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India’s China Conundrum | Roundtable with Shivshankar Menon

There is a significant asymmetry in relations between China and India on all fronts- economic, political and strategic. Brookings India roundtable explored why. 

As part of a regular private roundtable discussion series on foreign policy, Brookings India hosted a discussion on India’s China Conundrum anchored by Ambassador Shivshankar Menon. The discussion was attended by members of the strategic community, academia, think-tanks, the business community and media.  Relations between China and India have seen significant twists and turns in the last few years. Issues such as the recent flip flop on granting of visa to Dolkun Isa, China’s position in the South China Sea, China’s presence in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China’s One Belt One Road initiative etc. have ratcheted up tensions between the two countries. However, there is also evidence of progress in the bilateral relationship in the form of high level visits by Indian officials to China in the recent past.

There was a general consensus in the discussion group that there is a significant asymmetry in relations between China and India on all fronts- economic, political and strategic. One of the reasons for India’s asymmetry with China on strategic issues has been the Indian over-fixation on Pakistan and the immediate threat posed by Pakistan to India. Economically, China is about four times stronger than India, an asymmetry that will be difficult to overcome in the near future. Perhaps the most important reason for this asymmetry is the lack of a strategic vision on how to deal with China and its presence in the sub-continent.

The nature of Chinese foreign policy and its engagement with the world has undergone some change in the last few years. While China traditionally concentrated on developing economic relationships for trade purposes, it now actively pursues political engagements in countries that are important for its strategic and economic interests. For example, there is a much higher level of Chinese commitment to Pakistan in terms of money, defence, political engagement etc. The Chinese leadership has also showed more willingness to comment on issues of strategic importance in South Asia as well as on India’s membership in multilateral regimes such as the United Nations Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. China has been making its presence felt in all SAARC countries, whether it is Nepal, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, either through economic or political engagement. China’s increasing involvement in the Indian periphery is therefore a serious concern for India.

With the assertive rise of China, we are in a situation where the traditional international order in the Asia-Pacific has been struggling to provide security. Smaller states like India and others in the Asia-Pacific are therefore presented with three alternatives in dealing with China. First, establishing a new equilibrium through increased economic engagement and working together on issues in the multilateral order. Second, to contest China’s rise through military and other means. Third, to muddle through issues to the best of each state’s ability. For India, the third alternative seems most likely to work since there is no visible Chinese or Indian effort to come together to resolve issues or chart a new relationship.

Indian reticence on China stems from several issues with the Chinese leadership. Opacity in decision making by the Chinese, whether it pertains to bilateral border issues or multilateral issues, hampers trust and makes it difficult to engage on policy issues. China is often seen behaving in ways that do not correspond to the status quo whether it is with regards to India or the South China Sea. Such revisionist tendencies are disconcerting for rising powers like India. China has also not been respectful of international norms as in the case of South China Sea and its proliferation record with Pakistan. The economic imbalance between China and India, and the hostile trade environment in terms of dumping of goods, countervailing duties has also been a concern. Therefore, a more transparent and status quo- friendly China that respects international norms and rules would be in India’s interests.

While there are no concrete answers on what should be the Indian strategy to counter and/or accommodate Chinese dominance, clarity by Indian officials on certain issues can help devise a credible strategy to deal with China. A clear stand on OBOR and CPEC and their implications for India, devising new mechanisms for low level deterrence at the borders, a credible strategy in the South China Sea, sensitizing our partners such as the U.S. & Japan about Indian concerns in the Bay of Bengal, the issue of Tibet in the post-Dalai Lama world and our strategy in that political context, are some of the issues that need to be articulated to be able to use them as levers against China.

It is important to note that there have been some significant domestic changes within China on economic, political and socio-cultural fronts. More than half the population does not depend directly on the Communist government for their income, anymore. Therefore the government’s ability to control society has decreased considerably. Domestic economic growth has slowed down, putting the Communist Party of China on the back foot. The result of these internal changes is manifested in its external posturing in the form of nationalism and assertion of its rising stature. Given the communist approach of the Chinese leadership, there is a strong likelihood of open hostilities between China and other democratic powers in the future. The biggest challenge is to therefore muster enough diplomatic, political and economic acumen to avoid another conflict like the Second World War. For India, it is important to come to terms with China’s rise and for China to understand Indian ambitions. More importantly, the international community can and must accommodate China and India, as the two great rising powers, into the international system.

Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this report is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.

 

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