Strains in Sino-Indian Relations: The BRICS Achilles’ Heel?

Bhaso Ndzendze

Introduction

The relationship between China and India is a rather long and storied one.  As they are two of the most populous states in the world, and as both are rising powers and key players in the nascent BRICS association, the complexities between the two entities are potentially implicative for the future of the association, regional peace and stability in Asia and the geo-economically important Indo-Pacific world, as well as the economic development of both parties as well as their partners in the globe. The following section of the paper will unpack the significance of India and China within the BRICS and then delve into the history of the relationship between the two major countries. The third section will give an account of some of the ongoing issues and potential flashpoints in the relationship – including boundary disputes, the ongoing tightening of alliances with one another’s rivals, and disparate world order visions – and show how it could be argued that they may threaten the bilateral relationship, and therefore the BRICS group of which these two countries are so elemental. The fourth section will detail the prospects of the key bones of contention between the two regional giants. The paper will then conclude and summarize its main arguments.

Intra-BRICS Relations: A Review

Figure 1. BRICS countries' share of BRICS total GDP (2017). Source: International Monetary Fund.

Figure 1. BRICS countries' share of BRICS total GDP (2017). Source: International Monetary Fund.

Composed of the developing states of Brazil, Russia, India, China and (belatedly added) South Africa, the BRICS association was formed in 2009 upon being benchmarked in 2001 by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neal to be, caeteris paribus, set to match the level of industrialization and economic standing of the developed nations – and therefore, in the least, bring about some level of multilateralism and a shift away from the historically globally dominant United States and European Union states and “their” international financial institutions, primarily Bretton Woods, as well as Moody’s, Fitch and S&P. The BRICS countries have enacted a number of mutual policies and institutions indicating such a shift; not in the least a developmental bank, as well as a ‘BRICS ratings agency’ in the pipeline.

Together, BRICS represents 26% of the planet's land mass, and is home to some 46% of the world’s population. Regarding economic growth, BRICS are ahead of the projections made in 2001 (South Africa not included): 18% of the world’s GDP, above Goldman Sachs’s forecast of 14.2%. According to statistics by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the participation of BRICS in global exports more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, from 8% to 16%. In those eleven years, their total exports grew by more than 500%, while their total global exports grew by 195% in the same period. Between 2002 and 2012, intra-BRICS trade increased by 922%, from $27-billion to $276-billion, while between 2010-2012 BRICS international trade rose by 29%, from $4.7-trillion to $6.1-trillion. Within BRICS, China and India, almost tied with but poised to surpass Brazil, have the biggest GDPs; however, there is a clear number one: China, whose share of the total BRICS GDP is 66% (see figure graph 1). Furthermore, within BRICS, and generally China is India’s largest import partner; with a $51.7-billion deficit in favor of the former (a fact commonly used to fan populist sentiment within India).

Sino-Indian Relations in Historical Perspective

Soon after he took control of the government in New Delhi, Nerandra Modi wasted little time in trying to and strengthen ties with Beijing. Within days of taking office, he promptly invited Chinese president Xi Jinping to India. But by the time Xi arrived in September of 2014, the tricky nature of the India-China relationship was in full display as the Chinese president conducted a state visit in India while, simultaneously, troops from both countries squared off in Ladakh. This complexity in the India-China relationship, which has seen no less than half a dozen standoffs in the past thirty years alone, goes back to the colonial era, wherein Britain produced opium in the north of India and then subsequently forced it into Chinese territory; an issue which led to the so-called Opium Wars of the 1830s to the 1850s and subsequently led to loss of territory (and prestige) for China.

