China’s President, Xi Jinping, did not attend the G20 meeting held in New Delhi, India, the weekend of September 9-10, 2023. While we do not know why he did not attend, relations between the two countries have been chilly at best. Dr. John Garver is a prominent expert on China-India relations. Penelope Prime, China Currents managing editor, talked with him about how to understand the current situation.
PP: What are the main causes of poor relations between China and India?
India and China have profoundly different views of history. China views the vast Tibetan region as “part of China.” The Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the Manchu Qing Dynasty that ruled China from 1279–1368 and 1644-1911 respectively, adopted Tibetan Buddhism as their state religion and dispatched priests to guide and instruct China’s emperor and imperial state. Thus, Tibet’s relations with imperial China were in some ways closer than China’s relations with other mere tributary states like Korea, Vietnam, or Thailand.
In contrast, India views Tibet as part of a deeply rooted Indian sphere of influence, seized by China with great violence and cruelty after 1949. India is very aware of the cruelty of Chinese post-1950 rule in Tibet. Jawaharlal Nehru accepted Beijing’s proposition in 1954 that Tibet was part of China but expected that Beijing would reciprocate this Indian concession by ceding a more generous position on the border issue. This turned out to be a serious miscalculation. Even while negotiating the normalization of India-China relations, China was building a motor road across the Aksai Chin plateau on the India-Tibet border claimed by China. China’s 1962 month-long but powerful war, or “lesson,” with India, reinforced the Indian view that China was a duplicitous power that repaid generosity with aggression.
PP: What is behind the India-China border dispute? Why is the border a source of conflict?
JG: First, there is no clearly defined and mutually agreed upon border between China and India. Since 1960, China has resolved territorial disputes with all its neighbors other than India and Bhutan. Between China and India, however, eight decades of negotiations have yet to resolve the issue.
Second, in the eastern section of the India-China border east of Bhutan, China claims that the traditional and legal boundary between China and India lies along the southern foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, nearly to the Brahmaputra River and encompassing virtually the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. India, for its part, claims that the traditional boundary in this sector corresponds to the watershed crestline of the Himalayan Mountains.
Third, west of Arunachal Pradesh is a narrow southern pointing salient of Chinese-controlled territory terminating near Yadong. From Yadong, it is only a short distance to the wide flatlands of north India. Siliguri, in West Bengal, constitutes the major transport corridor in this area, and this route offers the shortest passage through the entire Himalayan range. In wartime, Chinese forces advancing south from Tawang east of Bhutan and from Yadong west of Bhutan could cut off northeastern India from the Indian heartland.
PP: Do you see any progress toward resolution of this China-India conflict?
JG: Unfortunately, I do not. Under Xi Jinping, China’s foreign policy has been inspired by the idea that the United States is a declining hegemonic power that will be replaced by China, which is quickly reestablishing itself in its historical and well-deserved position as the dominant power in Asia. This vision of a Chinese-engineered new world order is linked to the growth of Chinese influence all around India, to the north, south, east, and west.
In addition, China’s mastery of modern transportation technology overcame the tyranny of difficult terrain and great distance that for millennia had rendered almost impassable large-scale movement of people and goods over the Tibet-Himalaya massif. Over the past several decades, in both Pakistan and Myanmar, China has designed, financed and built ever more robust networks of modern ports connecting Indian Ocean ports to Chinese industrial centers.
This package of transport technology includes: high-speed limited-access highways, railways including relatively straight alignment of rail lines and roads made possible by frequent use of bridges and tunnels, pipelines that carry petroleum from foreign oil fields to refineries in China, and deep and commodious harbors on global seas with containerized cargo. Also important was the development of techniques for constructing stable rail lines over permafrost soil that softened in summer in Tibet if not in Myanmar or Pakistan. Critical technology in overcoming permafrost came from Canada in the 1970s. Modifications in the design of internal combustion engines for operation at oxygen-thin high altitudes were also important and were learned from Canada and Russia.
PP: How does China’s growing role in the Indian Ocean relate to this?
JG: For most of the last thousand years, China was ruled by non-Chinese horse-riding ethnicities (Kitan, Jurchen, Mongol, and Manchu) from the steppes of inner Asia and for whom the world’s oceans were alien. Nevertheless, even during those periods, Chinese junks with Chinese officers and crews carried on a large and valuable trade with lands to the west along what is now often called “maritime silk roads.” However, with a few exceptions, China’s navy did not venture beyond China’s East Asian coastal waters. Even when Japanese pirates raided China’s coastal areas during the Ming-Qing interregnum, China’s naval forces did not venture too far to sea to challenge those Japanese marauders.
Coastal defense was the preferred Chinese strategy, even to the extent of relocating the Chinese population inland, making them less tempting and vulnerable to pirate raids. Even when European warships and globe-traveling merchant vessels pressed in on China in the 19th century, China’s Manchu rulers deemed those maritime barbarians less dangerous than the more familiar inner Asian potential marauders. Granting such barbarians some jurisdiction over foreign trade in clearly defined extraterritorial zones was well within China’s traditional barbarian-handling techniques.
That strategy backfired when applied to British, French, or American navies. During the two Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, British cannon and ship design were vastly superior to Chinese warships. Only very late in the 19th century did China begin efforts to develop modern naval power. Japanese, American, or Soviet Russian navies dominated the Western Pacific during the long period of China’s “national humiliation.” It was only in 1985 that Chinese warships (a squadron of two destroyers and a supply ship) entered the Indian Ocean. The last previous Chinese warships to enter the Indian Ocean had been in 1432.
Today, there are dozens of Chinese warships and submarines in the Indian Ocean and beyond. China now rivals the U.S. in naval power and boasts of the world’s largest navy.
PP: How do you think these issues will play out going forward?
JG: Russia was an important supporter of India during the Cold War. Today, during the post-cold War era, India does not want to see Russia join China in trampling on Indian interests. However, that is what is happening, especially with Russian support of China’s rise as a naval power.
The world has changed dramatically from the Indian perspective, and not in a good way. With Russia tightly connected with China, India’s options are limited.