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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 flickr.com

            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: https://doi.org/10.1080/14799855.2018.1471060 (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.



News Reports

Bilateral relations

Modi says differences with China don’t turn into disputes is India’s objective
Livemint, April 9

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that India was working on the objective of ensuring that differences with China do not develop into disputes. In an interview to CNN-News 18, Modi acknowledged that both India and China had differences.

India rejects China's invite to attend Belt and Road Initiative meet for the second time
Business Today, April 8

India has rejected China's invitation to attend the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting, which is scheduled to take place later this month. This is the second time, India has turned down official invite from China to attend its BRI forum.

Two Indian naval ships to take part in Chinese Navy's 70th anniversary celebrations
The Economic Times, April 8

Two Indian naval ships -- INS 'Kolkata' and 'Shakti' -- would take part in the Chinese Navy's 70th anniversary of celebrations later this month.

India activates strategic ITBP command from J-K to counter Chinese build up
The Economic Times, April 1

India operationalised its strategic ITBP command in Jammu and Kashmir's Leh-Ladakh district on Monday after moving it from Chandigarh as part of a plan to counter the ever-increasing Chinese military build up in the region.

India's Satellite-Destroying Missile Sends Message to China
Bloomberg, March 28

India’s destruction of a satellite orbiting the Earth by an indigenously designed ballistic-missile interceptor is seen as sending a stark message to New Delhi’s nuclear-armed rivals, China and Pakistan, and changes Asia’s strategic calculus.

News Reports

China and India in the Region

India relieved as President Solih’s party wins Maldives polls, but shadow of China remains
The Print, April 8

India has reasons to cheer with Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s party appearing to have secured a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections held Saturday (April 6).

Engage With Pak, Open Ports to China, Stay Away from Taliban: General Hooda on India's Neighborhood Strategy
News 18, April 8

Former Northern Army commander (retd) Lt General DS Hooda, in his suggestions to the Congress party, has recommended restoration of talks with Pakistan in a structured manner. General Hooda, who was last month given the responsibility by the Congress to draft a national security strategy, has also suggested that India should stay away from engaging with the Taliban.

India is planning military aggression against Pakistan, claims Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi
South China Morning Post, April 7

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Sunday claimed his government had reliable intelligence India was planning to carry out aggression against Pakistan between April 16 and 20.

US approves anti-submarine helicopter sale to India
The Straits Times, April 3

The United States said on Tuesday (April 2) that it had approved the sale of 24 MH-60R helicopters to India, significantly boosting its emerging ally's firepower to target submarines as China expands in the Indian Ocean.

China denies it is shielding Masood Azhar
The Hindu, March 29

China on Friday (March 29) dismissed allegations that it was sheltering terrorists by placing a “technical hold” on listing Masood Azhar, head of the banned Pakistan based-group Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a global terrorist.

News Reports

Trade and Economy

India's BRI rejection means lost opportunities: experts
Global Times, April 8

India's refusal to cooperate under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will make it lose many growth opportunities and harm its connectivity with other countries in South Asia, experts said Monday (April 8).

China refuses to give up ‘developing country’ status at WTO despite US demands
South China Morning Post, April 6

Beijing calls the special and differential treatment a ‘fundamental right’, says it will not cede to Donald Trump’s demands on World Trade Organisation reform. China says it will team with other developing members, including India, South Africa and Venezuela, to win the battle over future of WTO.

India identifies 380 items for exports to China to shrink deficit
The Hindu Business Line, April 5

India has submitted to China a list of 380 items, including agriculture, horticulture, pharmaceuticals, textiles, chemicals, tobacco and some engineering products, where the country has the potential to increase exports, provided Beijing cooperates by lowering non-tariff restrictions.

China striving to get Indian businessmen for BRI meet
The Times of India, April 3

China is sending invitations to several Indian entities to attend the upcoming Belt and road Forum in Beijing from April 25. It is striving to ensure business attendance from India as the government is likely to boycott the event again.

