China and India have been strategic rivals since the mid-twentieth century, as then Senator John F. Kennedy pointed out in the 1959 Conference on India and the United States, there is a “struggle between India and China for leadership of the East, for the respect of all Asia, for the opportunity to demonstrate whose way of life is the better.” At times where China’s economic and military might has grown significantly, such statement by late President Kennedy makes more sense than ever.
In recent years, even as competition between the world’s most populous nations has greatly increased, China has become India’s largest trading partner and the Indian government appears to be more “supportive” of Chinese investment. However, similar to many other Asian nations, New Delhi faces the challenge of balancing its desire to expand economic ties with China with its constant fear about Beijing’s global ambitions, particularly along the disputed China-India border and in the Indian Ocean.
Sino-Indian competition is largely driven by their economic rise and both nations dependence on seaborne trade and imported energy, much of which comes from Middle Eastern nations and is transported through the Indian Ocean. The “Middle Kingdom’s” dependence on imported energy and seaborne trade has been dubbed the “Malacca dilemma” after the Strait of Malacca - the second-largest oil trade chokepoint in the world after the Strait of Hormuz - through which a large proportion of China’s trade and energy flows. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, President Xi’s audacious “Belt and Road” Initiative (BRI) can been viewed as an attempt by “China to minimize its strategic vulnerabilities by diversifying its trade and energy routes while also enhancing its political influence through expanded trade and infrastructure investments.”
Growing Chinese incursions in India's backyard as a part of the BRI has prompted a renewed wave of competition between both powers. Many policymakers believe that China is asserting itself to expand its influence and challenge the post-1945 rules based international world order, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing is using its geo-economic leverage, which has been largely accumulated through it growing trade and investment as a part of President Xi’s BRI, as its main tool to challenge the international system’s status quo. Beijing is now engaged with most if not all of India’s neighbors and as a result poses a serious threat to New Delhi’s role as South Asia’s “regional hegemon”. By implementing multiple infrastructure projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), and Djibouti, China has made its presence felt in South and Central Asia and in the Indian Ocean. Differently than its neighbors, India has continuously refused to endorse the BRI - the last time being when both nations met at last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit.
Growing ties between Pakistan and China have served to create a great deal of anxiety in India, as both nations have fought numerous wars and have a historically convoluted relationship dating back to 1947. Since becoming China’s “paramount leader”, President Xi has placed significant emphasis on nurturing a fruitful relationship with Pakistan as a way to expand China’s sphere of influence into South Asia. In 2013, China pledged $60 billion to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - a network of roads, pipelines, power plants, industrial parks, and a port along the Arabian sea. With the purpose of increasing regional connectivity and trade between both nations, the CPEC has raised numerous eyebrows in New Delhi, especially as Beijing has began building a military base for the Chinese Navy in Pakistan near the Gwadar port. Such installation in Pakistan will serve as China’s second foreign military base, with the first one being located in Djibouti - a small but tactically critical nation near the Horn of Africa.
New Delhi and Beijing also have their own set of unresolved territorial disputes, which has served to prevent both nations from really being able to sustain a working relationship. The more than two months standoff between the Indian Armed Forces and the People's Liberation Army over Chinese construction of a road in Doklam near a tri-junction border area served to illustrate just how volatile the Sino-Indian relationship really is. While China and India share some unresolved border issues, Tibet continues to be the predominant factor that has prevented peace to prevail between both countries. Such issue has for years fueled territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds. As Brahma Chellaney, a Forbes magazine contributor, points out, “China itself highlights Tibet as the core issue with India by laying claim to Indian territories on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, rather than any professed Han Chinese connection.” Beijing has never managed to swallow India’s approach to the Tibet issue, particularly its accommodation of the Dalai Lama and the government-in-exile. Even as New Delhi has explicitly referred to Tibet as a part of China and has continuously stated that the Dalai Lama is forbidden of carrying out his political endeavors in India, Beijing continues to be suspicious of India’s Tibetan policy. PM Modi has been very cautious in dealing with the Tibet issue, yet President Xi believes his Indian counterpart should do more to recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
The Tibet issue and the Dalai Lama’s exile in India alludes the the underlying ideological element in the Sino-Indian rivalry. As Brahma Chellaney writes, “Chinese analysts have often contrasted the success of their development model with the slower growth produced by India’s “chaotic” democracy.” On one hand, India serves as the world’s largest democracy (with about 900 million eligible voters). While on the other, China’s authoritarian system has resulted in an unimaginable economic miracle, which has served to thrust the “Middle Kingdom” to superpower status. With such stark differences in their respective political systems comes a greater question of morality. As Indians brag about freedom of speech and other democratic qualities, the Chinese are quick to point out they in average live a more comfortable and noble life than the typical Indian. Such arguments illustrate the fact the conflict between China and India is not fueled merely by power, but also by rival ideological and even civilizational ties. At times where U.S.-China relations fill up the news’ headlines and Western pundits seemed more preoccupied with the idea of a Chinese “Thucydides trap”, the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship can easily be under-appreciated. However, as political and economic power continues to shift to Asia, it is the rivalry between China and India that may turn out to shape the 21st century world order.
Photo Credit: AFP