India, China and the Asian Century

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Professor S D Muni insists that a framework of cooperative engagement will promote healthy competition between India and China to build their respective economies and extend their reach and influence in Asia and beyond to realise the vision of the Asian Century, where Asia could decisively shape global and regional economic growth and strategic dynamics

No credible Asian century can be envisaged without a cooperative and constructive engagement between resurgent India and China. There is a broad consensus among international strategic analysts that India and China are on a rising trajectory and will remain so for the coming decades. China has grown much faster than India, but India has great potential to register robust economic growth within a democratic framework; peacefully, without challenging or threatening anyone else. For the engagement between India and China, there are two mutually competing narratives; one projecting a cooperative path and the other one characterised by mutual rivalry and conflict. Healthy competition between them for building their respective economies and extending their reach and influence in Asia and beyond is possible within the framework of cooperative engagement. This may not necessarily generate conflicts and disruptions to mar the aspirations of the Asian century. But the narrative of rivalry and conflict is not compatible with the vision of an Asian Century, where Asia could decisively shape global and regional economic growth and strategic dynamics.

Cooperative Engagement

The narrative of India-China constructive engagement is embedded into their respective historical and civilisational evolutions. Reference is made to the period from 1st to the 18th centuries when India and China together accounted for more than 50 percent of the world’s total wealth and prosperity according to a map by JP Morgan’s Michael Cembalest, showing world GDP growth since the 1st century AD. While from the 1st to the 15th century, India’s growth was more than that of China; from the 15th to the 18th century, China accounted for more than 30 percent against India’s 23-24 percent of world’s prosperity. During this period of the Asian Century, there was no conflict or rivalry between them. Despite economic differences, China considered India as a source of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment for being the country of Buddha; Guru Padmasmabhav and Shakya Muni. The rise of Confucianism in China (206 BC - 8 AD) happily mingled with India’s Buddhism to evolve a unique philosophical and cultural synergy between the two civilisations. However, China and India were pushed back economically and strategically; and their civilisational harmony was eroded with the rise of European imperialism, particularly the British Empire in India.

Nehru was acutely sensitive to this civilisational and historical reality surrounding India and China. In India’s post-independence vision of Asian solidarity, Nehru sought cooperation and peaceful coexistence with China, more so in the context of the rising Cold War that was dividing Asia between ideological and military blocks led by the Western ‘Super Powers’. In the 21st century, with India and China being acknowledged as resurgent Asian powers, it is recognised that both are still developing countries and they need peace and stability with each other in order to grow. India’s former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh while addressing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing on January 15, 2008, said, “I look forward with optimism to the future and the role which India and China are destined to play in the transformation of Asia and the world. This optimism is based on my conviction that there is enough space for both India and China to grow and prosper while strengthening our cooperative engagement. History shows that our two great civilisations flourished for centuries side by side, interacting and influencing each other.”

The spirit of growing together in ‘cooperative engagement’ was endorsed by Chinese leaders. The then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his joint Statement with Dr Singh in Delhi in December 2010 reiterated that ‘there is enough space in the world for the development of both India and China, and indeed enough areas for India and China to cooperate’. Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, while developing their mega foreign policy projects like ‘Maritime Silk Road’ and ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, from 2013 onwards have repeatedly referred to their intent to ‘re-establish ancient friendly ties in a modern, globalised world’ through the working of these projects with neighbouring countries. China has urged India to join these projects and work together in developing South Asian infrastructure. China has shown interest even in coordinating their projects with India’s ‘Spice Trade Route’ and ‘Project Mausam’ for the Asia-Pacific region. There also exists a real possibility for India and China to coordinate their efforts to cope with the aftermath of US withdrawal from Afghanistan if not unduly constrained by Pakistan. The narrative of constructive cooperative engagement between India and China is clearly reflected in their burgeoning economic relations of trade and investments. The Modi government is looking forward to enhanced Chinese investments in India’s infrastructural projects. The two Asian giants also share their mutual concerns for global commons such as preference for a multi-polar world, fight against terrorism, energy security and climate change. They work together in various regional and trans-regional groupings like BRICS, Russia-India-China (RIC), and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). India has accepted China as an Observer State in SAARC since 2007, and China has encouraged India to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Sources of Conflict