But the first modern and direct source of ailment in the China-India relationship was China’s decision to invade Tibet in October of 1950 – an act which eliminated a major buffer zone, and birthed border disputes between the two states. India’s decision to grant asylum to the exiled young Dalai Lama after he fled Tibet in 1959 further drove a wedge between them. These soured relations resulted in the 1962 border war between the two Asian giants, in which India was soundly defeated within a month; nevertheless, the war resolved nothing as territorial disputes along the 3,225-kilometer-long Himalayan border continue to strain relations (and may have planted the seeds for future cataclysm as India subsequently went on a prodigious effort to modernize its army and acquire nuclear weapons to exact a deterrence against Beijing). For its part, India says Beijing is occupying 33,000 square kilometers of its territory in Jammu and Kashmir while China claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. As will be discussed later in the paper, this is further compounded by India’s self-perceived duty to protect Bhutan from Chinese encroachment as well as China’s cordial relationship with India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan.

Diplomatic ties between India and China were re-established in 1976, and, despite an Indian upgrade in border securitization infrastructure in the 1980s under Indira Gandhi, in 1996 Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited India, the first visit to India by a Chinese head of state. The two countries signed an Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field with regards to the India-China border areas. But this political advance was once again subject to a minor puncture as in 1998 India made a successful nuclear test and in 2000 the Tibetan Buddhist leader Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje fled China and joined the Dalai Lama in India. Beijing warned New Delhi that “giving the Karmapa asylum would violate the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” (Liu, 2017). Nevertheless, India did not comply with the Chinese request which it interpreted as Beijing’s intrusiveness.

An Achilles’ Heel?

Figure 2.  A map of territorial disputes between India, China and Pakistan. Source: University of Texas Map Library.

Figure 2.  A map of territorial disputes between India, China and Pakistan. Source: University of Texas Map Library.

Detectable from the above cursory history is a complex and sometimes highly frictional relationship. Underlying this is the fact that other BRICS countries generally have excellent relations with one another as well as with India and China on bilateral bases. The key issue, the apparent Achilles’ heel in the BRICS association so to speak, is the relationship between the Indians and the Chinese. Difficulties within the BRICS association are not confined to the China-India relationship. But no frictions are of this magnitude and potentially this consequential within the other bilateral relations within BRICS. It is true that South Africa has sometimes voiced opposition to its trade deficit with China and with Brazil over perceived dumping in the poultry market, and it is also true that Russia and China have somewhat competing interests in the Central Asia region (Kazak, 2017), but there is no BRICS bilateral relationship quite as problematic and potentially destructive as the India-China one.

This section deals with the four core issues in the China-India relationship – the South China Sea, the two states’ growing relations with one another’s traditional rivals as well as the multiple boundary disputes and resultant standoffs. An assessment of how determinative these will be for the bilateral relationship between India and China (and therefore for the BRICS association) follows.

The South China Sea

In January 2015 US President Barack Obama, who would later (April 16, 2015) write a very laudatory TIME magazine Person of the Year article on Nerandra Modi, became the first president to visit India for the second time, and the first to attend the Republic Day parade in Delhi. At their first meeting, Obama and Modi reportedly spent some 45 minutes talking about China, and both expressed concern about Beijing’s expansionist stance, especially in the South China Sea (Gippner, 2016: 108). In the next twelve months India signed three military agreements with the US that gave its armed forces virtually unrestricted use of Indian base and supply facilities. This was followed by visits to Itanagar the capital of Arunachal Pradesh (China claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own, and refers to it as “southern Tibet”), by the US consul General in Calcutta, and to a monastery at disputed Tawang by US Ambassador Richard Verma in February and October of 2016. Indeed in May 2016 India had gone a step further and sent four warships to join a US-Japan task force and cruise through the South China Sea calling on ‘friendly’ ports for three months. This had not sat well with China who considers the acts as an encroachment on its sovereign territory. (Complicating matters further, is India’s commitment to Vietnam, another claimant on the South China Sea, since the 1980s.)

