Irrespective of China becoming the largest trade partner of India, her stated anti-India posturing on international platforms remains unchanged.
After the establishment of the communist regime in 1949, China’s overall foreign policy at first instance was the reversion of the so called “century of humiliation”. This was incorporated as a national goal—therefore, transforming the image of China from a weak, bullied and humiliated entity to a strong and self-confident country was projected as China’s domestic as well as foreign policy goal. The goal consisted of building a military second to none; regain “territorial integrity” that included Tibet and Taiwan; and earn foreign respect. Given the ostracization of China by the West, China “leaned to one side” and brushed aside the notion of a third road, in fact a dig at the non-alignment policy of India.
China, rather than accepting India as a non-aligned nation, viewed it as an ally of imperialism, a reactionary and “expansionist” nation, as she inherited British legacies in Tibet. Yang Gongsu, who was one of the members of the 1960 border negotiations, posits that “Indian bourgeois elite and the leaders of ruling class were bred by the British imperialists and were bound together with countless ties, they not only had inherited the status and privileges of British imperialism in South Asia, but also harboured the desire to expand outward.” Therefore, China’s policy from the very beginning was “alliance” with the communist bloc and “struggle” against the capitalist bloc; India obviously fell in the second category, a “temporary friend” as Zhou Enlai had classified friends into “permanent and temporary” and could be joined hands with due to India’s criticism of the imperialists on certain issues. Wang Hongwei, a veteran scholar of India-China relations posits that the main motive of China, besides promoting friendship between India and China, was to “secure India’s neutrality in the Sino-US conflict, render the US encirclement of China bankrupt and create a peaceful environment for China’s construction,” which I believe has all along been the case.
China was successful in “eliminating imperialist influences” by making India accept Tibet as an integral part of China and relinquishment of her rights in Tibet, gaining India’s support at international forum; shelving of the Tibetan plea at the UN due to India’s reluctance to support the motion; and restoring China’s seat at the UN. India not only didn’t get anything in return, but also did not win Chinese confidence. China criticised India for illegally handing over 21,900 Korean and Chinese prisoners of war to the US under the influence of US military and Chiang Kai-shek’s secret agents; accused India of instigating the 1959 Tibetan revolt; and ridiculed India for thinking that amidst the “warm currents of fraternal love”, China would give Nehru a “face” by softening her attitude on the border issue and compromise! With such a background, the 1962 border conflict was just a matter of time.
During the post 1962 deep freeze, China continued to pronounce India as a stooge of US imperialism and Soviet revisionism and social imperialism. China’s pivot to Asia had started with her befriending Pakistan to contain India, and inciting insurgencies in India, including Naxalism. China justified its actions as she accused India of supporting Tibet and Taiwan independence. China supported Pakistan during the latter’s military adventure against India in 1965 and 1971, and threatened India of similar actions. Anti-India posturing continued throughout the “Cultural Revolution” as thousands of red guards demonstrated outside the Indian embassy in Beijing and shouted anti-India slogans such as “Down with the Indian reactionaries”, “Resolutely eliminate all spies of imperialism, revisionism and reaction”.
The turbulent phase of wars, class struggle, struggle sessions came to an abrupt end with China initiating the policy of “reform and open door” in 1979. During Rajiv Gandhi’s China visit, Deng Xiaoping told the visitor that “Let us forget the unpleasant phase in our past relations and do everything with an eye on the future.” It was opined that the border issue should not become an obstacle in improvement of bilateral relations. A Joint Working Group was created to discuss the border issue, which was taken over by the mechanism of Special Representatives in 2003. In the intervening period, confidence building measures were signed with an aim to manage the border rather than resolving the issue. The year 2003 was perhaps the only time when India forced China to accept Sikkim as a part of India in lieu of India accepting Tibet as a part of China in the official declaration since 1954. It may be remembered that the agreement India had signed with China on Tibet in 1954, was valid for eight years, implying that once it was not renewed by India in 1962, India no longer accepted Tibet as a part of China. Some of the Chinese scholars deem it as a mistake of China; they argue that Sikkim would have been a powerful card in China’s playbook against India.
