India's China Policy: Importance of a Strategic Framework


According to many political observers, the global political architecture is undergoing a transformation with power increasingly shifting from the West to the East1.The two most populous nations on the earth China and India are on their way to becoming economic powerhouses and are shedding their reticence in asserting their global profiles. Japan is gradually flexing its military muscle and the Southeast Asian tigers are roaring again after the 1997 “Asian Flu”. Whether it is such hopeful prospects or the challenges ahead in the Korean peninsula, Taiwan , and Kashmir , it is clear that this new century will, in all likelihood, be an Asian century.

The future of this Asian century will to large extent depend upon the relationship between the two regional giants, China and India . According the United States National Intelligence Council Report on emerging global trends, by 2015, international community will have to confront the military, political and economic dimensions of the rise of China and India.2 The bilateral relationship between China and India will define the contours of the new international political architecture in Asia and the world at large. As of today, however, the trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship remains as complex as ever to decipher despite some remarkable positive developments in the last few years.

This article attempts to explore this complex, multi-layered relationship in all its dimensions, largely from the perspective of Indian foreign policy priorities. It mainly focuses on the recent developments in the Sino-Indian relationship.  It reviews India ’s and China ’s view of each other and their policies.  It examines the trends of convergence that have emerged in the past few years.  Additionally, it looks at the points of divergence and possible areas of concern in the relationship between Asia ’s giants.  

Sino-Indian Convergence: Bilateral and Global

Bilateral relations between India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have indeed come a long way after they touched their nadir in the immediate aftermath of India ’s nuclear tests in May 1998. China had been singled out as the “number one” security threat for India by India’s Defense Minister just before the nuclear tests.3 After the tests, the Indian Prime Minister wrote to the US President justifying Indian nuclear tests as a response to the threat posed by China.4 Unsurprisingly, China reacted strongly and diplomatic relations between the two countries plummeted to an all time low.

However, some six years later, the relations between the two countries seem to be on an upswing. The visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister to China in 1999 marked the resumption of high-level dialogue and the two sides declared that they were not threats to each other. A bilateral security dialogue was also initiated that has helped the two countries in openly expressing and sharing their security concerns with each other. India and China also decided to expedite the process of demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the Joint Working Group (JWG) on the boundary question, set up in 1988, has been meeting regularly5.As a first step in this direction, the two countries exchanged border maps on the least controversial middle sector of the LAC.

The Indian Prime Minster visited China in June 2003, the first such visit in a decade. The joint declaration signed during the visit stated that China was not a threat to India.6 The two states appointed special representatives in order to impart momentum to border negotiations that have lasted twenty two years, with the Prime Minister’s principal secretary becoming India’s political-level negotiator, replacing the India-China JWG. India and China also decided to hold their first joint naval exercise later in the year and discussions on joint air exercise continue. India also acknowledged China ’s sovereignty over Tibet and pledged not to allow “anti-China” political activities in India . On its part, China has acknowledged India ’s 1975 annexation of the former monarchy of Sikkim by agreeing to open a trading post along the border with the former kingdom and later rectified official maps to include Sikkim as part of India7.

India and China have found substantial convergence of interests at the international level. Both share similar concerns about the growing international dominance of the US , the threat of terrorism disguised as religious and ethnic movements and the need to accord primacy to economic development. India and China have both expressed concern about the US ’ use of military power around the world and publicly opposed the war in Iraq . This was merely a continuation of the desire of both states to oppose the US hyperpuissance ever since the end of the Cold War.

Like other major powers in the international system, India and China favor a multi-polar world order where US unipolarity remains constrained by the other “poles” in the system. China and India zealously guard their national sovereignty and have been wary of US attempts to interfere in what they see as domestic affairs of other stares, be it Serbia , Kosovo or Iraq . Both took strong exception to the US air strikes on Iraq in 1998, the US-led air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, and more recently the US campaign against Saddam Hussein arguing that these violated the national sovereignty and undermined the authority of the United Nations system8.