Has China’s answer to Davos lost its shine with high-profile absences and a TV blackout?
South China Morning Post, March 28

President Xi Jinping is in Europe, while other key officials are in Beijing for the trade talks with the US. Various discussions have been switched to closed-door events without explanation, with fewer high profile speakers taking the stage.

News Reports

Energy and Environment

China, India responsible for half of world’s air pollution deaths in 2017: report
The Indian Express, April 9

China and India together were responsible for half of the total global attributable deaths from air pollution in 2017, a new global study has revealed. Long-term exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution is estimated to have contributed to nearly 5 million deaths in 2017, of which China and India reported 1.2 million deaths each.

China gas demand to surge in 2019, but maybe not enough to sop up LNG glut
Reuters, April 8

China’s natural gas demand is set to grow by 14 percent in 2019 amid a huge government push to spur consumption of the fuel, requiring the nation to import huge amounts of LNG. Yet even China’s booming consumption may not soak up a large glut of LNG that has emerged across Asia and dragged spot prices for the fuel down by 60 percent over the past half-year.

India's electric vehicle initiative could save 217 bln USD worth of oil equivalents by 2030
Xinhua, April 6

India could save 217 billion U.S. dollars by saving 474 million tons of oil equivalent by opting for electric vehicles till 2030, a release issued by Niti Aayog said late Friday (April 5), a planning body of the government.

India blowing up a satellite with missile was ‘terrible’, Nasa says, as it created 400 pieces of debris that endanger astronauts
South China Morning Post, April 2

The head of Nasa has branded India’s destruction of one of its satellites a “terrible thing” that had created 400 pieces of orbital debris and led to new dangers for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Asia’s smog exodus: companies forced to offer ‘pollution premiums’ to recruit top talent
South China Morning Post, March 31

Health concerns are putting off those initially attracted by Asia’s growing economic opportunities, experts warn, so firms are struggling to recruit – and retain – people with the expertise they need. China has since taken measures to improve its air quality, but Beijing – along with other key urban centres in South Asia including New Delhi – routinely exceeds World Health Organisation safe limits for air pollution.

Analyses

Why is the US critical of India’s ASAT test?
Global Times, April 8

By Guo Yanying, Second Research Institute of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation

India has always adopted the policy of combining independent research and procurement from many countries together when it comes to weapons. Although the US and India are partners in the Indo-Pacific strategy and have signed military agreement, Washington, which is following unilateralism, has always been uncomfortable with such a policy.

How India’s breakthrough as an ‘elite space power’ devalues discovery and innovation
South China Morning Post, April 7

By Ankit Panda, Senior Editor of the Diplomat

India’s successful test of an interceptor to destroy a satellite only renders space less hospitable for peaceful, civilian use, while contributing marginal military benefit.

China and Pakistan Have Struck a Devil’s Bargain With Militants
Foreign Policy, April 5

By Yelena Biberman, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Skidmore College, New York, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center, the Atlantic Council; and Jared Schwartz, research student of political science at Skidmore College, New York.

By giving diplomatic cover to JeM, China is safeguarding its economic interests in the region and propping its regional ally (Pakistan), which is pressuring the Afghan Taliban to negotiate with Kabul.

Dragon-elephant tango
The Indian Express, April 4

By Luo Zhaohui, China’s Ambassador to India

China-India relations have upgraded and entered the fast track of development. This represents a successful practice of Xi Jinping’s Thought on Diplomacy.

Why India should rethink its reticence towards ‘the Quad’
South China Morning Post, April 1

By Rupakjyoti Borah, Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

India, the US, Japan and Australia first formed the loose security alliance in 2007, but a prolonged hiatus and lack of support have stifled its growth. As China becomes increasingly assertive, is now the time for New Delhi to leverage the four-country grouping for its own ends?

India’s China policy seems adrift
Hindustan Times, April 1

By Brahma Chellaney, Geostrategist

To help curb China’s territorial and riparian revisionism, India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue. By recalibrating its Tibet policy, India could elevate Tibet as a broader strategic and environmental issue that impinges on international security and climatic and hydrological stability.


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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