan is still a problem between China and India. For instance, on 31 October 2018, New Delhi lodged a strong protest with both Beijing and Islamabad over the start of the bus route between Kashgar and Lahore, saying that the route traversed Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir which is legally part of India. Still, since Wuhan, India has clearly reduced its criticisms of China’s Belt and Route Initiative (BRI).

China and India are showing some sensitivity to each other’s concerns and ‘face’ in other South Asian situations. For a moment in February 2018, it appeared the two were on collision course in the Maldives. China warned India not to intervene in the Maldives in the third week of February 2018, and later in that month a small flotilla of PLA Navy ships were seen heading to the east Indian Ocean through the Lombok Strait. At the same time, the Indian Navy was exercising in the Arabian Sea and Sunda Strait area. The Chinese navy eventually turned back, and in the event, India did not intervene in the Maldives. Both countries welcomed the new government that took power in the island state after the presidential elections on 23 September 2018.

Beijing and New Delhi have also shown a degree of restraint in the emerging Sri Lankan constitutional and political crisis which started on 26 October 2018. China has been more fulsome about the appointment of former President Mahendra Rajapaksha as the new Prime Minister after the shock sacking of Ranil Wickremesinghe; but India has urged democratic norms to be respected and not much else. Before the dismissal, New Delhi had hosted both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksha. While New Delhi did well out of the change of government in the Maldives in September, it is distinctly uncomfortable with developments in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, China and India have not squared off openly.

Also in South Asia, China and India have shown that they can positively work together. Both view the instability and extremism in Afghanistan as a threat to their security. For some years, New Delhi has worried that China’s influence there will grow, especially in the wake of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). At Wuhan, however, the two decided to put their heads somewhat together. The first expression of their cooperation on Afghanistan was the agreement to jointly train Afghan diplomats. The programme began in October 2018. This is a small step, to be sure, but it is a signal that they are prepared to cooperate rather than compete in this vital South Asian state.

Finally, China and India have come together at the global level. Beijing and Delhi have been in agreement on quite a number of issues over the years – the global economic system, climate change, and opposition to humanitarian intervention, among others.

More recently, being at the receiving end of US economic pressures has brought them together. The US trade war is mostly directed at China, but India too has been the object of raised tariffs. Both are finding themselves the target of visa restrictions. China is being targeted as part of the US’s attempt to stop Chinese access to American high technology and influence mongering. India is being targeted as part of the crackdown on the issuance of H1B employment visas. In addition, Washington wants everyone to stop buying Iranian oil and Russian weapons.

Not surprisingly, China and India, at Wuhan, argued for “the importance of building an open, multipolar, pluralist and participatory global economic order which will enable all countries to pursue their development and contribute to the elimination of poverty and inequality in all regions of the world” in opposition to what they regard as the increasing protectionism of the US.

It is too early to tell what is driving this détente between China and India. One factor is domestic preoccupations. President Xi continues to increase his hold domestically but there are signs of unhappiness over the extension of his tenure. There are some indications of unhappiness also over the vast sums of money China is spending abroad in the BRI. In India, Prime Minister Modi is in the run-up to the general elections in early 2019. It is widely expected that his BJP will lose seats and could even lose it majority.

A second and perhaps even more important factor is US foreign policy under Trump. Trump’s buccaneering and unpredictable external economic and security policies have disturbed both Beijing and New Delhi. The trade war has taken a toll on China. And the US’s insistence on India desisting from buying Iranian oil and Russian weapons has annoyed New Delhi. In this situation, despite their mutual suspicions, China and India are trying to reduce their differences if only to increase their bargaining room vis-à-vis the US.

How long will the Sino-Indian détente last? Clearly, another border confrontation could upset the spirit of accommodation that has taken hold. Regionally, a terror strike on India from Pakistan could once again lead to an explosive situation in the subcontinent. China could be drawn into a crisis. The situation in the Maldives but even more so in Sri Lanka could be another source of China-India tensions. If, as some are expecting, the constitutional conflict in Sri Lanka is not resolved peacefully, New Delhi may be tempted to take a hand. This could lead one side or other to turn to Beijing for help. Globally, there is not much that divides the two, but Chinese support for Pakistani membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), hinted at during the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to China in early November 2018, could inflame the Indian side which has had its application for membership categorically rejected by China. US pressures on India to take sides in the trade war and emerging “cold war” could also cause the Sino-Indian détente to unravel.

For now, though, the two sides seem set on reducing points of friction and increasing their ability to manage differences.

Kanti Bajpai is Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies and Director, Centre on Asia and Globalisation, National University of Singapore.

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.

News Reports

Bilateral relations

India, China should compete, but avoid conflict, says defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman
Hindustan Times, November 12
Stressing on the importance of both countries in global affairs, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Sunday (November 11) stated both India and China should compete, but avoid conflict.