Both nations also favor more democratic international economic regimes. They have strongly resisted efforts by the US and other developed nations to link global trade to labor and environmental standards, realizing clearly that this would put them at a huge disadvantage vis-à-vis the developed world, thereby hampering their drive towards economic development, a top priority. Both have committed themselves to crafting joint Sino-Indian positions in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and global trade negotiations in the hope that this might provide them greater negotiating leverage over the developed states. They would like to see further liberalization of agricultural trade in the developed countries, tightening of the rules on anti-dumping measures and ensuring that non-trade related issues such as labor and environment are not allowed to come to the WTO.

In recent years, India and China have attempted to build their bilateral relationship on the basis of their larger worldview of international politics. As they have found a distinct convergence of their interests on world stage, they have used it to strengthen their bilateral relations. They have established and maintained regular reciprocal high-level visits between political leaders. There has been a sincere attempt to improve trade relations and to compartmentalize intractable issues that make it difficult for their bilateral relationship to move forward.

India and China have strengthened their bilateral relationship in areas as distinct as cultural and educational exchanges, military exchanges, and science and technology cooperation. Bilateral trade has recorded rapid growth from a trade volume of US $265 million in 1991 to US $3596 million in 2001. In 2001, bilateral trade saw an increase of 23.4 percent over 2000.  It is expected to rise to $10 billion this year. The two nations are even evaluating the possibility of signing a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement and a free trade agreement by the end of this year, thereby building on strong complementarities between the two9.

Both states are also taking steps to upgrade their military-related cooperation, leading to greater understanding on the bilateral military front, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago10.As a first step in this direction, the Chinese and Indian navies carried out joint search and rescue operations off the Shanghai coast in November 2003. Both states are also seeking to cooperate on the nuclear front with China planning to import heavy water from India to be utilized in the pressurized heavy water reactors near Shanghai11.

Many observers have also pointed out a subtle shift in Beijing ’s stance on Pakistan vis-à-vis India . China ’s “neutral” position during the Kargil conflict and the intense Indo-Pak crisis following the terrorist attack on the India ’s Parliament is seen by many as a reflection of China ’s sincerity in its attempts to improve ties. In keeping with China’s attempts to project itself as a responsible regional player, China is seen by some as supporting peace and anti-terrorist efforts in South Asia by cooperating with the US and India. China is also seen as playing a central role in encouraging Pakistan to negotiate with India by using its leverage over Pakistan12.

After assuming office Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government made it clear that it favored closer ties with China and would continue to work towards improving bilateral relations with China . In his first address to the nation, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, also emphasized the carrying forward of the process of further development and diversification of Sino-Indian relations13.The late J.N. Dixit, National Security Advisor in the current government, wrote that “the Congress will continue the process of normalizing, strengthening and expanding India’s relations with China, which is the most important factor affecting Asian security and stability”14.One of the first foreign visits of the new Indian foreign minister, Natwar Singh, was to China to attend the Asia Cooperation Dialogue in Qingdao, in East China's Shandong province and apparently had “substantive discussions” with his Chinese counterpart15.

All this reflects on India continuing to build its relations with China on the convergence of interests that the two nations have achieved in recent years. Aside from the positive developments, one should not ignore the enormous obstacles that confront this bilateral relationship. There has been a dominant tendency in the Indian foreign policy establishment to focus on the strengths of its bilateral relations with China while pretending that problems confronting the relationship would somehow take care of themselves. The challenges in the Sino-Indian relationship are by no means insignificant nor will China take care of Indian interests. It is for India to recognize them for what they are and evolve a coherent strategy to tackle them.

