Meghna Srivastava and Yves Tiberghien
Recent relations between China and India have been divided by both security tensions and opposite alliances. But on 25 March, the China–India relationship seems to have taken a major step forward with the unexpected visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to India.
At the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, China and India cooperated on the critical issues of coal reduction and climate justice. On the current Ukraine crisis, China and India both abstained at the UN Security Council and at the UN General Assembly due to their separate and longstanding relationships with Russia — a formal partnership in the case of China and military dependence and China-focused concern in the case of India.
Two sets of parallel national narratives — one divergent, one convergent — explain this cognitive dissonance.
The most salient feature of China–India relations emphasised in mainstream media is their history of post-colonial territorial conflicts, starting with their 1962 border war. True, the two countries managed to deescalate tensions between 1968 and 2017 (except for 1987), thanks to a joint border agreement. But vulnerability is always latent and can be triggered by minor road developments by either side and domestic political mobilisation episodes. The United States has also played an important but fluctuating mitigating role in the background.
Most recently, China and India engaged in border skirmishes at the Line of Actual Control in May 2020 over minor road developments; and public opinion in India has since then been highly inflamed. The impact of the conflict has been deep. Indeed, India reacted by banning 59 Chinese mobile phone apps (bringing the number to 220 this year) and by strengthening its relationship with Quad partners.
But this is an incomplete story. At the COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, India opposed the majority proposal on banning coal, advocating for the ‘phase down’ of coal instead of a complete ‘phase out’.
What’s fascinating is that India’s best partner at the COP26 in support of its position was China. This alignment in Glasgow built on years of cooperation on the coal question. Interestingly, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and global tensions, trade between China and India has been booming: two-way trade increased by 43 per cent in 2021, with Chinese exports up 46 per cent and Indian exports 34 per cent.
Instances of conflict and concordance embedded in the China–India relationship highlight the complexities and nuances of global politics. Given the extremely high to the point of irrational costs of border conflicts, material interests and institutions alone cannot explain the relationship. Instead, states appear to embed dominant national narratives that serve as focal points shaping policy preferences and choice. They act as superordinate goals, which in turn generate parallel positions on key issue areas, despite very different policy processes.
Several dominant narratives can coexist and lead to cognitive dissonance and seemingly incoherent policy choices.
China and India share a tension between two foundational internal narratives — post-colonial state building, and the search for economic and social justice. Both China’s and India’s domestic and foreign policies are centred on these two organising ideas. The first leads to conflict and the second to cooperation.
The current Line of Actual Control roughly follows the McMahon line drawn by the British through the old Tibetan kingdom, the closing chapter of the colonial Great Game that dominated the 19th century. This line has become a symbol of post-war national identity in India and of colonial pains during the short Yuan Shikai period in China. They have thus both focussed on state building and are fixated on establishing full legitimacy as modern nation states. The divisions are further entrenched by China’s support for Pakistan.
The second grand national narrative at the heart of modern China and India is a focus on economic development. China and India each represented roughly a quarter of the global economy till 1800 but both became peripheral during colonial times, shrinking from a combined 50 per cent of the world economy in 1820 to around 12 per cent at the time of independence.
When this narrative dominates, it generates convergence of views and from time to time concordance or even cooperation. Both India and China advocate for the reform of global economic institutions. They are partners in the New Development Bank and share a common vision for a multipolar global order. BRICS ministers and working groups are still actively meeting in 2022 after the Ukraine invasion, including China and India.
On global climate governance, both strongly support the principles of climate justice and common but differentiated responsibilities, and put great emphasis on the responsibility of developed countries to deliver on their promised Green Fund contribution. This was evident at COP26.
This raises questions — will occasionally cooperative relations between China and India be sufficient to edge out the stalemate at the border?
Or will the global international relations community need to accept that the India-China relations will remain an intricate balance between conflict and cooperation?
Meghna Srivastava is a Political Science and Psychology student at the University of British of Columbia.
Yves Tiberghien is Professor of Political Science, Director Emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research, and Konwakai Chair in Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada and the Canadian PAFTAD Chair.