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July 15, 2022 | Expert Insights

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and border clashes in May 2020, China and India have entered a new phase of complex interdependence and mistrust, but also deepening and diversifying cooperation.

While both Asian giants have cooperated at BRICS, G-20, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), among others, sharp irritants remain. These include India's membership of the Quadrilateral Group, and recently the Indo Pacific Economic Forum, as well as the ban on Chinese Telecom giants. Simultaneously, China's enhanced engagement in South Asia and existing border tensions have served to caution decision makers in New Delhi.

However, amidst both these developments, Beijing and New Delhi's firm stance against bloc politics in the Ukraine crisis, as well as the upcoming face-to-face meetings between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi, a new opportunity to revive the Wuhan spirit may be on the horizon.

A Shared Destiny

As Asia's largest and most rapidly rising powers in contemporary global politics, relations between India and China are becoming ever more intertwined with each other. Both nations share a common history of civilisation, inclusive of viewing the colonial intervention in a negative light as they try to preserve and nurture their respective cultures and traditions.

Despite many positive overlaps in relation, ties between India and China are strained by a host of negative elements. A series of attempts have been made by both parties to bridge differences and the matters are not only limited to the longstanding territorial dispute. The differences have been further intensified by more contemporary issues- - influence, power, hegemony and profit.

The events of April 2020 along the lofty Himalayan borders have breached some of the trust which was built up between India and China, starting as far back as 1976 and then over the decades right up until 2020, including the spirit of Wuhan ,and then Chennai.

Rebuilding Trust

Trust can only be rebuilt, as India believes, by restoring the status quo on the Eastern Ladakh borders. India has not taken any predetermined steps to create the border situation that we are now facing. Trade continues between the countries as hitherto fore with 2021 seeing the highest level of trade. Our leaders have been regularly meeting in fora like BRICS and SCO. India, on its part, has taken a very practical approach to relations despite the obvious deficit in trust. This lack of trust can only be restored slowly through communications at all levels, while maintaining peace and tranquillity at our mutual borders. It is on the ground that both sides have to inspire trust, with both militaries taking the lead.

With regards the current massing of troops on both sides of the un-demarcated border, some new measures must be thought out in terms of controlling aircraft movements and patrolling. The first step could be reducing the troop numbers on the border. The encouraging part is that both sides, despite the numbers involved, have not resorted to firing. This means that the complicated measures which were in place as part of the Confidence Building Measures (CBM) are still playing a positive role.

The Indian Ocean

There are other locations where India and China are confronting each other and adding to the lack of trust. The most prominent is the Indian Ocean, which as per the Chinese perspective India considers “India's ocean”. This brings into focus the latest incident involving the entry of a Chinese ship (called a spy ship by India) into the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota.

The Indian Ocean is increasingly gaining importance for China, not to fight with India, but because of its centrality to China’s growing economic footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). If India considers the Indian Ocean as its exclusive field of influence, then Indian interests would clash with Chinese interests. As per the Chinese, they have never objected to India’s territorial waters or EEZ; it is the U.S. which has openly challenged Indian claims to its EEZ.

On India's strategic partnership with the US., China expects India, as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, to maintain some kind of neutrality in the U.S.-China rivalry.

Maximising the Similarities

Dr Henry Huiyao Wang, President, Centre for China Globalisation, acknowledging the past peaceful coexistence since the 1960s, says that while trying to reach a common understanding, both sides must “maximise the similarities and minimise the differences." As two of the world's largest and oldest civilisations, India and China share many similarities-after all, the famous Chinese monk, Xuanzang, brought Buddhism to China from India after a hazardous journey that lasted seventeen years.

Today, globalization faces tremendous challenges, and in the last three decades, both India and China have gained from a global market. India and China, the two largest developing countries, should take advantage of their Asian civilisations to jointly contribute to the wisdom of the world and bring back the dynamics and suggest viable solutions to the ongoing turmoil. There are many common grounds; China and India were the 2nd and 7th largest economies in the world last year, and within two decades, India is projected to climb to the number three spot. The huge potential of both countries can be harnessed to create the biggest market in the world for trade and investments.

For instance, China and India have built a strong partnership with AIB, and the largest recipient of AIB loans is India. India is also the co-founder of the New Development Bank, along with China among the BRICS countries. The two-way trade volume of the two countries has reached 1,256 billion, which amounts to a 43 per cent growth, year on year!

Geopolitically, India and China share many international views and have similar objectives. An example being the peaceful settlement of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, sustainable development of the emerging market, the building of a fair international order etc. The shared platforms of BRICS and SCO can be enlarged as both India and China are the principal stakeholders in both organisations. Both can also work in harmony in the UN and many other multilateral institutions. 

Another sector that will bring the two nations closer together is people-to-people communications, especially student exchanges. This will help in building better understanding for the next generation.