Border tensions!? What border tensions? Indian and Chinese soldiers pose at Nathu La, one of the passes between their countries. (No points for guessing which is which.)

Border tensions!? What border tensions? Indian and Chinese soldiers pose at one of the passes between their countries. (No points for guessing which is which.)

From May 14 through 16, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited China. Although Modi’s visited all sorts of countries in his first year in office, it’s obvious that he places great importance on relations with China — China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, visited India last September too. It’s a lot of face time in 1 year compared to India’s past experience. Considering that both India and China are giant Asian countries with rising economies and growing confidence, now’s a good time to examine their relationship and see what might lie ahead.

Both India and China are ancient civilizations dating back thousands of years to river valleys and complex urban societies. Both are huge and influential in their neighborhoods; both have influenced Southeast Asia. India is seen in Asia, as elsewhere, as the wellspring of spiritualism and religion, and Buddhism, a major religion in China, came originally from India. The Chinese monk Xuanzang made an epic journey to India in the 600s to collect Buddhist sutras (scriptures) and bring them back to China for translation; his account is an important historical resource on India in that era and served as an inspiration for the Chinese epic Journey to the West, which is famous throughout China’s sphere of influence.

But despite these important links, India and China are more noteworthy for their differences. Racially, for starters, they’re completely different. (There is no “Asian race.”) While some peoples on India’s border with China have narrower eyes and more Mongoloid features, most Indians look very different from Chinese, since most came from further west originally. The Chinese languages, with their tones and complex characters, are incomprehensible to Indians. Buddhism is a minor religion in modern India, while China is more a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and a criminally understudied native religion without a name with a heavy layer of Communist-inspired atheism on top. Indian and Chinese society, history, philosophy, art, food, architecture and clothing are all very different.

The reason is because the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range lie in between — and historically, so has Tibet, a huge mountainous Buddhist region with close ties to both India and China. It’s possible to cross them, but it’s very, very hard. They have effectively isolated both countries from the outside world and made them inward-oriented and isolationist. (India somewhat less so than China, with the result that it’s absorbed a lot of foreign influences over the years.)

This mutual aloofness continued until the 1900s. Although China escaped overt colonial conquest, it saw itself as struggling against foreign-imposed domination and backwardness, and some Chinese admired India’s struggle for independence from Britain. Some Indians likewise admired Chinese patriots and leaders. For the most part, though, India and China first noticed each other in the late 1940s, when the former gained independence and the latter experienced a revolution around the same time.

India, and its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, in particular, saw China as a kindred spirit and a natural ally in the struggle against Western domination. China was firmly in the Communist camp, but it also projected itself as a leader in Asia, and Nehru got along well with China’s Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai. With the slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai (“India and China are Brothers”), Nehru tried to start a new partnership between the 2 countries based on resistance to Western imperialism, shared development goals, and common Asian values like communal solidarity and rejection of capitalism.

The partnership worked well for a few years, then went downhill fast. The 1st problem was China’s 1950 annexation of Tibet. India was caught off guard and lost its traditional buffer state. Nehru privately resented the move but publicly accepted it and supported China in the UN. But now Chinese troops were stationed along India’s border in the High Himalayas. India discovered that they were building a road in an area called Aksai Chin that it considered its territory (although it’s almost uninhabited). China claimed most of what is today the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh*, east of Bhutan, on the grounds that it is Tibetan.

When Nehru asked Zhou if he could please reconsider his views, Zhou responded angrily, claiming that the Tibetan-Indian border had been drawn by the British, so standing by it would mean endorsing imperialism. He also emphasized the Tawang Monastery, which is in the disputed territory, and its importance in Tibetan Buddhism. In turn, Nehru was pressured by an angry Indian public and military sensitive to getting pushed around by China. The Indian-Chinese partnership finally died in 1959, when the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s former spiritual leader, escaped Chinese oppression by seeking refuge in India… beginning in the Tawang Monastery. Zhou was upset in a visit to New Dilli, India’s capital, calling it granting sanctuary to a rebel. China was also upset at anti-Chinese protests in India and couldn’t understand the principles of free speech. Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai had become “Hindi-Chini Bye-Bye.”

India and China moved from bitter neighbors to enemies in 1962, when they went to war. It started with a provocative Indian policy of moving troops into Aksai Chin and staking out the territory. China responded with gunfire, and within a month it had wiped out the Indians. The Indians retreated into the Brahmaputra Valley south of Arunachal, while the Chinese took the disputed territory. Then, for reasons that remain unclear (the most likely ones are that it had overextended its supply lines, or that it just didn’t care enough and mostly wanted to make a point), China withdrew back across the border. It had conceded Arunachal, at least, but Aksai Chin has remained in Chinese hands, and India (and Nehru in particular) suffered a tremendous humiliation that took some time to recover from.

The war may have been 53 years ago, but its shadow continues to loom over Indian-Chinese relations. Despite China’s forbearance, it has left the enduring impression of China as an aggressive, expansionist power, with India in a subordinate position. Border tensions flared again in 1967 and 1987, although war has not returned. China then paid India back for hosting a Tibetan government-in-exile by supporting a Communist insurgency in east Inda, the Naxalite rebellion (which is another topic altogether).