China-India ties on fast lane of development
Xinhua, November 5
China-India relations have been moving into the fast lane of development after experiencing ups and downs, Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui commented in a recent interview.

India now has the world’s tallest statue, burnished by China
Quartz, October 31
It’s been eight years in the making, but finally Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s towering tribute to the independence-era leader who helped forge India into a nation is ready.

Armies Of India, China Hold Military Border Personnel Meeting
NDTV, October 31
Indian Army and China's People's Liberation Army on Tuesday (October 30) held a military border personnel meeting on the Chinese side at Bum-La, a defence official said.

China and India eye joint military drills as sides seek thaw after face-off on Himalayan border
South China Morning Post, October 25
China and India aim to hold joint army drills in China before the end of this year, China’s Defence Ministry said on Thursday (October 25), as the two countries continue a rapid rapprochement.

India, China sign intel sharing pact
The Economic Times, October 22
India and China on Monday (October 22) signed their maiden internal security cooperation agreement that among other areas of cooperation will involve intelligence sharing between two sides amid common threats from international terror.

News Reports

China and India in the Region

China To Build Port In Myanmar, Third In India's Neighbourhood
NDTV, November 9
China will develop a multi-billion-dollar deep sea port in Myanmar's Kyaukpyu town along the Bay of Bengal, a development that will concern India which already has two Chinese-built ports around it.

Behind Sri Lanka's turmoil, a China-India struggle for investments and influence
The Straits Times, November 8
With Chinese companies dominating construction projects across Sri Lanka, India, the traditional power in the region, is muscling into port and other projects, pushing back hard against China.

Support Pakistan’s ‘quest for peace through dialogue’ with India: China
The Indian Express, November 5
In a joint statement issued Sunday (November 4) after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first bilateral visit to China, Beijing said that it “appreciates Pakistan’s quest for peace” with India and supported the settlement of “outstanding disputes between the two countries”.

Abe, Modi wear slippers by the fire – then turn up heat on China
South China Morning Post, October 30
After informal talks at Shinzo Abe’s holiday home, the Japanese and Indian leaders boost diplomatic and military ties in effort analysts say is aimed at balancing China’s influence in the region.

US-led Quad coalition a ‘useful anti-China bulwark’ in Asia say people in 10 Asean countries
South China Morning Post, October 23
A US-led, four-nation coalition could play a useful security role in Asia – particularly as a bulwark against China’s rising power – but should not be expanded, students, businesspeople and officials in 10 Asean countries have said, according to in a new survey.

Bhutan chooses new party to form government in election closely watched by India and China
South China Morning Post, October 19
Bhutan, a country of 800,000 people, wedged between giant neighbours China and India, has now chosen a new party to rule after elections on Thursday (October 18).

'China-India Plus' plan set in motion with joint training for Afghan diplomats
CGTN, October 19
Afghanistan has become the key hub for "China-India Plus" cooperation plan agreed upon by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi following their informal Wuhan summit in April this year.

Sri Lanka reverses $300-million China housing deal ahead of PM's India visit
Money Control, October 18
Sri Lanka has reversed a decision to award a $300-million housing deal to China in favour of a joint venture with an Indian company, the government said, ahead of a visit by the prime minister to its South Asian neighbour.

India’s 300km/h bullet train project was seen as a big win for Japan over China. But it’s stuck in the slow lane
South China Morning Post, October 17
A year after the project was begun, only 0.9 hectare of land have been acquired out of the 1,400 hectares needed, according to the Indian government company leading the project.

News Reports

Trade and Economy

India among world leaders expected to push for China-backed trade deal excluding US
Hindustan Times, November 11
World leaders will push for the rapid completion of a massive, China-backed trade deal that excludes the US at a summit this week, in a rebuke to rising protectionism and Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

India to boost food, pharma, IT, tourism exports in China’s first import only show
The Economic Times, November 5
India is eyeing giving a boost to its exports of food and agro products, pharmaceuticals, information technology (IT) and services such as tourism to China as it participates in the first China International Import Expo (CIIE).

World Bank doing business report 2019: India, China among top 10 improvers
Livemint, October 31
The World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report ranks 190 economies based on how easy it is to do business there, taking into account trading regulations, property rights, contract enforcement, investment laws, the availability of credit and a number of other factors. The first report was published in 2003.

Rupee Slump to Push India to Seek Yuan Trade Settlement
Bloomberg, October 29
India is considering allowing some imports from China to be settled in yuan, people familiar with the proposal said, as the South Asian nation moves to limit its currency’s loss against the dollar.

China Trade Pact Stalls as Trump Tariffs Feed India Backlash
The Economic Times, October 19
A Chinese push to conclude a new Asia-wide trade agreement this year is running into opposition from India fed partly by concerns over the fallout of Beijing’s deepening trade war with the U.S.

News Reports

Energy and Environment

China and India will lead the world's nuclear power growth, experts say
CNBC, November 7
India and China are set to drive the world's nuclear power production growth as the two developing nations — among the top consumers of energy in the world — pursue their respective national nuclear energy programs.

