Published Twice a Month
March 28, 2019 – April 10, 2019

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

Guest Column

Mutual (Mis)perceptions and the Sino-Indian Rivalry

By Manjeet S. Pardesi

CIB_135Photo by Oskari Kettunen from

India and China have been locked in a strategic rivalry since their emergence as modern states in the late 1940s even as its intensity has escalated and de-escalated over the course of the following decades. Most analyses of their strategic competition focus on specific issues, from their long and unmarked border (indeed, the world’s longest unmarked border), and India’s policies towards Tibet and the Tibetan government-in-exile based in India to the China-Pakistan relationship, and China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean region.

These specific issues notwithstanding, the Sino-Indian strategic rivalry is ultimately rooted in the strategic images that the Chinese and Indian elites attributed to the other side around the time of their emergence as modern states. Indeed, the Chinese elite viewed India as an “imperial” power that had harmed China in the past and continued to interfere in China’s internal affairs. On the other hand, India briefly flirted with the idea of China as a “partner” – by perceiving China as a fellow victim of colonialism – although China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950-51 convinced New Delhi that China was a “hegemonic” and “expansionist” power.

The significance of these images – rooted in perceptions and misperceptions – rests on the fact that it is these images that keep the rivalry ongoing as opposed to the specific issues noted above (even as the rivalry itself is manifested in these specific issues). The issue of (mis)perceptions is also salient because different actors interpret the same events subjectively. Notably, Sino-Indian interactions in the colonial era were interpreted very differently by the Chinese and Indian elite. To begin with, India viewed China as a “partner”, a fellow victim at the hands of the imperial powers. This image of China as a friend with whom India would build the postcolonial/postwar order was enhanced during the Second World War. After all, both the Communists and the Nationalists had sought India’s help during the war. While India supported the Eighth Route Army of the Communists with a medical supply mission after the Japanese invasion of China, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek personally visited India in 1942 to seek support from India’s nationalist leaders despite British uneasiness about it (since Sino-Indian cooperation was viewed by India’s British rulers as spreading the “pan-Asiatic malaise”). Notably, Chiang had urged the Indian nationalist elite to support the war so that India could partake in the postwar peace conference, and even told his Indian interlocutors that “China will certainly withdraw from the peace conference” if India’s participation was rejected because of India’s colonial status. Despite these overtures, the Indian image of China changed from a “partner” to that of a “hegemonic” and “expansionist” power in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. In fact, in 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru even argued that “a new period of Chinese expansionism was imminent,” and that China had been an expansionist power in previous periods “for about a thousand years”.

However, India’s initial image of China as a “partner” was not necessarily reciprocated by China that had reached out to India due to wartime exigencies. When seen from China, India and China were not in the same ‘colonial category’. While China had suffered at the hands of Western imperial powers and Japan, it had not been formally colonized. Strategic images are relational (or dyadic), and therefore, China’s self-image as a victim of Japanese and Western colonialism did not imply equivalence with India, a formal British colony. In fact, China’s quest during the “century of humiliation” was to avoid the fate of a wangguo, or a country lost to imperialism, and therefore, India was a negative example for China that wanted to be rich and strong like the great powers.

Equally importantly, the Chinese elite had also noted that Indian resources had been complicit in the “humiliation” of China at the hands of imperial Britain. Beginning in 1808, Indian soldiers of the British Raj participated in every single Anglo-Chinese military encounter until the Second World War, including in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion and the Opium Wars. In the aftermath of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in 1959, Chen Yi, then China’s foreign minister even told the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that “Chinese belligerence towards India was dictated by the desire to take revenge for the century of humiliation at the hands of European great powers”. In other words, modern China encountered modern India as an agent of British imperialism, and viewed independent India as an “imperial” power that was interfering in China’s Tibet. At the same time China continued to worry about other great powers that might exploit Indian resources to pursue interests inimical to China (just like Britain had done in the past).

As China and India rise simultaneously today, these historically informed strategic images continue to affect Sino-Indian relations. India views China’s connectivity projects (the Belt and Road Initiative) as “hegemonic” as they are based on China’s “unilateral decisions,” while their festering border dispute as well as China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea are viewed as evidence of Chinese “expansionism”. Similarly, China remains unhappy with “imperial” India’s interference in China’s Tibet. In 2016, during elections in the Tibetan diaspora in India and abroad, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson noted that China did not recognize the “so-called Tibetan government-in-exile” before adding that any country that wanted good relations with China should “not provide any convenience or platform to any so-called Tibetan independence activities of anti-China separatists.” Furthermore, in the context of the growing Japan-India partnership, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson warned that “regional countries should … work for partnership instead of alliance.” China continues to worry about the use of Indian resources by other great powers that have the potential to harm Chinese interests.

The rise of China and India is bound to make their strategic rivalry more salient for Asian geopolitics in the years ahead, and at least one prominent historian of China has argued that “China’s biggest foreign policy challenge in the future will be India.” The strategic images that China and India attributed to each other in the late 1940s/early 1950s continue to cast a shadow on their relationship.

Manjeet S. Pardesi is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington. This piece is based on the author’s article: “The Initiation of the Sino-Indian Rivalry,” Asian Security, available: (published online: 15 May 2018).

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.

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News Reports

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News Reports

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Books and Journals

Asia Policy

Converting Convergence into Cooperation: The United States and India in South Asia
Asia Policy, Volume 14, Number 1, January 2019: 19-50

By Constantino Xavier, Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India

Seeking to counter China's expansionism in South Asia, India's traditional sphere of influence, New Delhi now partners with several "like-minded" countries to offer an alternative source of infrastructure development and connectivity initiatives. This has opened a window of opportunity for the U.S. to cooperate with India in the region. Based on historical case studies in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, with new evidence from primary sources, this article shows how different strategic priorities, capabilities, and perceptional challenges have at times hindered U.S. and Indian policies from aligning. At the same time, however, the article dispels the common assumption that the U.S. and India have always been locked in an inevitably hostile relationship across the region. A detailed analysis of both states' approaches to the region since the 1950s shows that, despite significant challenges and differences, there have been instances of policy coordination that are relevant for today's attempts to facilitate cooperation amid convergence. To work together more efficiently and counter China's rising leverage in South Asia, India and the U.S. will need to learn from past interactions and focus on their communication and coordination of policies in the region.



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