The conventional wisdom is that China and India, two fast-growing giants, are trapped in a zero-sum strategic rivalry. China, which was Asia’s dominant power for centuries, wants to reassert its hegemony and regards a powerful India as an obstacle to its ambitions. India, a victim of Western colonialism, sees itself as South Asia’s undisputed regional leader and views any attempt by China to establish its primacy in Asia as a threat to its national security and economic interests.
As with most conventional wisdoms, the perception that India and China are strategic rivals has substantial factual basis. Indeed, China and India have been engaged in delicate geopolitical manoeuvring to balance each other. China has given substantial economic and military aid to Pakistan, India’s nemesis, to check Indian power. In addition, Beijing has been energetically wooing Southeast Asian countries through trade and investment to gain “first mover” advantage in a region of enormous strategic value to both India and China.
In response, India has moved closer to the United States, which regards India as a natural strategic partner in maintaining Asia’s balance of power. The burgeoning US-India relationship has greatly strengthened New Delhi’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Beijing. At the same time, India has also become more active in East and Southeast Asia. India-Japan relations have greatly improved in recent years. On the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, India has taken a bold stance that essentially rejects Beijing’s claims. This has won Delhi friends in Southeast Asia, even though it has infuriated China.
This list of the strategic and tactical moves deployed by China and India might make one think that the two countries are, indeed, engaged in a costly, if not dangerous, contest for power. But this is not the whole story of India-China relations.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of India-China relations is that the leaders of the two countries have managed to “walk and chew” at the same time. Despite their conflicting visions of Asia’s regional order, mutual strategic distrust and threat perception, India and China have succeeded in keeping their strategic rivalry under control and broadening the areas in which they can cooperate. An important indicator of how hard both Delhi and Beijing have been trying to get along is the frequency of high-level visits. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Beijing next week, his visit will be the fourth by an Indian prime minister in 12 years. In June 2003, PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee broke the diplomatic ice with his historic trip to Beijing (a full decade separated Vajpayee’s visit from that of PM P.V. Narasimha Rao). PM Manmohan Singh paid two state visits to China (2008 and 2013). During that same period, Delhi has hosted six visits by top Chinese leaders: President Xi Jinping (2014), President Hu Jintao (2006 and 2010), Premier Li Keqiang (2013) and Premier Wen Jiabao (2005 and 2010).
Obviously, strategic rivals consumed with antagonism and distrust are unlikely to stage such elaborate diplomatic charades to deceive the outside world, and themselves. The most persuasive explanation for the delicate balancing act performed by Indian and Chinese leaders is that none of them want to stumble into a costly strategic conflict that can derail their economic development.
Conflict avoidance requires constant attention by the top leaders of the two countries — the equivalent of “adult supervision”. Both countries have vast bureaucratic machines that run on their own logic and schedule. Lack of coordination or exchange of information often results in actions that can exacerbate distrust and even trigger accidental confrontation. One of the useful functions performed by high-level visits is that top leaders are usually briefed on major outstanding issues affecting bilateral relations, and long-delayed decisions are made as a result. This generates positive momentum for moving the relationship forward. Awareness of these visits also helps the bureaucracies discipline themselves and behave more cautiously, thus reducing the likelihood of incidents that may damage bilateral ties.
In the case of Modi’s visit, we can expect progress on two fronts that could help expand the areas of cooperation and avoid needless conflicts. The first area is trade and investment. As India’s largest trading partner, China is well positioned to use the trading relationship as a stabilising factor. Here, the main obstacle is the structural deficit that favours China. In 2014, for example, India ran a trade deficit of $38 billion with China. Although such a large imbalance in trade is impossible to correct in the short term, Modi should nevertheless ask for specific measures from Chinese leaders that will demonstrate genuine good faith in remedying this problem.
Compared with trade, investment might be more promising. India is becoming increasingly attractive to Chinese manufacturers who are losing their cost advantages due to rising wages and a shrinking labour force. Reaching an agreement that will facilitate the flow of investment across borders should be an attainable goal.
The second area is geopolitics and security. Obviously, Modi’s visit will not expunge deeply entrenched strategic suspicions from the minds of the political elites in both countries. But modest progress may be possible even in this difficult compartment. Particularly, one can identify two specific steps that need to be taken. China must reassure India that its ambitious infrastructure programme — dubbed “one road, one belt” — will not pose a threat to Indian national security. In particular, China should provide more transparency on its investment activities in Pakistan, which have aroused immense security concerns in India. In return, Modi should assuage Xi’s worries that India will allow itself to be used as a pawn of the US in balancing against China.
Another specific step that should be taken is to revive the stalled border negotiations. Fortunately, both India and China now have strong leaders who should be able to make difficult decisions and close the deal. If the Modi visit results in a breakthrough on this issue, his trip to Beijing will go down in history as one of the most consequential for an Indian leader.
The writer is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.