US renews Iran sanctions; India, China get oil waivers
Livemint, November 6
The United States snapped sanctions back in place on Monday (November 5) to choke Iran’s oil and shipping industries, while temporarily allowing top customers such as India and China to keep buying crude from the Islamic Republic.

China again alerts India about possible floods in Brahmaputra
The Times of India, October 31
For the second time in a fortnight, China has alerted India of a possible flood-like situation in the Brahmaputra river in Arunachal Pradesh after a landslide blocked water upstream in Tibet, a senior water resources ministry official said on Wednesday (October 31).

China's MG Motor to launch electric SUV in India by first half of 2020
Business Standard, October 15
MG Motor India, a wholly-owned arm of China's SAIC Motor Corp, will roll out a locally manufactured pure-electric SUV by first half of 2020, within one year of its first product launch in the country, a top company official said Monday (October 15).


Why growing Sino-Indian geopolitical frictions may ultimately define the Indo-Pacific order
South China Morning Post, November 11
By Richard Heydarian, academic and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific"

In the coming years, New Delhi is likely to find itself at loggerheads with Beijing, which is becoming a “two oceans” naval powerhouse, both in the Pacific and Indian seascapes, and is already a top source of development help in India’s near neighbourhood.

Competing in the Huge Digital Economies of China and India
Harvard Business Review, November 6
By Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University; and founding Executive Director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context

The global digital economy crossed an important milestone recently: the number of internet users in two countries — China, with just over 800 million users, and India, with 500 million users – surpassed the aggregate number of internet users across 37 OECD countries combined.

Abe’s balancing act between China and India
China Daily, November 1
By Swaran Singh, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing, China

President Donald Trump's trade wars against one and all are pushing Asia's three biggest economies -- China, Japan, India -- into an unprecedented tighter knit.

India & Japan emerge as strong regional allies amid a rising China
The Economic Times, October 28
By Sreeram Chaulia, Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

From the personal chemistry between Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe, to the depth and breadth which the bilateral cooperation is acquiring, it is evident that Japan and India are becoming de facto allies like no two other powers in Asia.

India and China ink unprecedented internal security cooperation agreement
CGTN, October 26
By Ashok Sajjanhar, President of the Institute of Global Studies in India, and former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden, and Latvia

An unprecedented agreement on Internal Security Cooperation was signed in the presence of India's Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh and the visiting Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi during the first India-China High-Level Meeting on Bilateral Security Cooperation co-chaired by the two leaders on October 22, 2018.

Why Did India and China Sign Their New Security Agreement?
The Quint, October 24
By Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

The signing of an internal security agreement by India and China last Monday is an indicator of the special nature of their relationship. This features competition, conflict and cooperation. We all know the points of conflict – the disputed 4,000-km border, Pakistan, the Masood Azhar issue, and the question of India’s NSG membership.

With election over, Bhutan can woo China with India’s blessing
South China Morning Post, October 22
By S.D. Muni, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and a former ambassador and special envoy

The Himalayan kingdom wants to reduce dependence on old ally India and establish diplomatic ties with China. To do so, its new government faces a hard but not impossible task: solving the border dispute that led to a military stand-off in Doklam.

Books and Journals

The China-India Rivalry in the Globalization Era
Georgetown University Press, September 2018

Edited by T.V. Paul, James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University, past president of the International Studies Association, and author or editor of eighteen books, including The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World and The Accommodation of Rising Powers: Past, Present, and Future.

As the aspirations of the two rising Asian powers collide, the China-India rivalry is likely to shape twenty-first-century international politics in the region and far beyond.

This volume by T.V. Paul and an international group of leading scholars examines whether the rivalry between the two countries that began in the 1950s will intensify or dissipate in the twenty-first century. The China-India relationship is important to analyze because past experience has shown that when two rising great powers share a border, the relationship is volatile and potentially dangerous. India and China's relationship faces a number of challenges, including multiple border disputes that periodically flare up, division over the status of Tibet and the Dalai Lama, the strategic challenge to India posed by China's close relationship with Pakistan, the Chinese navy's greater presence in the Indian Ocean, and the two states' competition for natural resources. Despite these irritants, however, both countries agree on issues such as global financial reforms and climate change and have much to gain from increasing trade and investment, so there are reasons for optimism as well as pessimism.

The contributors to this volume answer the following questions: What explains the peculiar contours of this rivalry? What influence does accelerated globalization, especially increased trade and investment, have on this rivalry? What impact do US-China competition and China's expanding navy have on this rivalry? Under what conditions will it escalate or end? The China-India Rivalry in the Globalization Era will be of great interest to students, scholars, and policymakers concerned with Indian and Chinese foreign policy and Asian security.


Compiled and sent to you by Centre on Asia and Globalisation and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Have any feedback or comment? Email us decb64_Y2FnQG51cy5lZHUuc2c=_decb64