India’s Japan-Allied Alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The Maritime Silk Road is China’s most ambitious initiative in history. Popularly known as One Belt and One Road (OBOR), this infrastructure project of gigantic proportions is an attempt by Beijing to bring under its sway more than 60 countries, from Scandinavia to the South Pacific islands, in its land and maritime versions (Madhav, 2017). In a world of competing economic and trade alliances, OBOR has overtaken many others active in the region and beyond. By all means, this is singularly the biggest constellation of nations in the 21st century. But one prominent nation is missing in this mega show: India (Singh, 2014). And that is no coincidence.

To counter OBOR, some scholars claim (Nair, 2017), India and Japan proposed the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). The two governments launched the initiative during the 52nd annual general meetings of the African Development Bank (AfDB) held in Gujarati’s capital of Gandhijinagar on May 24th 2017, with the hope that the project would be “a cheaper option and have a smaller carbon footprint when compared to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative” (Nair, 2017). On May 25th, the two nations jointly presented a vision document for the project “that is largely meant to propel growth and investment in Africa, by curtailing the ever-increasing presence of the Chinese on the continent” (Nair, 2017). The AAGC is an attempt to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” by rediscovering and creating new sea corridors that will link the African continent with India and countries in the South Asia and South East Asia sub-regions as well as Oceania through both public and private efforts, with joint ventures and consortia to take up infrastructure, power and agribusiness projects in Africa. Already Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia are on board and on the African side, Mozambique, Kenya, Djibouti and BRICS member South Africa have expressed interest with plans being made to connect ports in Jamnagar, India with Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden (Nair, 2017). Additionally, ports of Mombasa and Zanzibar will be connected to ports near Mudarai; Calcutta will be linked to the Sittwe port in Myanmar. India is also developing ports under the Sagarmala programme specifically for this purpose.

Does this signify a direct repost towards China? An ‘alternative to the Chinese alternative order’ as it were? To begin with, the plan grew out of a November 2016 meeting between Indian Prime Minister Nerandra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Times of India, 2017). Furthermore, that India would choose to partner up with China’s traditional rival is perhaps a response to China’s own decision to prioritize its cooperation with India’s own traditional enemy in the region, Pakistan. This is discussed further below.

The Pakistan Problem

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) constitutes one of the largest foreign investments China has made in the framework of the OBOR initiative. The expenditures planned for the coming years in the amount of approximately $46-billion will further intensify relations between China and Pakistan as well as provide Beijing with access to the Arabian Sea, increasing its trade access to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. At the same time, Pakistan will assume a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy. But CPEC also affects relations between India and Pakistan. The corridor runs through the region of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in northern Pakistan. This region belongs to Jammu and Kashmir, to which both India and Pakistan have asserted claims. Since the accession of the former princely state to the Indian Union in October 1947, India has claimed the entire area for India and insists on resolving the dispute only with Islamabad. India invokes the 1972 Shimla Agreement, according to which disputes between the two countries are to be resolved through bilateral negotiation. Pakistan, in contrast, invokes a series of resolutions on Kashmir in the United Nations and views the former princely state as disputed territory whose final status must be put to a referendum. The Kashmir dispute has been the cause of three of the four wars that India and Pakistan have waged against each other since 1947. “China, by being aware of these sensitive and still to be concluded spots and averting them has essentially both undermined India, a fellow BRICS ally, and at the same time interfered in the Indo-Pak relationship on the side of Pakistan” (Wagner, 2016: 2); that in the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971, China took the side of Pakistan against India is still not forgotten in New Delhi and these recent moves refresh such memories.

Further, China’s friendship with Pakistan is particularly interpreted negatively in India as Pakistan and India have been at odds with one another with India claiming that the Pakistani military dresses its troops in civilian clothing so that they can conduct “terrorist” attacks on India. But while India has been unequivocal in condemning terror outfits and identified Pakistan as the biggest source of terrorism, China has defended Pakistan at every single forum. China has blocked India’s attempt at the UN for sanctions against Jash-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar. India has been campaigning for sanction against Masood Azar, who has allegedly masterminded several terror attacks in India. Lack of cooperation from China is therefore taken with offense in New Delhi.

