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Can China and India coexist in South Asia?

Published onNov 15, 2022
Can China and India coexist in South Asia?

China is on friendly terms with the vast majority of South Asian nations. In the years ahead, China's biggest challenge in South Asia is how to live peacefully with India. Specifically, four issues need to be considered: 1. how China and India can maintain peace along the Line of Actual Control where the border dispute has not yet been resolved; 2. how India can view China’s economic activities and military presence in South Asia with an open mind; 3. what role India will play in the American Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China; 4. how China and India can play a positive role in the new world order at the dawn of the Asian century.

  1. The Sino-Indian Border Dispute

The border dispute plaguing China-India relations cannot be resolved in the foreseeable future due to the lack of demarcation of the Line of Actual Control and the different views China and India have on border dispute resolution. Essentially, China hopes to take a top-down approach by first agreeing on the political principles of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation before dealing with the border dispute, while the Indian perspective consists a bottom-up approach, which involves an intent to maintain the status quo by verifying the Line of Actual Control.

The Galwan clash on June 15, 2020 shattered more than 40 years of peace in the Sino-Indian border. While this is extremely unfortunate, the two modern militaries actually fought in Stone Age fashion, with stones and clubs. This meant that they knew they should not shoot at each other under any circumstances, and also revealed that past confidence-building measures between China and India have worked to a certain extent. If the two sides can fully learn from the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and 4 Chinese soldiers and strengthen risk management, it is possible that we can live in peace for the next 40 years or even more.

So, what should we do now? Both sides are currently deploying large numbers of troops along the border. First, both sides have already disengaged in areas such as Pangong Lake and Hot Spring, and this practice should be followed in other places to disengage both nations’ militaries from the most dangerous places and maintain peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the Sino-Indian border areas.

Second, the two sides should tease out and implement past confidence-building measures. China and India have five agreements and protocols on confidence--more than any other bilateral confidence measures between China and other countries, and they are rich and specific. For example, the Agreement between India and China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas stipulates that division-level exercises should not be held near the Line of Actual Control, that is, they should not involve more than 15000 personnel. If brigade-level exercises are to be held, that is, if they involve 5000 personnel, the other side should be notified in advance, and military aircraft should not be present within a close range of 10 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control. The Agreement stipulates that when troops from one side are patrolling, the other side should not trail behind closely. I do not think there is a need for new confidence-building measures between China and India if both sides are serious about implementing these established provisions.

Because of what happened in the Galwan Valley, I think the Indian government is still in a state of resentment and affect. Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar recently stated that “the future of Asia is linked to the development of India-China relations and the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship.” I agree with the first half of the statement, but the second half goes back to the Indian government’s position before Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in 1988. Border disputes are not unique to China and India, and India does not only have border disputes with China. If Pakistan also requires that the Kashmir issue to be resolved before developing India-Pakistan relations, does that sound reasonable? The Sino-Indian border issue should not be an insurmountable obstacle to the normalization of relations between the two countries, not to mention that the Chinese side also suffered casualties in the clash. After the Galwan skirmish, Chinese-funded enterprises in India were in a difficult situation, but by 2021, bilateral trade between China and India rose to a record $125.6 billion USD, demonstrating that vitality of China-India economic relations has surpassed man-made obstacles.

  1. China’s Economic and Military Presence in South Asia

China must maintain an economic and military presence in South Asia. China has substantial investments in South Asian countries, including India. For other South Asian countries focusing on economic development, the Belt and Road Initiative is also a rare opportunity. Up to 90% of global trade is transported by sea, and the Indian Ocean is one of the most important transportation hubs and trade routes in the world. As the world's largest trading nation, China naturally pays much attention to the security of strategic sea lanes.

It is no secret that India does not want to see China's expanding influence in South Asia. In fact, the bilateral relations between many South Asian countries and China have been interfered with and suppressed by India to varying degrees. In 2017, China and India faced off for 73 days in Doklam, a disputed region between China and Bhutan. In 2014, Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo, triggering strong opposition from India. In 2017, Sri Lanka rejected a request by a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo for replenishment, and the rejection was widely believed to be the result of New Delhi's pressure on Sri Lanka. When Sri Lanka announced on July 12 this year that it would allow the Chinese research vessel Yuanwang-5 to dock in the Hambantota Port for replenishment, India protested again, leading Colombo to request the Chinese research vessel to delay its planned arrival at the port.

After the Modi government came into power in 2014, it launched a Neighborhood First policy for its South Asian neighbors. If this policy is a retrospection and adjustment of India's past tendency to interfere in the affairs of its weaker and smaller neighbors with a big brother mentality, then I think this policy should also include India's respect for its neighbors in developing relations with China, and India should not interfere with the sovereignty of its South Asian neighbors and force them to take a side between China and India. In contrast, China has never thwarted India's "Look East" or "Act East" policy. Southeast Asia is important to China's geographical environment, but China has never interfered in India's development of its political, economic, and military relations with any Southeast Asian country. India always complains about China’s provision of military equipment to Pakistan, but China never complains about Russia’s provision of military equipment to India. In 2017, China accepted India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with openness and generosity.

I do not think it's necessary to remind everyone that during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He's fleet, the most powerful fleet in the world, went to the Indian Ocean seven times. Therefore, China is not a newcomer to the Indian Ocean. To safeguard China's growing interests in the Indian Ocean and maintain the security of strategic sea lanes, the Chinese navy must maintain or even strengthen its presence in the Indian Ocean. It is only a matter of time before a Chinese carrier strike group appears in the Indian Ocean. Since the end of 2008, the Chinese navy has been sending naval formations to patrol the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin in the Indian Ocean. In 2017, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti to safeguard anti-piracy operations. But there is no instance of Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean causing security damage to India. In fact, the two sides have had fruitful cooperation. In May 2011, the Chinese and Indian navies cooperated with NATO to rescue the Chinese merchant vessel, Full City, which was hijacked by Somali pirates. In the future, Chinese and Indian naval vessels are bound to meet more frequently in the Indian Ocean. Friction and even conflict between the two sides is possible if India, with an Akhand Bharat mentality, regards the Indian Ocean as the “Great Ocean for Hindus” (Hindu Mahasagar) or India as a “net security provider” for the Indian Ocean.