Divergences and Challenges

The number one priority for China 's leadership today is economic growth and social stability. China recently underwent one of the most peaceful and orderly political transformations in its recent history, even though its exact ramifications remain far from clear. Hu Jintao became Communist Party chief in 2002 and President of China in 2003 replacing Jiang Zemin. He also finally ceded the effective control of the armed forces to Hu Jintao in September 2004. Hu Jintao is now formally in command of the vast party, government, and military bureaucracies that rule China . This shift, although important for the smooth working of the Chinese government, is unlikely to produce any radical change in China ’s foreign policy.  China 's focus is going to be on maintaining its high rate of economic growth in the coming years. It should be remembered that Hu Jintao is a product of the “evolutionary policies” of Deng Xiao Peng that emphasize economic growth and orderly governance. President Hu Jintao has made it amply clear that Western-style multiparty democracy is something that would not serve the Chinese people well, terming it a “blind alley” for China . Therefore, one can expect China to continue on its current economic trajectory and shaping its foreign policy accordingly.

China has enjoyed average annual rates of real income growth of around 10 percent in the last two decades of the twentieth century, something unprecedented historically. China accounts for about 5 percent of world trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) to China is predicted to reach an annual utilized rate of 100 billion in 2005. After its accession to the WTO, China ’s already-high global economic profile is set to rise manifold. China will continue to focus on maintaining its high rates of economic growth in the coming years, even as some of the economic challenges China faces will become more acute. The burgeoning income disparities, restructuring of its states owned enterprises and the problem of non-performing loans in its banks are just a few of the economic problems China ’s economy is likely to face in the coming years. So far China has managed remarkably even though the future remains uncertain.

Broadly speaking, Indians either view China ’s economic growth as a façade or envy it16. While India has achieved some remarkable growth rates in the last few years enjoying average annual rates of real income growth of six percent in the last two decades of the twentieth century, it still lags behind China . India accounts for less than one percent of world trade in goods and services. Currently, China outperforms India in terms of levels of growth, education, health, and living standards of its population, and global integration of its economy. China outpaces India , in sectors where the two compete for third country markets. Sino-Indian competition for these markets is bound to further intensify in the coming years.

Though some argue that the long term economic prospects of India are much better than China ’s, China remains the undisputed economic powerhouse of the moment driving the Asian and global economy with India somewhere far behind. The fact of the matter is so long as India does not place its own economic house in order; it will remain a second-rate power even in Asia . And China will remain the Asian power that the world will look up to when trying to manage problems in Asia .

What should be equally, if not more, significant for India is the fact that it is China's economic transformation that has given it the capability to become a military power with China spending as much as $65 billion a year on its military17.China's military may or may not be able to challenge US supremacy in the next few years but it will surely become the most dominant force in Asia. According to authoritative sources, China is set to overtake Japan in the next decade to become Asia ’s major regional military power18. The US involvement in the global war on terror has put the “containment” of China on the backburner and China has seized on this opportunity to strengthen its armed forces further.

China imbibed the lessons of US military undertakings such as the 1991 Gulf War, war in Afghanistan and the recent operation Iraqi Freedom. These have spurred China’s pursuit of the latest Revolution in Military affairs (RMA) manifested in the buying, adopting of latest technologies and weapons systems (particularly from Russia) along with concomitant changes in doctrine and organizational structures19. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been shedding its manpower since late 1990s to save funds so as to be able to focus on high tech. Despite a western embargo on China preventing transfer of military technologies, China has been able to deftly use US corporations to garner and apply dual-use technologies20. China is simultaneously pursuing a qualitative and quantitative transformation of its nuclear infrastructure. China plans to deploy new road-mobile, solid-fueled, long-range missiles over the next several years possibly to counter US ballistic missile defense.

Overtime, China ’s enhanced military prowess will lead it to assert its interests more forcefully, thereby, adversely affecting Indian interests. As China becomes more reliant on imported oil for its rapidly growing industrial economy, China will develop and exercise military power projection capabilities to protect the shipping that transports oil from the Persian Gulf to China . The capability to project power would require access to advanced naval bases along the sea lines of communication and forces capable of gaining and sustaining naval and air superiority.

China 's assistance to Myanmar in constructing and improving port facilities on two islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is the first step to securing military base privileges in the Indian Ocean . This can be used as a listening post to gather intelligence on Indian naval operations and a potential forward base for future Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean . India 's traditional geographic advantages in the Indian Ocean are also increasingly at risk with deepening Chinese involvement in Myanmar . China 's increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean is of tremendous strategic consequence for India . There are also suggestions that the balance of air power in the China-India theater has shifted in China ’s favor with it acquiring an inventory of about 1500 modern combat aircraft for deployment in the theater21.