Territorial Disputes

Since 1962, there have been numerous border incidences between the Indian and Chinese militaries; Nathu La in 1967 and Sumdrong Chu two decades later. Over the decades since the 1993 agreement, there have been hundreds of similar face-offs between Chinese and Indian troops, none of which has led to a single bullet being fired (Jha, 2017: 2). In the recent past too, the Depsang Plateau and the Chumar Demchok area witnessed face offs in April 2013 and September 2014, respectively, with the latter occurring at the same time as President Xi Jinping’s visit to India (Moreira, 2016). (Incidentally, the Chinese incursion in Bhutan happened around the time of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States [Dwivedi, 2017]).

The Doklam faceoff was triggered when a team of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was prevented by Indian troops from extending a class-5 track in the Doklam Plateau area which is part of Bhutanese territory. The Indian Army acted in response to a request from the Royal Bhutan Army under the terms of the 2007 Bilateral Friendship Treaty. Moreover, the PLA’s track building is in contravention of the 2012 Agreement between the Special Representatives of India and China, whereby the status quo was required to be maintained in the said area until the resolution of the tri-junction in consultation with Bhutan (Dwivedi, 2017).  On June 18th, two days after construction began, 270 Indian soldiers with weapons and bulldozers entered Doklam to stop the Chinese troops from constructing the road. On 24th July, the Chinese foreign minister doubled down stating that India knows the territory belongs to China. Soon thereafter, however, the US entered the fray on the Bhutanese-Indian side with India further asserting that its retreat would be predicated on a Chinese retreat. On August 28th, both sides withdrew their forces.

The implications for the bilateral relationship, and for BRICS, of these flashpoints and difficulties are discussed below.

Implications for BRICS?

“When Lobsang Sangay, the head of the self-styled Tibetan government in exile, hoisted the Tibetan national flag on the shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh (a mountainous, semi-autonomous region in northern India, borders the Chinese autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet), he hammered the last nail into the coffin of the most important budding alliance of the post–cold war period. This was BRICS, the association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. He did so by bringing the two largest members of BRICS, both in terms of population and GDP, to the brink of war” – so wrote Prem Jha in a BRICS Business Council outlet (Jha, 2017: 2). And yet it did not come to be; as we have seen there has been no Sino-Indian war of 2017 (despite, further, 72% of Indians believing that border disputes between India and China could lead to an escalation and eventual war [Liu, 2017]). At one time it looked like the strained relations between China and India might jeopardize the BRICS summit in Xiamen (especially as India renewed cases against Chinese imports whom it accused of dumping). However, the decision by Modi to attend was a boost for the group. Speaking at the meeting, both Xi and Modi stressed the importance of the bloc to global development. Modi specifically called for coordinated action on counterterrorism at the plenary session, while the leaders’ declaration also focused on counterterrorism, and for the first time condemned the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, Lashkare Taiba and Jaishe Mohammad – which have been blamed for several attacks in India – as terrorist groups. The declaration was hailed in the Indian media as a diplomatic victory for Modi as Pakistan is a Chinese ally (Liu, 2017).

The friendship between China and Pakistan, read billboards in Chinese and English dotting Islamabad “is higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel” (Tharoor, 2015). But China views Pakistan, whom it considers its “all weather friend” (Lee, 2016), also through the lens of counterterrorism: a number of extremist outfits allegedly linked to ethnic Uighur separatists within Xinjiang have training camps in Pakistan's rugged borderlands with Afghanistan (Tharoor, 2015). But China may not be expected to further compel Pakistan to cease its surgical operations into India, and neither should it be expected to, as the Pakistani attacks are motivated by Indo-Pakistani issues dating back as far 1947 when the two states, which had been part of the same colonial entity, became independent and saw millions get killed on either side in the Partition. Thus resolving these differences is up to India and Pakistan, and China cannot be expected to intervene; especially since it itself believes that India is harbouring a terrorist in the person of the Dalai Lama whom it views as participating in the “three evils” of separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.