3.The Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States

The American Indo-Pacific strategy centers around containing Chinese development, and to that end, India’s importance to the U.S. is bound to increase. To be fair, India, despite its desire to limit China's presence in South Asia, has so far resisted the temptation to turn the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) into an anti-China club. Within the Quad, the other three nations are already allies, so India's attitude is crucial to the survival and development of the Quad. Some call the Quad the "Asian NATO." But I don't think so. The Quad is actually heading in many other directions, such as infrastructure development, climate change, and the distribution of vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. In terms of its military dimension, there is currently only one military exercise—the Malabar Exercise.

If India chooses to fall into the arms of the United States, not only will China-India relations deteriorate, India-Russia relations will also decline. Like China, Russia is also seen by the United States as one of its strategic competitors. Russia is India's largest arms supplier, accounting for more than half of India's market share. Any gesture of favor by India to the United States will arouse Russia's alarm, resulting in the reduction of India’s strategic autonomy and room for maneuver among major powers.

As one of the founding nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, India has an interest in taking a stance of neutrality and impartiality rather than expediency. For the past few years, India has been talking about a "free and open Indo-Pacific" almost in the language used by the United States, but the problem is that India's position is actually more like that of China than that of the United States. Both China and India oppose foreign military activities in their exclusive economic zones. Indian law stipulates that when foreign warships enter India's exclusive economic zone for military exercises and ammunition and explosives are involved, the Indian government will require them to obtain the consent of the Indian government first. This is more stringent than the corresponding relevant laws in China. In 2006, China excluded disputes involving maritime delimitation, historic bays or ownership, and military and law enforcement activities from the compulsory dispute settlement procedures of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in accordance with Article 298 of the Convention. Like China, India also has reservations on Article 298 of the UNCLOS.

The real challenger to India's rights and interests in the Indian Ocean is the United States. In April 2021, USS John Paul Jones sailed into the exclusive economic zone in southwest India. The US Navy's Seventh Fleet issued a written statement saying it did so because the US would challenge India's "excessive maritime claims," which was met with Indian backlash. India's exclusive economic zone covers one-thirtieth of the Indian Ocean. In other words, the United States' claim to challenge India means that, at least in the eyes of Americans, 1/30 of the Indian Ocean is not free and open because of India.

India and the United States have recently announced plans to hold a joint exercise in October, at a location less than 100 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control between China and India. I am not sure as to why India is engaging with the US in exercises that are more symbolic than substantive near the Sino-Indian border. Does India want China to believe that if war breaks out again along the Sino-Indian border, the United States will send troops to help India? If not, the gesture is clearly unwise.

4. The Asian Century

In the foreseeable future, the international order will be chaotic and multipolar. In Europe, it is uncertain how long the Russo-Ukrainian war will last. However, there will definitely be another Cold War following that, because the security of Europe is ultimately a question of how Russia and NATO intend to coexist. In Asia, the American Indo-Pacific strategy clearly aims to contain China, and China has no high hopes that China-U.S. relations will improve drastically.

The biggest question of the 21st century is not whether China can rise. If China maintains a growth rate of 5.5%, this question will come to an end within 10 years of China becoming the world's largest economy. Rather, the biggest question is, will America's decline be relative or absolute? Although it is too early to conclude, the United States has fallen from one-half of world GDP after World War II to about 25% today. Considering the irreconcilable tensions between racial groups in the United States, the willingness of the two political parties to criticize each other to no limit, and the general public's worries about the future or even a civil war, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the United States has lost its sense of direction. The American focus on the Indo-Pacific is actually an inevitable reflection of its shrinking global power. Suppressing a China that is fully integrated into the international system is not only the most serious strategic miscalculation by the U.S. since 9/11; it is also a futile plan that has difficulty attracting support from other countries.

When Deng Xiaoping met with Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, he said: "There will not be an 'Asian century' unless if China and India develop. The real 'Asia-Pacific century' or 'Asian century' will wait until China, India, and some other neighboring countries have developed and risen.” Few doubt that the international geopolitical and economic center of gravity is shifting to Asia. It is widely believed that by 2030, China will have become the world's largest economy and India the third largest economy in the world. Therefore, the rise of Asia entails the collective rise of a vast number of Asian countries, including China and India. However, if both China and India develop but their relations are tense, this will not mean that the Asian century has come.

Due to the current poor outlook of Sino-Indian relations, the Indian government has taken some seemingly tough stances towards China in an attempt to attract public attention. For example, in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the positions of China and India are considerably similar, and both sides have maintained neutrality. But the Indian government is deliberately trying to demonstrate how its position differs from that of China. Frankly, the differences between the two nations are similar to the differences between two apples, not to the differences between an apple and a pear.

For quite a long time in the past, many people in China believed that relations between China and the United States were "not going to get much better, and not going to get much worse." However, few people would think this way now. So, are China-India relations also "not going to get much better, and not going to get much worse"? If left to fate, such an attitude is not only irresponsible but can also push China-India relations in a deleterious direction. China and India have different social systems; but they are both beneficiaries of globalization; they are both emerging economies; and both nations support world multi-polarization as well as the democratization of international relations. In an era of increasingly uncertain world order, if China and India view each other's developments with an open mind and are able to manage their differences, this important bilateral relationship can become a stabilizer for the world.

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