China remains the only major power in the world that refuses to discuss nuclear issues with India for fear that this might imply a de facto recognition of India ’s status as a nuclear power. It continues to insist on the sanctity of the UN resolution 1172 which calls for India (and Pakistan ) to give up its nuclear weapons program and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state22. This was reflected in China ’s lack of response to the Indian Foreign Minister’s proposal of a common nuclear doctrine for China , India , and Pakistan . China would not like to get into any sort of nuclear dialogue with India that might give the impression of China recognizing India as a nuclear power. Moreover, while both India and China have a “no first use” nuclear doctrine, China ’s doctrine is not applicable to India as it is not a party to the NPT.

China has done its best to maintain a rough balance of power in Indian Subcontinent by preventing India from gaining an upper hand over Pakistan . It has consistently assisted Pakistan 's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs to counterbalance India 's development of new weapons systems. India 's preoccupation with Pakistan reduces India to the level of a regional power while China can claim the status of an Asian and world power. China signed a charter to step up bilateral defense cooperation with Pakistan “to help maintain peace and stability in South Asia ” even as it professes to improve its relations with India . Moreover, even as India and China share similar concerns regarding Islamic terrorism in Kashmir and Xinjiang respectively, China has been rather unwilling to make a common cause with India against Pakistan . China ’s use of India ’s neighbors to curtail Indian influence has not been restricted to Pakistan . China has actively sought to contain India all around its periphery by engaging Nepal , Bangladesh and Myanmar .

Despite resolving most of its border disputes with other countries, China is reluctant to move ahead with India on border issues. India ’s discussion of border issues with China is seen as a concession. India remains satisfied with the “positive” and “satisfactory” Joint Working Group negotiations on the boundary issue. Despite the need for an expeditious demarcation of the Line of Actual Control, the talks seem to be continuing endlessly and the momentum of the talks itself seems to have flagged.  

The momentum of the issue of Tibet seems to have been lost.  Tibet has become a platform for the projection of Chinese military power. India 's tacit support to Dalai Lama's government-in-exile has failed to have much of an impact either on China or on the international community. Today even Dalai Lama seems ready to talk to the Chinese as he realizes that in a few years Tibet might get overwhelmed with the Han population and Tibetans themselves might become a minority. The proposed opening up of the Nathula trade route that connects Tibet and Sikkim has been much trumpeted by the Indian government as a major achievement of Indian diplomacy. However, this step is fraught with dangers as there is no certainty that internal security threat posed by Chinese infiltration would not get worse with the opening of Nathula. This has probably led to some rethinking in India on this issue23.

There were disturbing reports during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China , that Chinese troops had intruded into the Indian territory along a stretch of the unfenced border with Arunachal Pradesh. China refuses to recognize Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Indian territory , laying claim to 90, 000 sq. km. of its land. If recent reports are to be believed after a two-decade gap, China has resumed the supply of weapons to various insurgent groups fighting in northeastern India . China seems to be getting successful in hemming India in from both, the eastern and the western flanks.

China and India : Different Approaches, Different Outcomes

What the above discussion of the divergence and convergence between Sino-Indian interests reveals is the success of China in attaining its foreign policy objectives and the failure of India to preserve its vital interests vis-à-vis China . This cannot simply be attributed to China ’s economic and military strength. While China is definitely the bigger player in the region and the world at large but its success vis-à-vis India owes as much to its power as to the way that power has been cultivated and used. While realizing fully well that it would take China decades to seriously compete with the US , it has focused strategic energy on Asia . Its foreign policy is aimed at enhancing its economic and military prowess to achieve hegemony in Asia . China ’s recent emphasis on projecting itself as peaceful power is merely aimed at allaying the concerns of neighbors lest they try to counterbalance it24. China’s readiness to negotiate with other regional states and to be an economically “responsible” nation is also a signal to other states that there are greater benefits in bandwagoning to China’s growing regional weight rather than opposing its rise in any manner.

