China and India are the world’s two most populous countries. Whilst historical tensions and territorial skirmishes have sometimes found Beijing and New Delhi at loggerheads, increasing economic and socio-cultural interactions over the past two decades indicate a need for systemic recalibration of the relationship. As global politics enter an age of multi-polarization, China and India could serve as strategic partners and allies to confront common challenges and expand cooperation where national interests converge.
Two core opportunities present distinct benefits for Sino-Indian relations:
1. The shift in international geopolitics from a U.S.-led unipolar order towards one of relative multipolarity.
2. India’s continuous search for a position of strategic autonomy relative to the U.S., Russia, and China.
The first core opportunity presented by the shift in international geopolitics from a U.S.-led unipolar order towards one of relative multipolarity implies that both China and India no longer need align systemically with the orthodox order that previously dominated international politics. The Ukraine crisis offers a pertinent example: while China continues to expand economic collaboration with Russia, and India maintains close military ties, both states have sought to project, at least externally, stances of relative neutrality. However, discourse variations remain. Beijing frames discourse concerning Russia through criticism of NATO and the United States. India, in light of the emergence of the Quad and other economic-commercial ties with America, has adopted a safer hedging position. New Delhi has used targeted criticisms of Russian army actions in Ukraine while preserving an overarching military-strategic alignment with Moscow. For both China and India, the establishment of a mutually agreed set of options and potential shared positions on international tensions, may constitute a neo-G2 arrangement, in which they could provide viable alternatives to the Western-led order for the Global South.
Secondly, the Sino-Indian economic partnership is of crucial value to both parties. Whilst the U.S. remained India’s top trading partner in 2021 with total trade value amounting to 112.3 billion USD, the volume of trade between India and China was only 2 billion USD less, amounting to 110.4 billion USD. The path to further deepening Sino-Indian relations is via the expansion and diversification of the range of goods and products that enjoy tariff-free or low-tariff entry and improved access to each other’s markets—opening-up and liberalization. Harmonization and alignment in regulatory standards for corporate activities and investment, people to people interactions, and tech transfers and exchanges could also transform what is often seen as a zero-sum relationship into a mutually beneficial sphere of cooperation and collaboration.
China and India possess enormous synergetic potential to tackle many of the globe’s most pressing challenges. The Kindleberger Trap theorizes the potential dangers of a world where states are not willing to produce the global public goods required by the international community. In a 2017 commentary, Professor Joseph Nye articulated his concerns that China may not be capable of or willing to produce the global public goods “demanded by its rising power.” However, Nye’s concerns have been partially precluded by China’s five-year track record of reducing emissions, increasing renewable energy generation and introducing technological advances that have served the international community, most notably through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet on issues such as public health and climate change, it would be erroneous to suggest that any country could go at it alone. China must share best practices and past experiences with India, as the latter seeks to transition away from a high intensity, highly unsustainable growth model. This, in turn, is no fault of the Indian people or government, but a natural intermediary phase in most large nations’ economic developmental trajectory. Only when both of the world’s most populous countries work together in setting and ratifying mutually agreeable terms and conditions on environmental protection and sustainability can genuine prospects in the ongoing global struggle against climate change be envisioned. Moreover, there are clear opportunities for progress in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) fields, as well as finance, sustainability research, and the development and adoption of renewables as alternatives to the conventional oil and coal-driven energy order.
Despite the aforementioned opportunities, there remain pressing challenges to bilateral relations that require swift action for collaboration to be possible. These challenges are by no means absolute, nor are they immovable. The key prerogative is for both China and India to seek truth from facts and pursue consensus in order to avoid only partial convergence. This is particularly true when considering the conflicting claims to border regions concerning and straddled by the Line of Actual Control (LAC), e.g. in the Galwan Valley, where both Beijing and New Delhi claim jurisdiction. China has consistently framed its foreign policy claims around “defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” while India views border disputes as a matter of great reputational importance. Chinese officials have sought to defuse Sino-Indian border tensions by recommending compartmentalization, where both parties “put their differences over the border issues at a proper position in the bilateral relations.” However, for India, both public opinion pressures and politico-electoral calculations make compartmentalization particularly infeasible. The required alternative is a sustainable and proactive dialogue mechanism that allows both India and China to vent grievances and contribute to solutions on relatively “neutral” grounds. Territorial disputes must be contained, defined, and segmented into manageable portions to ensure at least partial resolutions leading to greater economic collaboration.
The second core opportunity relates to India’s continuous search for a position of strategic autonomy relative to the U.S., Russia, and China. Historically, India had primarily depended upon Russia for military-strategic support, the U.S. for economic-financial and geopolitical backing, and China for the supply of essential imports via commercial relations. However, balancing across three sets of national interest only worked insofar as bilateral relations amongst the three aligned with their respective self-interests. The current de-facto state of geopolitical enmity between the U.S. and Russia, and the dynamics of heightened scepticism between Beijing and Washington have placed New Delhi on a fine line between pragmatic balancing and impractical attempts at “playing all sides at once.” India may wish to preserve strategic autonomy, but it must do so without compromising the tenability of maintaining at least some degree of coherence and sovereignty over its own foreign policy and agenda-setting.
Another key consideration for India’s relationship with China is Pakistan’s recent episode of radical administration turnover and the departure of Imran Khan from the prime ministership. Turmoil over Pakistan’s political leadership has significant implications for whether Washington’s nebulous yet persistent pressure would see Pakistan adopt a more conciliatory approach to its relationship with India. Similarly, whether the long-lasting “Sino-Pakistani friendship” can withstand such challenging circumstances remains to be seen. Moreover, how Indian-Pakistani relations may spill over and impact China’s relationship with India is also a daunting question. Would a gradual increase of scepticism and rebuke of China in Pakistan encourage New Delhi to shift more closely to Beijing, and vice versa? Or would the recalibrated and largely preserved alliance between Beijing and Islamabad motivate New Delhi to take a more pragmatic approach in shifting away from greater economic interdependence with Beijing? While these questions are open to debate, the influence of America in the region should not be overstated. Short of a substantial economic crisis, China will remain the preferred and dominant economic partner to the vast majority of countries in Asia.
The final, and perhaps most significant, challenge for Sino-Indian relations lies in their ideological similarities and differences. Both President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are firm leaders with comprehensive visions for transformative governance: governance aimed at mobilizing the masses in reshaping the power and ideological structures that undergird their respective nations. While India has consistently positioned itself as an exemplar in the vanguard of “Western-style” democracy, China shifted toward cultivating an ideologico-normative framework of its own, which repudiates Western monopolization over what constitutes democracy. This need not imply that China is unreceptive towards, or reluctant to engage with Western-liberal-democratic states. Indeed, Chinese pragmatism had encouraged the country to reform, open up, and constructively engage with its Western counterparts over past decades. However, as India seeks to rebuild its image of legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of Western peers, would it see China as a sufficiently desirable partner such that quibbles over “governing ideologies and systems” will not—as they indeed should not—matter as much in shaping bilateral relations? This question remains unanswered.
In sum, the Sino-Indian relationship is one brimming with substantial opportunities. Clearly both China and India would benefit from a closer, more dynamic, more organic, and more integrated relationship. Yet, vast impediments remain, and it is high time that both parties take significant steps toward a joint program of active resolution.