China in South Asia: the case of India

6 Mar 2018

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the re-emergence of China and India as major actors on the world stage. The two countries share many commonalities, both being populous Asian powers with contiguous territory, both ancient, previously-economically powerful civilisations. India, however, was colonised and Chinese territory was ceded to, and governed by, foreign powers. Importantly, both states were reduced to penury by the outsiders, leaving them with ambivalent perceptions of the West. Those commonalities led India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to publicly aspire to a joint leadership with China to initiate an Asian revival. India and China, he felt, could be leaders in Asia without either impinging upon the other; China and India could accommodate each other’s growth and aspirations.

China and India had different reasons for their re-emergence in the latter half of the last century. The United States sought closer relations with China in 1972 in order to create a new front in its cold war against the Soviet Union. Consequent market forces enabled the Chinese economy to become the second-largest in the world. India, on the other hand, found itself in trouble in 1991 when its foreign currency reserves dwindled to three weeks’ worth of imports. Fiscal reform and commercial re-engagement with the world enabled rapid economic growth, making its economy the third-largest in Asia today.

Competing economies are not the sole or main reason for the less-than-cordial relations between the two states. India continues to view China through the prism of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. In late October 1962, Chinese troops invaded India’s north-east, routing the Indian Army. Though it lasted only a month, the war etched itself into India’s psyche, colouring all future relations with China. Hence, when China acquired nuclear weapons, India embarked upon a nuclear programme; when China began to modernise its military, India upgraded its own. China, for its part, sees India as a potential economic and military rival in Asia. While they claim to have cordial relations, they often portray each other as an adversary. That stance extends into the political and commercial spheres; they compete internationally for energy resources and try to balance each other by developing political, economic and military relations regionally. They have effectively moved from accommodation to competition.

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