However, while declaring that it will be focusing on internal socio-economic development for the next decade or so, China has actively pursued policies of preventing the rise of other regional powers. In case of India , this manifests itself in its cultivation of Pakistan as a close ally. From supplying it nuclear and missile technologies to building its military infrastructure, China has done all it can to build Pakistan as a counterweight to India . This policy has largely succeeded as India no longer enjoys its earlier conventional superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan possession of nuclear weapons by both nations ensures that any step that India takes to strengthen its nuclear weapons profile is viewed by the international community as highly destabilizing in the context of the “nuclear flashpoint” that South Asia has become for the world at large. China has thereby been successful in emerging as a “responsible” global player, despite its abysmal nuclear and missile proliferation record while the international community rails at India for making the world much more dangerous.

China’s attempts to increase its influence in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, its persistent refusal to recognize parts of India such as Arunachal Pradesh, its lack of support for India’s membership to the United Nations Security Council and other regional and global organizations, all point towards China’s attempts at preventing the rise of India as a regional and global player of major import. It is this strategy that China has consistently and successfully pursued without any apologies. In fact, this strategy has been so successful that today China no longer believes that India can be a serious rival for Asian hegemony and some have pointed out, India is off of China ’s diplomatic radar.

In contrast to China ’s well-laid out policy vis-à-vis India , India has from time to time oscillated from one extreme to another. George Tanham has famously pointed out that India has shown little ability to think strategically on national security. In the case of India ’s China policy, it needs to be realized that there is nothing really sinister about China ’s attempts to expand its own influence and curtail India ’s. China is a rising power in Asia and the world and as such will do its utmost to prevent the rise of other power centers around its periphery like India that might in the future prevent it from taking its rightful place as a global player. This is not much different than the stated US policy of preventing the rise of other powers that might threaten its position as a global hegemon. Just as the US is working towards achieving its strategic objective, China is pursuing its own strategic agenda.

There is also nothing extraordinarily benign in China ’s attempts to improve its bilateral relations with India in recent times. After working to curtail India ’s influence in various ways, China would not like to see India coming close to the US in order to contain China . In this geopolitical chessboard, both the US and China are using India towards their own strategic ends. India must resist the tendency of reacting to the actions of other.   India ’s attempt to come up a coherent strategy towards China based on identified strategic objectives is of paramount importance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that it wants to have friendly relations with China , a reasonable foreign policy objective. However, without a clear articulation of India ’s national security objectives, pursuit of friendly relations with China should not become an end in itself. It should be a means towards achieving India ’s larger strategic objective of emerging as a major regional and global player.

India ’s China policy is also symptomatic of a larger misunderstanding in the Indian and political establishment with regard to a nation’s foreign policy. For the left-liberal strand in the Indian polity, foreign policy is merely an extension of domestic policy. As such since India is a secular, democratic, and peace-loving nation, India ’s pursuit of its relations with other states should merely be a reflection of these virtues. This has given rise to much of the moral rhetoric in foreign affairs. On the other hand, the Indian right, because of its preoccupation with establishing a “Hindu” nation and minority bashing, have extended its narrow sectarian view to foreign policy. The consequence has been its obsession with Pakistan as evil incarnate in its foreign policy agenda and its inclination to view the world in black and white, friends and enemies, evil and noble. Shaped by these forces, Indian foreign policy has merely been one of responding to events around it rather than anticipating them and evolving long-term strategies to deal with them. India’s China policy is a casualty of this reactionary approach.

India needs to develop its economic and military might without being apologetic. It needs to clearly articulate its national interests and engage China on a host of issues, from the border problem to the alleged dumping of cheap Chinese goods in the Indian market. India needs to recognize that appeasing China is neither desirable nor necessary even as a direct confrontation with China is not something India can afford, at least in the near future. It must also be recognized that while for India, managing its relations with China is at the top of its foreign policy agenda, China does not view India as a significant global player and is largely indifferent to India’s growing profile.