Since then, Sino-Indian relations have mostly stayed frozen in a state of uneasy antagonism. But economic growth has changed the situation. Both countries have become stronger, more confident, and richer. Both seek to make a mark on the world and be influential global powers. Most importantly, China has become an economic linchpin and the world’s manufacturing hub. It has shown the world how to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and build a thriving economy. And this has made China very valuable to everyone.

This means India has 2 main goals regarding China.

1: To settle the border dispute. After all these years, it remains unresolved. In fact, recent movements — including during Xi’s visit to India last year! — have only inflamed the issue and reminded Indians that China still controls “their” territory! China also still prints maps showing Arunachal Pradesh as part of China. The nationalist press and public in both countries have only gotten more nationalist since the ’60s, not less, and even though the Himalayan region where these borders are is remote from where most Indians and (especially) Chinese live, the idea of some other country occupying their territory is outrageous to countries with bad memories of imperialism.

2: Money! India remains very poor, and despite its impressive advances in the last 2 decades, it still lags behind China. Its infrastructure is subpar, its schools are a pale shadow of China’s, its public health system is a mess, and the country in general is dirty and unsanitary. Far more Indians than Chinese live on farms and can’t read. China remains a favorite of foreign investors, while India is currently seeking to do much more to attract them. Manufacturing, in particular, is something India is desperate to advance in. As a result, Modi is especially interested in learning from China, importing some of its techniques and business knowhow, and tapping into China’s wealth.

Modi himself is an interesting character because he embodies both of these contradictory strains. On one hand, he’s a strident nationalist, bellowing about India’s territorial integrity, reaffirming Arunachal Pradesh’s status as Indian while campaigning there, and presenting India as a strong, confident power. But on the other hand, he’s personally very interested in business and attracting foreign investment. While chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, he hosted many events for visiting Chinese businessmen and took the unusual step of visiting China to strike deals. Now that he’s prime minister, he brought Xi to Gujarat just like the old days, and during his visit to China he attended a business forum in Shanghai, China’s economic capital. I guess the slogan should now be “Hindi-Chini Buy-Buy.”

India’s foreign policy is to a large degree still shaped by “non-alignment.” For more on this, see this blog post, but basically it means avoiding alliances with power blocs. It’s a product of weakness and a focus on internal development, and all these years later India is still fairly weak and focused on internal development. This means its diplomacy tends to be middle-of-the-road, welcoming foreigners and being nice to them without truly embracing them and of course not antagonizing them. Its relations with China are a perfect example of this.

Still, insofar as the new power blocs are led by America and China, India under Modi is showing a decided tilt in one direction: America’s. Barack Obama was invited to India’s Republic Day parade this year, not Xi (again, see above blog post). Without openly embracing America, India seems warmer with it than China. Indians in general see America more positively than China, in large part due to the close ties with America forged by India’s diaspora. And India is annoyed at Chinese overtures towards the Maldives and Sri Lanka, two small countries in the Indian Ocean (and therefore its “backyard”), and has come out against China’s encroachment in the South China Sea. It’s also undergoing a big naval buildup in the Indian Ocean to ward off any Chinese expansion there (it’s the main link between Europe and East Asia).

Again, a big reason why India and China are so estranged is because they don’t have much of a connection with each other. Indian religiosity and spiritualism is mystifying to many Chinese, who are mostly atheist or secular-oriented (if superstitious). Indian culture, with its Western, Persian, and Islamic influences, is pretty foreign to Chinese. A Hindustan Times journalist stationed in Beijing found that the Chinese think of India as “dirty, poor and irrelevant,” paid little heed to Indian companies, and were often racist towards Indians because of their darker skin. (It’s not an oversight on my part that this post has focused mostly on Indian attitudes towards China; India is only a minor concern in China.) Chinese continue to sneer at Indian democracy, thinking of it as the reason why Indian development is lagging; Indians fear and mistrust China partially because of its authoritarianism. Modi tried to address the knowledge gap somewhat on his trip by opening a centre for Gandhian studies at a Chinese university and allowing Chinese to get electronic visas, but Chinese interest in going to India or learning Hindi is still pretty tepid.

As for India, there is some recognition of its mighty northeastern neighbor — momos, a Nepali version of Chinese dumplings, are eaten in India, as are chow mein, Manchurian chicken, and other sort-of Chinese dishes. There’s also this 2009 Bollywood movie, Chandni Chowk to China, about a street food vendor in Dilli (Chandni Chowk is a neighborhood there) who turns out to be the reincarnation of a Chinese warrior hero and goes on an epic, martial arts-filled journey. But for the most part China is seen as foreign as it is in the West.

Due partially to instinct and habit and partially to a cool assessment of its strategic situation, India will continue to play it safe and delicate in its relations with China. The border dispute can be solved relatively easy (India will probably keep Arunachal Pradesh while China keeps Aksai Chin; it’s been suggested before) and economic interests are important enough to keep Chinese and Indian dignitaries shaking each other’s hands. But China’s looming military strength, international assertiveness, and aggressive attitude towards its neighbors are causing alarm in New Dilli. Without arousing the dragon’s wrath, Modi will probably keep on America’s good side, and keep the troops in the Himalaya on guard, just in case.


At the time it was part of a bigger area called the “North East Frontier Agency” that covered all of northeastern India.


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