The following interview was originally published by the Asia Experts Forum on 13 November 2018.
Given the history of border disputes and geopolitical rivalry between India and China, where do you think the two powers’ relationship stands today?
We are in for a period of heightened competition between China and several other countries, one of which is India. Some of this relates to the manner of China’s rise. I would start with the caveat that China’s rise has been a major benefit to many of these very countries. It has been the primary driver of global growth, and it is now the largest trade partner of most countries in the region. But there are four main, broad areas of concern among these countries regarding China’s rise. One is the lack of transparency about decision-making in China. This adds to anxieties about Chinese intentions. We were expecting to see greater transparency as China modernized, but the ascendency of Xi Jinping has reversed a lot of that. A secondary concern has been related to China’s economic rise, which has been heavily backed by the state and state-owned enterprises. There have been many significant subsidies and supply side growth, as well as acts of industrial espionage. This has led to some market distortions, to greater debt in China, and the sense that there is an uneven playing field. The third broad area of concern is territorial revisionism. China has disputes at sea with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and others. On land it has boundary disputes with Bhutan and India. We are seeing revisionism in all of these places. The fourth broad area is China’s attitudes toward many international norms. China’s behavior is undercutting many established international norms, whether it’s cyberspace, outer space, or freedom of navigation. So, these are the shared concerns. India has some very specific concerns as well. One is, of course, the boundary dispute. Among other things, China still claims most of one Indian state, which is home to more than two million people. There is growing concern about the trade deficit, and what many Indians perceive as a lack of market access in China. There are growing concerns about the Belt and Road Initiative, including the Maritime Silk Road, and how these things are being leveraged for debt. Finally, there are disagreements between India and China on issues of global governance. A few years ago there was actually some close collaboration. What we are seeing now is a much more competitive relationship between India and China related to some very radical changes taking place within China.
What prompted the warming of relations between India and China since their military stand-off in Doklam last year?
I would hesitate to call it a warming of relations. I’ve described it more as a time-out than a reset. There was a realization on the part of both parties that relations were at risk of spiraling out of control. In fact, India seemed to have made outreach efforts to China, but this was before the standoff took place. Those efforts were derailed by the standoff in Doklam. Starting in late 2017 we started seeing very high-level visits by representatives from both countries, including the Chinese Foreign Minister to India. That has continued into this year, and the apex was when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to China. He held a two-day informal summit with President Xi Jinping. Both sides have certainly tried to cool temperatures. However, on most major issues that are defining the relationship, neither China nor India has been willing to actually compromise their positions on those issues. We are seeing what I saw one commentator call, “confrontation with a smile.” That is going to continue for a while. On India’s part, this is motivated primarily by the elections that are taking place the early part of next year. If the Indians can ensure that the relationship is not rocky before the elections, it would help them in the elections.
Going forward, do you think that anything will help this relationship improve, or do you see any potential obstacles that might hinder these countries from further improving their relations?
It would require very radical revisions on the part of China, mostly unrelated to India specifically. If the Chinese were to rethink elements of the Belt and Road Initiative, or if they were to do some dramatic and bold reforms to their domestic economy, then the relationship could improve. Economically, it seems that some of China’s leaders intend to do this, though they may be unable to for a variety of reasons. Attitudes need to change, too. There needs to be an acknowledgement that other countries have their own domestic politics and concerns. That is something that China’s leadership has not been prone to do.
A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed 72% of Indians were concerned that territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries could lead to a military conflict. Do you think these concerns are legitimate? How do you think popular opinion in India and China affects the countries’ diplomatic relationship?
There is always a concern that public opinion can drive a government into a corner and reduce room for compromise. To some degree, this happened in 1962 when China and India had a border war. India had made very bold claims that it could not, at the time, back up militarily. Public opinion was what shaped such a hard position on that. That, in some ways, boxed India into a corner and reduced opportunity for compromise. The surveys that have been conducted on Indian public opinion toward China tend to be quite mixed, including this Pew poll. This suggests, at least recently, that Indian concerns about China are quite mixed. This stands in stark contrast to polls on Indian views of Pakistan, which tend to be overwhelmingly hostile. Opinions on India and China are still very mixed, though I do see negative views growing over time. But unlike Pakistan, there are still sizable positive constituencies as well.
When asked which country was the greatest threat to India in the same survey, the highest percentage of respondents (45%) answered Pakistan. How does Pakistan factor into China-India relations?
One reason for these views on Pakistan is that Pakistan is a daily preoccupation for India’s armed forces. There still is a system in Pakistan of recruiting, financing and training militant groups, and helping to infiltrate them across the border to India. Very regularly we see news reports of Indian armed forces having to deal with cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. That has played out accordingly in public opinion. The China-Pakistan relationship is actually an old one, and dates back in some ways to the 1960s. Pakistan was the conduit for the U.S.-China negotiations in 1971. From 1976 onwards, there was nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan, including the transfer of materials to Pakistan for bombs from China. In the early 1990s, missile technology was transferred. So there is a much older military relationship between China and Pakistan, with much of it targeting India because of mutual concerns about India. Lately, it has taken on another, more economic dimension. The signature element of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is the China-Pakistan economic corridor. China is now investing very heavily in Pakistan in major infrastructure projects, including roads, railway networks, power stations, mass transit systems and ports. This has added another dimension to the China-Pakistan relationship. In India, this is viewed with a great deal of concern. The concern is that Pakistan is borrowing heavily from China, and may be unable to pay off those debts. This might lead China to try to extract political and possibly security favors from Pakistan. Elements of this are already happening in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where these countries have become mired in debt owed to China.
How do you see the India-China relationship being affected by the worsening U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry? How do Indian strategists see the unfolding U.S.-China strategic competition? What are the opportunities and potential pitfalls for India in this new “cold war”?
There’s a great deal of uncertainty on that front as well. The U.S. sees India as an integral element to the balance of power in Asia, and has seen India in that light for some time. This has always been the case, and in some ways China’s rise has always been a driver of a closer U.S.-India defensive partnership. However, at the same time, the recent trade war between the U.S. and China appears to have also led to China taking a softer line with India. This may in part explain China’s willingness to cool temperatures with India. We must periodically reassess what the implications of the U.S.-China rivalry are for India because it is moving at such a fast pace, and because there are so many uncertainties. Economically, there could be many effects of the trade war. It has led to the devaluation of the currency in India. The U.S. has also slapped tariffs on India for steel and aluminum exports, although the value of these tariffs that have been applied is a tiny fraction of the value of tariffs applied to China. There is this possibility that India will get caught in the crosswinds between the U.S. and China, at least economically. In strategic terms it is leading to a greater acceleration of U.S.-India strategic conversions. We see this in the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy, which places India centrally in the mix. In some ways we may see strategic convergence, but also great economic uncertainty from India’s point of view.