But at the same time, there is reason to argue that China’s aim is to contain India’s rising power through strategic linkages with the country's neighbors, particularly Pakistan; “it seeks to browbeat New Delhi in the hope that the latter will back down and defer to Beijing’s growing might” (Basu, 2017). But India too has been unusually tough and unrelenting in its stances, whether on the CPEC, Arunachal Pradesh or Sikkim, and both have ended up staring down at each other, while underlining that they are a “different” country from the one that fought a war in 1962 (Basu, 2017).

These flashpoints, and the rapidity with which they disappear and simultaneously linger, are perhaps a symptom of a Sino-Indian relationship that is based on an ability to “agree to disagree.”

Agreeing to Disagree?

In December 1996, when then state President and Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Jiang Zemin visited Pakistan after a trip to India, he made a very significant statement before the Pakistan National Assembly. Speaking to Pakistani lawmakers, Jiang advised Pakistan to adopt the India-China template in their dealings with New Delhi and not let contentious issues come in the way of the development of their relationship on other fronts, particularly trade and business, and people-to-people ties. “If certain issues cannot be resolved for the time being, they may be shelved temporarily so that they will not affect the normal state-to-state relations,” Jiang said (Richards, 2014; italics added).

The salience of this point has been revitalized once more in 2017. While any progress on the border issue was probably symbolic (the two remain unable to even agree on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between their two armies), China is much more interested in making significant investments in India (Richards, 2014). This was in spite of the fact that the numbers of face-off is now steadily rising. Till July this year the number of transgressions is about 300 as compared to only about 200 last year. It is likely to cross 500 by the end of the year (Sen, 2017). Nevertheless, border disputes have never been cause for China to cease trade relations. China has border disputes with most of its neighbors. Over the years, it has resolved territorial disputes with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan. At present, its biggest border dispute is with India and Bhutan to some extent but apart from the land and territorial borders, China also shares maritime borders with four countries — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines (The Times of India, 2017) – with whom continued trade in the face of military incursions is owed to the fact that there is a wide berth between the military and commerce as well as between the semi-private sector (state owned enterprises) and the military; further, the rising frequency of border incursions is perhaps due to a disconnect between the sometimes autonomous top-brass in the People’s Liberation Army and the politicians in Beijing.

Prospects

Regional Responsibility and Trade – The Other Achilles’ Heels?

As of 2015, there has been a slow‑down in China’s economic growth, and Beijing is anxious to avoid any major distraction from preventing the restoration of its economy and therefore reach its projected aim of a moderately prosperous society by 2049, as well as fund its OBOR grand plan. India’s reluctance for conflict with China also revolves around the economical state of affairs in the country (Svls, 2017). China’s keenness for a partnership with India is because demography is its Achilles’ heel, with the Chinese population aging at an unprecedented pace. China’s working age population peaked in 2012, the median age will rise rather abruptly to 49 by 2050, and with national debt at 300 percent of GDP it has only a small window to achieve the ‘national dream’ of becoming rich before getting old. In contrast, India’s working age population will increase till 2050, enabling higher growth rates and eventually overtaking the United States in terms of GDP (Sanwal, 2017). For India, the fundamental question is that it cannot be a $10-trillion economy without integration into the growing Asian market and benefiting from Chinese investment, given the rise of protectionism in the United States.

Additionally, both the Indian and Chinese governments of recognise that “their relations are a factor of stability” in a “multipolar world, and at a time of global instability” and that “differences should not become disputes”; China’s official news agency Xinhua later called for the ancient civilizations to become “cooperative partners”, “develop complementary industries and cooperate in protecting common security” for “achieving the dream of an Asian century” (Sanwal, 2017: 1). Thus the India-China strategic convergence will need recognition of the Asian century composed of two nodes.