The narrative of rivalry and conflict between India and China traces its origin from the period of British Empire in India. The consolidation and expansion of the Empire through the ‘great games’ in the Himalayas and expansion in the Asian region brought the British into conflicts with China, where Tibet became an important object of influence and control. Some historians, such as Tansen Sen, however, go back to the first half of 15th century (1405-1433) when Chinese Admiral Zheng He undertook military missions to countries ranging from Indonesia to India to project Chinese power under the cover of ‘peace and friendship’. Independent India’s discomfort with China resulted not only from the victory of the Communist revolution in China in 1949, but more from its military assertion in Tibet in 1950 and beyond. Mao’s controversial statement describing Tibet as Chinese palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh as its five fingers disturbed India’s policymakers. Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet and refuge in India in 1959, where he established a Tibetan government in exile and China’s unexpected military move against India in October 1962 resulting in a humiliating defeat for the latter continue to create a trust deficit between the two nations. Both countries have developed Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) since 1993 to keep the border peaceful and stable, but there has been no progress since 2005 on resolving the issue, particularly on China’s part. India views the unresolved border dispute and periodic Chinese encroachments on the LAC as a source of threat from China. Responding to the incidents of Chinese border encroachments during President’s Xi Jinping’s State visit to India, Prime Minister Modi in his press statement on September 18, 2014 said, “I raised our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border. We agreed that peace and tranquillity in the border region constitutes an essential foundation for mutual trust and confidence and for realising the full potential of our relationship. This is an important understanding which should be strictly observed…I also suggested that clarification of the Line of Actual Control would greatly contribute to our efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity and requested President Xi to resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC.”

From the Indian side, yet another source of irritation and tension with China has been China’s ‘all weather friendship’ with Pakistan. Under this friendship, China has stood by Pakistan on the latter’s conflicts and aggressions against India since 1965. In 1963, Pakistan even ceded a large chunk of territory to China in the disputed Kashmir region while resolving their border issue. China has not only been supplying to and co-producing arms with Pakistan, but has also helped it build its nuclear arsenal. China’s official stance on the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan has generally been of neutrality, maintaining that the two countries should resolve it through peaceful negotiations. However, since 2012, China has undertaken infrastructure projects in the disputed parts of Kashmir lying under Pakistani control, and in December 2014, the local authorities in China’s Xinjiang province have even described the disputed area of Gilgit-Baltistanas belonging to Pakistan (India Today, December 03, 2014).

There are also growing concerns about China’s projected outreach in the Indian Ocean and India’s immediate neighbourhood. China’s growing naval capabilities and its operative and proposed investments in ports like Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, KyaukpyuSittwe in Myanmar and Marao in Maldives are viewed as encirclement by India’s strategic community. Though these ports are ostensibly claimed as commercial projects, the possibility of their strategic and naval use cannot be ruled out, as there are already such indications with regard to Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The narrative of conflict is not confined to India alone. China too has its worries and security concerns vis-à-vis India. The presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile in India has been a major Chinese irritation since 1959. The continuing stream of Tibetan refugees to India and other South Asian countries has been a mark of persisting Chinese vulnerability in Tibet, which Chinese fears can be exploited by India and other powers. The scars of the last Tibetan turbulence in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics have not yet healed. China has refused to heed the Indian advice of engaging the Dalai Lama to resolve the Tibetan question. China also reacted strongly to the Dalai Lama’s decision to devolve his political authority to a new incumbent, Lobsang Sangay in 2011 and designate him as the prime minister of the Tibetan Government. They fear that this is an arrangement to keep the Tibetan resistance alive even after Dalai Lama’s death, with the support of India, US and other Western powers. Prime Minister Modi’s invite to the Tibetan Prime Minister Sangay for his oath taking ceremony in May 2014 was resented by the Chinese side.

China’s increasing concern about India during the past decade has been about the latter’s possible role in Asia’s strategic dynamics where the former is pitted against the US. In the emerging Asian strategic dynamics, China considers India as a swing state capable of changing power equations. This has been the specific context of growing Indo-US relations since the beginning of this century and the US strategy to rebalance its presence and position in the Asia-Pacific region launched officially in 2011. China has not taken easily to the Indo-US warming up, particularly following the civil nuclear deal and the US interest in building India’s military capabilities. President Obama described India-US relations as the defining partnership of the current century during his first State visit to India in 2010. Former US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta in May 2012 in New Delhi characterised India as the ‘linchpin in US strategy’ in Asia.

