I just returned from a trip to India and China with my colleagues Liz Economy and Dan Markey, where we had the opportunity to participate in seminars and discussions in both countries focused on U.S. relations with Asia. On a personal note, while I’ve been visiting India regularly since 1990, I had only visited China once, back in 2001. In the thirteen-year interim it seemed as if Shanghai and Beijing grew even more impressive buildings and many more of them—the infrastructure is just astounding. (Many U.S. cities would benefit from such development.)
But back to the trip. There’s a palpable excitement and energy in New Delhi about the new Modi government, and its intention to revive the Indian economy. The pursuit of economic growth will surely preoccupy New Delhi for the foreseeable future, and rightly so—but it will also have to deal with forging its path in a changing Asia. It will need to do so in the context of a China which has greatly increased its economic and political influence across Asia and indeed throughout the world, especially in recent years.
New Delhi’s relations with Beijing appear at first blush very similar to Washington’s: both relationships have rapidly growing trade and investment ties, while both have some challenging security differences to manage. Yet this superficial similarity belies a much deeper set of contradictions India faces with China.
On the one hand, modern India feels a sense of solidarity with Asia’s other colossus, a solidarity dating back many decades (setting aside for now the longer history of civilizational contact and influences). Despite an unresolved border dispute, and Indian suspicions of China’s growing engagement with the South Asian region, this sentiment persists.
At the end of June, for example, India’s vice president traveled to China to celebrate the sixty-year anniversary of the Panchsheel treaty, which rooted India-China relations in 1954. The treaty lays out “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” later included in the Bandung Afro-Asian conference principles, and then in the Non-Aligned Movement. (Here’s a booklet providing some background on the treaty published by India’s Ministry of External Affairs to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary back in 2004.) Of course, the Panchsheel vision emphasizing sovereignty, mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, non-interference, equality, and mutual non-aggression hearkens back to a time when neither India nor China were rising global powers. And eight years later, the 1962 India-China border war rudely jolted its ideal-type visions of harmony.
Today, we can see Panchsheel’s further inheritance in the formalization of the BRICS multilateral grouping (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), which held its most recent summit-level meeting on July 14. The summit produced some concrete decisions on the BRICS development bank which has been under discussion for the past two years. This BRICS bank will provide a development finance alternative to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, obviously providing a greater governance role for the developing world than the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are structured to facilitate. That said, it is not clear if each of the BRICS members will have an equal say. The formal capital contributions will be in equal shares. But despite efforts to create a structure of equality, it also appears that China will provide the lion’s share of the additional contingency funding for the bank, financing a full 41 percent—raising the question of how governance will actually function in practice.
China has also called for another non-Western multilateral grouping, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, or CICA, to transition into a regional security organization. It met in Shanghai in May, and indeed on the way to the Pudong airport in Shanghai, a giant building-size mural heralding the CICA gathering greets highway travelers. Since Asia does not have its own NATO analogue, President Xi Jinping has proposed that CICA could perform that role. Less clear, obviously, is what role Asia’s other giant, India, would play in the proposed CICA security architecture. India, which has never wanted to play a junior partner role to anyone, is likely asking the same question.
But against the backdrop of mutual bonhomie and the pursuit of new multilateral structures, there’s a live territorial dispute returning to the foreground. Much global attention has been paid to China’s maritime disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines—see CFR’s interactive guide—but less so the live border dispute with India. The India-China border has been unresolved since 1962. The most recent intensification of China’s border claims focuses on an area of India’s northeast in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, specifically the Tawang region abutting the actual border.
Just as the Indian vice president was celebrating six decades of peaceful mutual coexistence with China during his trip to China, the Chinese government released a new official map of Chinese territory. China’s cartographic claims to this area, which it calls Southern Tibet, have in recent years become more insistent and across domains—whether in online maps created by private companies, in dealing with questions of citizenship and the issuance of visas to residents of Tawang, or now indeed in official representations of Chinese territory as just released. And China’s new map leaves no ambiguity on the question, depicting this area as “Southern Tibet” within China. The map set off alarm bells across the Indian media, and India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded by saying the map did not change “the reality on the ground.” Just weeks earlier and with respect to these concerns, India’s Minister of External Affairs had informed her visiting Chinese counterpart that India expected China to respect a “one-India policy.”
Leaving apart China’s “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan, and its rapidly deepening ties with the smaller countries of South Asia bordering India, it’s hard to reconcile the realities of peaceful coexistence and mutual non-interference with territorial claims. Prime Minister Modi and his team will have some difficult strategic decisions in the future to make as they grapple with India’s economic growth and trade interests—in which Chinese engagement is a must—alongside their larger neighbor’s categorical claims to their own northeast.
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