China, India and Growing Tensions

The twenty-first century has brought about the emergence of two new up and coming world powers: the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India. The days of the United States being the world’s sole superpower are long gone, especially since China and India’s ongoing economic and industrial developments foretell their potential future rise in power. However, though these two Asian nations have both experienced an impressive degree of growth and might benefit from a close alliance, China and India are far from friends.

Image courtesy of Brazilian Ministry of Exteneral Relations, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Relations between China and India have always been somewhat distrustful. In the early 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sacrificed the nation of Tibet in hopes of softening the relationship between India and China. However, China did not stop at Tibet and continued territorial expansion by claiming ownership of other Indian territories such as Sikkim. After this point in history, Indians have always had a sense of distrust of the Chinese. The relationship between the two nations has been even more guarded since the 1962 Sino-India Border Dispute, a disagreement about the ownership of the territory known as Arunachal Pradesh, which India thought belonged to their region in Kashmir and China thought belonged to their region in Xinjiang. The clash was partially provoked by India’s decision to provide the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees with sanctuary in north-western India, which the Chinese saw as Indian imperialism in Tibet. The nations attempted to get past this dark part of their history in July of 2006 by reopening the ancient Nathu La border, which had been closed since the outbreak of the war. They had hoped the border would help boost trade and bilateral relations, but in November of the same year, there was once again a disagreement when the then Chinese Ambassador to India stated that Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory. Tensions thereby escalated and India reinforced their military presence in the region. While China and India have seemingly made progress in other areas of their political relationship, but the situation with Arunachal Pradesh is what the Brussels-based Chinese foreign policy expert Jonathan Holslag describes as “a historic scar that impedes progress”.

The uneasiness between China and India stemming from their 1962 border dispute has trickled into their present-day relationship. With their position as two of the world’s most powerful, industrialising nations, there is an element of competition that could hypothetically transform into conflict. China and India are currently building up their interests in the bordering conflict-ridden regions of Nepal and Burma, which possess an abundance of necessary natural resources. The acquisition of these resources would help promote both China and India’s economic pursuits. The problem is, however, that both nations are after the same resources, which leads to tension fuelled by competition. In addition, experts in the field view the instability in Nepal and Burma as a big threat to Sino-India relations, since violent breakouts in the regions would raise security concerns throughout Asia, and therefore lead to increased distrust between China and India.

Another major point of contention between China and India is their respective nuclear situations. Until very recently, China was always regarded as the stronger nation in terms of its nuclear capabilities. China started intensely developing its nuclear program well before India, and by 1964, had successfully tested its first nuclear weapon. Academics in the field argue that due to China’s lead in the Asian nuclear race, it never expected India’s nuclear capability to be a source of worry. India finalised an agreement with the United States in July of 2007 will enable it to catch up to China in nuclear technology. This concerned China, which was blatantly unhappy with the agreement proposed by the United States. Then in April of 2012, India test fired an Agni-V ballistic missile that has the ability to reach Beijing. China’s current deterrent capabilities are advanced enough to handle the tested Indian missile, but China is still alarmed by India’s potential further nuclear advancements. This pseudo-arms race between China and India reinforces the competitive nature between the two nations and also provides an outlet for potential conflict in the future.

There is distrust embedded in the history of both of these nations, which has negatively impacted their current-day interactions. From border disputes to the struggle to achieve economic and nuclear superiority, China and India are constantly engaged in a competition that, if taken too far, could lead to serious conflict. It is likely that these two nations will continue strengthening their domestic positions and therefore their places in the international community. Whether this is done amicably or aggressively depends on if the respective agendas of the nations clash. Like anything else in international relations, there is no guarantee of conflict between China and India, but there is also no guarantee of peace.