China and the Other Asian Giant: Where are Relations with India Headed?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Mike Kulma:

Earlier this week at an Asia Society forum on U.S.-China economic relations, Dr. Henry Kissinger remarked that when the U.S. first started down the path of normalizing relations with China in the early 1970s, the economic relationship and trade between the two countries was virtually non-existent. Amazingly, a similar statement could have been made about India and China as recently as a decade ago. It was at that time, around nine years ago, that the Asia Society published a seminal book on the relationship The India-China Relationship: What the United States Needs to Know.  Back then, very few people were looking at the relationship in a sustained and serious way. Two-way trade between the countries was only $3 billion. During an authors’ trip to both countries in advance of publication, and in meetings with local experts, it was apparent that while the Indian interlocuters had thought long and hard about China (and seemed quite concerned by China’s rise), their Chinese counterparts seemed far less interested, and certainly less concerned.

Fast forward to this week, when Premier Li Keqiang has just wrapped up a three-day visit to India, his first visit to a foreign country since taking on his current role. How dramatically the relationship has changed in these last ten years for India to be the first stop on such trip, ahead of traditional partners such as Pakistan.  While Premier Li suggested the three purposes of his visit as “enhancing the strategic mutual trust, deepening two-way cooperation and ensuring both sides face up to the future,” economics was front and center during the visit—evidenced by the large business delegation traveling with the Premier and the quick trip to Mumbai, India’s business capital.  The numbers further bear out this focus.  Building from paltry sums ten years ago, two-way trade between India and China last year was more than $65 billion and is projected to reach $100 billion by 2015. China is now India’s second largest trading partner, and India is a growing presence in China’s economic calculations.  In addition, there are spots within the economic relationship which seem ripe for greater future interaction.  For example, India’s most recent economic plans suggest a major push on infrastructure in the coming years, and Chinese companies have a strong track record on building out such.

There are still sensitive touch points in the relationship that will continue to challenge the efforts of diplomats on both sides. China’s trade surplus is a source of concern, and the recent border confrontation demonstrated the potential for problems.  But in a volatile global economy, with China’s aging population and India’s youth bulge, these two countries need each other. Similar to the conversation on U.S.-China relations, the world needs an India and China that can work together. This trip was a positive next step in achieving that goal.


The significance of Li Keqiang’s visit to India can be overstated, as is true of any state visit, but I do think that it’s a sign of a continued willingness to improve relations with India by putting aside the difficult issues, especially those surrounding the border dispute. The improvement in relations that Mike Kulma observes over the past ten years shows that a border dispute, to paraphrase Alexander Wendt, is what states make of it.

What is of greater concern than the border dispute is the fact that in both countries, understandings of each other’s history, culture, and much else remain quite shallow among political elites and professionals, to say nothing of the public. Both governments devote ample resources for the training of specialists in general security studies and foreign policy within a handful of top-tier universities and research institutions. Most of these become diplomats or analysts in think-tanks, and few have country-specific training on China or India. This means that only a handful of scholars in China possess a deep knowledge of Indian culture and history, including skills in Hindi and other Indian languages. The same is true for Indian scholars who can speak and read Chinese for their research and who work outside the usual areas of foreign policy and economics.

This too often results in a distorted view of how Indians perceive China and how Chinese look at India. News outlets, blogs, and other foreign policy forums are dominated by non-specialists who nonetheless speak with authority and credibility on how India should handle relations with China, and vice versa. Most often, hawkish views grab the headlines.

I’m describing a problem that we’re familiar with in the United States, which has a long past of government sponsorship of area studies programs only after national security crises and conflicts. Still, for India and China to enjoy the kind of relationship that their leaders profess to want, of mutual understanding and respect, their governments are pursuing a funding strategy that will never get to where they want to be in their bilateral relationship. This requires careful and strategic thinking on how to deepen China studies in India and how to do the same for India studies in China. Governments are not only to blame. In conversations about this issue in both countries, I'm frequently told that few students want to pursue a career as a China specialist or India specialist, let alone undertake the work involved in language training.

This lack of interest in improved understandings of the other civilization is somewhat ironic, as a number of historians have shown. Interactions between the two go back for two thousand years, most famously with the spread of Buddhism to China. Even a century ago, Chinese and Indian intellectuals spoke of a pan-Asian sentiment that tied the two closely together and would provide alternatives to Western culture and its forms of social, economic, and political organization. This spirit of pan-Asianism was revived after Indian independence and the Chinese revolution, but was quickly buried with the 1962 war. I suspect that the pan-Asian concept was not raised during Li Keqiang’s visit, but a few scholars today are taking a keen interest in understanding the historical roots and future possibilities of a pan-Asian regionalism in which Chinese and Indians would revive interactions that flourished in the pre-modern state era.


In the Asia Society volume that Mike Kulma mentions, I wrote a chapter that described the China-India relationship as a “one-sided rivalry.” While much has changed since then, including increasingly active diplomacy and trade between the two countries, the label still applies. India devotes much more attention and emotion toward China than China does toward India.

Indians envy and resent China for its status as a recognized nuclear power, its membership in the most select club of global great powers, the UN Security Council, as well as its attention from the international business community. When India tested a nuclear weapon in 1998, its president wrote President Clinton explaining that they had to do it because of the threat from China.

The Chinese don't see India as either a security or an economic threat. Beijing's defense is focused Eastward toward Japan and the United States. The nuclear agreement between the U.S. and India got China’s attention because it looked like a transparent effort to balance against China. But even so, India isn’t very prominent in the consciousness of PRC foreign policy officials, much less ordinary citizens. China’s sang froid sense of superiority toward India just infuriates Indians even more. 

It’s interesting that Premier Li Keqiang chose India for his first overseas visit and that President Xi Jinping chose Russia for his first visit. China recently has alienated many of its friends in East and Southeast Asia and may be seeking other friends to ease its sense of  isolation. In the past, the Russian government tried to persuade Beijing to join it and New Delhi in an informal bloc to balance against the United States and its allies. The Chinese, however, were reluctant to climb out on a limb with Russia and India instead of trying to establish a constructive modus vivendi with the U.S. I would expect that this caution will still prevail despite a possible short term tactical interest in improving relations with Russia and India.