In 1998, ignoring the well documented history of its own proliferation in India’s neighbourhood, China said that India exploding a nuclear device reflected “an outrageous contempt for the common will of the international community”. China further blamed India of seeking hegemony in South Asia and called on the international community that it should adopt a common position in strongly demanding India to immediately stop its nuclear development program. China obviously had double standards, as she was clandestinely supplying her pivot, Pakistan with nuclear and missile technology, and sought parity for the same with India. China’s support to Pakistan during the Kargil conflict (1999), the Mumbai terror attack (2008), cross-border terrorism, and abolition of Article 370 (2020) is obvious to any reader.
Nevertheless, as the overcapacities in China’s industrial sectors started to pile up, China pushed for aggressive trade and investment policies in the region and beyond, therefore, an all-round yet cautious expansion of economic cooperation with India constituted an important dimension of this new approach. A Joint Study Group (JSG) was set up to examine the potential complementarities between the two countries. The JSG recommended an India-China Regional Trading Arrangement (RTA), comprising trade in goods and services, investments, and measures for promotion of economic cooperation in identified sectors. China was keen to push for an agreement, however, considering some apprehensions from the Indian side, the two sides agreed to appoint a Joint Task Force (JTF) to study in detail the feasibility and the benefits of the RTA and give recommendations regarding its content. By the year 2019-20, China’s exports to India accounted for 14.9% of India’s total imports, making India highly dependent on APIs for pharmaceutical industry, electronics, automobile spares, fertilizers, energy equipment etc. Conversely, India’s exports to China accounted for only 5% of its total exports to the world. China’s FDI, which was nil in 2005, increased to US$8 billion in 2019. As India’s trade deficit with China burgeoned to US$48.66 billion in 2019-20, India became apprehensive and went slow with the JSG and JTF recommendations, including its participation in the RCEP.
Irrespective of China becoming the largest trade partner of India, her stated anti-India posturing on international platforms remains unchanged. Though China continue to harp on China’s support for “India’s aspirations to play an active role in the UN and international affairs”, everyone knew that it was just rhetoric. The same could be gleaned from China’s stiff opposition to India’s entry into the NSG and India wanting to proscribe global terrorist Masood Azhar. China’s insensitivity to India’s core issues was revealed when she signed the US$62 billion CPEC with Pakistan that ran through the disputed territory of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It is also constructing dams in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan and has stationed over 10,000 soldiers in the disputed territory between India and Pakistan. This is one of the main reasons for India to oppose China’s Belt and Road Initiative, of which the CPEC is a flagship. As differences grew wider, the consensus that the border issue will not become an impediment for developing robust trade and economic ties got a beating. Frequent standoffs along the border—2013 in DBO-Depsang, 2014 in Chumar, 2017 in Doklam, and Galwan in 2020—revealed that the sanctity of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the confidence building measures (CBMs) had long been lost in the course of China ramping up its border infrastructure and making the LAC easily accessible for patrolling as well as for quick deployment. Creating “buffer zones” along the points of frictions is nothing but to change status quo on the ground. As India tries to play catch up as far as infrastructure building is concerned, the points of frictions along the LAC are bound to increase and result in frequent standoffs and even fatalities that we witnessed in Galwan.
It could be discerned that China’s India policy is goal oriented, very clear as to what she wants from India—whether trade or security. China has penetrated deep into almost every industrial sector in India, however, has denied India market access in sectors like information technology and pharmaceuticals. As for security issues, China has been partially successful in pinning India to the subcontinent owing to the latter’s brawl with Pakistan; opposing India’s entry into the NSG and the UNSC; creating discord between India and her neighbours; making sure that India adheres to “one China policy” and does not internationalise Tibet, Xinjiang etc., issues despite China raising Kashmir for Pakistan in the UN and not showing Kashmir as an Indian territory in its maps. India’s likely embrace with the US, strengthening of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific strategy has long been in the strategic calculus of China, therefore, India trying to make it inclusive has no takers in China.