India is a rising power in Asia and there is nothing wrong in demanding its rightful place in the inter-state hierarchy. Simply put India and China are two major powers in Asia with global aspirations and some significant conflicting interests. As a result, some amount of friction in their bilateral relationship is inevitable. The geopolitical reality of Asia makes sure that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Hindi-Chini to be bhai-bhai (brothers) in the foreseeable future.  This reality should be accepted by the Indian policy makers, rather than wished away. India should make a serious attempt to manage this friction by expanding the zone of cooperation with China even as it tries to steadfastly pursue its national interests. India should display the confidence to craft a foreign policy that best serves its national security interests without always looking over the shoulders to make sure that China is not displeased. Again, India can learn a lot by examining how China has managed its relationship with the US in the last few years.

While India certainly needs to engage China in an effort at reconciling security and political perspectives, it is naïve to assert, as many do, that India should first be sensitive to China’s concerns, real or imaginary, before defining its foreign policy goals and strategic agenda. Does China consult India in its pursuit of its own strategic objectives? It does not and neither should India expect it to. In a similar vein, India should define its foreign policy agenda in view of its own national security imperatives.

But for this to happen, the government of India will have to formulate a clear China policy and, more importantly, a broader national security strategy. Ad-hocism just won’t do. This should be the top foreign policy priority of the Indian government if it wants India to emerge as a global power of any reckoning. India should heed to Sun Tzu’s advice and recognize that a merely tactical foreign policy approach without the backing of a sound strategy will only lead to nowhere.

References and Footnotes

See, for example, James F. Hoge, Jr., “A Global Power Shift in the Making,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2004, available at
The report is available at
“India’s New Defense Chief Sees Chinese Military Threat,” The New York Times, 5 May 1998, p. A6.
The text of the letter was published in the New York Times, May 13, 1998, p. A12.
The JWG was set up in 1988 during the then Indian Prime Minster, Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China to explore the boundary issue and examine probable solutions to the problem. As a follow up in 1993, the two sides signed the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. Thereafter the India-China Expert Group of Diplomatic and Military Officials (EG) was set up under the JWG. Both the JWG and EG have been meeting regularly since then.
For details, see the “Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation Between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China ,” available at <>.
Amit Baruah, “ China keeps its word on Sikkim ,” The Hindu, New Delhi , May 7, 2004.
See “ Russia , China , India Pile up Pressure on West over Kosovo,” The Indian Express, New Delhi , March 26, 1999. Also, see no. 6.
P.S. Suryanarayana, “ India , China discuss economic ties,” The Hindu, New Delhi , March 25, 2004.
P.S. Suryanarayana, “ India , China likely to move forward on military ties,” The Hindu, New Delhi , March 23, 2004.
S. Laxman, “ China seeks nuclear input from India , The Times of India, New Delhi , December 13, 2003.
“ China Pursues India-Pakistan Peace, Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2003.
The text of the Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s address to the nation is available at
J.N. Dixit, “A New Security Framework,” The Telegraph, Calcutta , May 17, 2004.
P.S. Suryanarayana, “Call for Security through Cooperation,” The Hindu, New Delhi , June 23, 2004.For some of the standard reactions, see
See the US Department of Defense “Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China ” at
See the report of an independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations on Chinese Military Power at
For details, see
Ravi V. Prasad, “ America ’s Two Timing,” The Hindustan Times, New Delhi , March 17, 2004.
Jasjit Singh, “The Arc in the Sky,” Indian Express, New Delhi , November 10, 2003.
“ China against India , Pakistan joining nuclear club,” The Hindu, New Delhi , June 30, 2004.
N. Banerjee, “Center to review Nathula Trade Policy,” The Times of India, New Delhi , June 22, 2004.
For a discussion of the various interpretations of China ’s ‘peaceful rise,’ see Evan S. Medeiros, “ China Debates Its ‘Peaceful Rise’ Strategy?” available at
“Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) was a popular slogan during the 1950s, the heydays of Sino-Indian relationship, that became discredited after the 1962 Sino-Indian war.