The Chinese reactions have been adverse to this warming up and a number of commentators in the Global Times and Peoples’ Democracy came down heavily on India’s strategic proximity with the US. To record its displeasure with the Indo-US nuclear deal, China offered a similar civil-nuclear deal to Pakistan. China has also resisted India’s seat at the proposed high tables of global strategic decision-making like at the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Club. All this was evident even when the previous Indian regime headed by Dr Manmohan Singh was sensitive towards China’s concerns and tried to maintain a careful balance in Sino-US competition by asserting India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ in relation to the US.

China’s discomfort with the Indo-US warming up has been enhanced under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi. While the Modi government promises to expand on its economic engagement with China by accepting Chinese investments and increasing trade, it has relaxed India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ concept subtly to move closer to the US, both economically and strategically. There have been many indications in this respect. India under Modi has been firming up its strategic partnerships with two strong US allies in Asia – Japan and Australia. During Modi’s visit to the US in late September 2014, for the first time India and the US mentioned the question of disputes in the South China Sea in the official Joint Statement. Then, President Obama was invited to visit India in January 2015 as a special guest for Republic Day. One of the Indo-US statements issued during this visit focussed specially on the cooperation between both countries for peace, security and stability of the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific regions. The Modi government under its ‘Make in India’ project has encouraged the US to participate in India’s defence production. The US is now prepared to transfer high-end military technology to India in specific sectors and participate in joint production of weapon systems. Strategically upgraded military exercises between India and the US in the Indian Ocean are also being closely monitored by China. The US is taking advantage of India’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean. As and when India completes its project of building Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a formidable tri-service base, India will have added power projecting capabilities in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea region. India, however, thinks that its strategic proximity with the US is only for capacity building, and is a tactical move to nudge China towards a genuine cooperative engagement with India. India’s clear message to China is that it is prepared to work with the latter in achieving a multi-polar world order, but not at the cost of a unipolar, Chinese dominated, Asian power structure. The Modi government’s renewed vigour in cultivating immediate neighbours is also driven by the objective of containing growing Chinese presence and influence in India’s sensitive region.

Asian Century

Both the competing and mutually incompatible narratives of India-China relations are evolving simultaneously to shape the contours of the Asian Century. However, an Asian century will take a credible form only when the cooperative narrative overtakes the conflictual one. In Chinese perceptions and strategic calculations, India’s growing strategic proximity with the US is a willing endorsement of the US traditional balance of power strategy to put Asians against Asians to constraint and contain China’s rise. This will not allow the Asian Century to materialise. China is also not unaware of the fact that Indo-US strategic cooperation will build India’s capabilities and facilitate India’s rise to a level where it can challenge China’s predominance in Asia. Therefore, the more India gets closer to the US, the more China pleads with it to keep a distance. China’s outreach to India’s immediate neighbours, particularly strategic cooperation with Pakistan, and its growing presence in the Indian Ocean are also built on calculations to keep India boxed in South Asia.

For India, its trust deficit with China can only be bridged if and when China moves to resolve the border dispute in a speedy and amicable manner. China also needs to desist from using Pakistan as a counter balance and encroaching upon India’s strategic space in its sensitive neighbourhood. India may live with China’s growing economic presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, but if this presence is used as a strategic asset, then India would counter it by exploiting China’s Malacca dilemma and reinforcing its ties with South China Sea countries like Vietnam and Indonesia. Sections of India’s strategic community believe that China pushed its civilisational synergy with India on the backburner as a result of the political and strategic disconnect between Mao’s revolution and China’s cultural heritage. For the past decade or so, India has been vigorously persuading China to undo this disconnect and revive civilisational thrust. The Sino-Indian project on preparing an encyclopaedia of cultural contacts between India and China that was started in 2010 and completed in two volumes in 2014 was one small step in this direction.

The prospects of the Asian Century depend on the extent to which India and China measure up to each other’s expectations in reinforcing and consolidating the narrative of cooperative and constructive engagement.

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Professor S D Muni

Professor S D Muni is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Distinguished Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi.

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