The Nuclear Factor?

“The first Chinese nuclear test, coming two years after India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, precipitated the Indian nuclear weapons program, which in turn first demonstrated its capacity in 1974” (Tellis, 2015: 2). New Delhi responded to the Chinese challenge with additional nuclear tests and in 1998 declared itself to be a nuclear weapon state, and began to overtly develop its nuclear deterrent aimed at both China and Pakistan. India today is believed to possess an arsenal of some 100 nuclear weapons, though this figure is highly uncertain. The country is thought to have produced close to 600 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, though it is unclear whether all this material has been machined into warheads.

“The total size of the Chinese nuclear weapons inventory today is widely believed to consist of some 250 nuclear warheads, but the accuracy of these or any other numbers is debatable. China has a substantial fissile material stockpile consisting of some 16 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and some 1.8 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium, so there are no practical constraints on its ability to produce an arsenal of any size it chooses. Given the choices China makes in regard to delivery systems, it could deploy anywhere up to an additional 150 warheads over the next ten years” (Tellis, 2015: 2).

China, which in 2016 vetoed India’s membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group of nations, did not oppose India’s civilian nuclear deal with the US, but has on occasion argued for the same kind of nuclear exceptionalism to Pakistan, which the US allowed for India. As both states are nuclear power states, the likelihood of a large-scale war is further reduced due to the notion of nuclear deterrence which holds that no war between two nuclear states is likely as they both are likely to engage in prudential pacifism for fear of the cost to be incurred in a relatively shorter period of time by the other’s nuclear strikes (Fang, 2014). Further, India’s capability needs to be re-examined in light of its new strategic interactions with the nuclear powerhouse United States and U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region (Yang, 2016; Kugelman, 2017; Madan, 2017).

Where to from Here?

A point in need of emphasizing is the extent to which the BRICS association – unlike, say, the European Union, NATO or the African Union – is not predicated on, and does not aspire for, a dissolution of sovereignty and propagation of a singular identity by the member-states. Indeed it is composed of independent nation-states that are in association with one another for the purposes of individual growth through multilateral means. Therefore, we cannot expect New Delhi to subordinate itself to a “globalization with Chinese characteristics”, and the reverse cannot be expected of Beijing in the region – that is not in the nature of states. Furthermore, the other BRICS members, South Africa, Brazil and Russia, do not, as China and India do, share thousands of kilometers of (historically problematic and colonially-drawn) borders in a geographically intense part of the world. Indeed the miracle, resultant from cautious and brilliant management, would be that India and China have not witnessed more conflicts between them.

“Coexistence between India and China in this multipolar world order is possible, but their search for energy resources, quest to uphold their own identity[…], and engagement in balance of power politics to exert authority on each other’s presence, are some elements that guide their non-cooperative relationship” (Panda, 2017: 9). Interestingly, one could remove “India” and replace it with “the United States” or “Japan” and this sentiment would carry just as much truth. That this can be said is telling; it particularly explicates Beijing’s ability to pursue and deepen trade relations with states whom it partially resents and at the same time needs – be it Japan (its former colonizer, with whom it has numerous heated island disputes), the US (whom it regards as encroaching on its Pacific vicinity), or the Philippines and Vietnam (with whom it has disputes over the South China Sea) despite many predictions of looming and, especially vis-à-vis the US, seemingly “inevitable” conflict on account of historical patterns which would seem to point towards conflict between a riser and a status quo power. This paper has found that the same kind of relationship exists between New Delhi and Beijing; that the two states engage in some intense strains that almost border on conflict, but which at the same time do not hinder economic relations. And for that reason, these can, in the short- to medium-term (10 to 30 years), be said to offer no probable hindrance to the existence and growth of the BRICS association; nuclear deterrence, regional responsibility and mutual need of markets would seem to prevail over questions of territory and symbolism.

 

Bhaso Ndzendze is a recent graduate from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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