In a recent security conference in Washington, a Chinese delegate caused an awkward silence among the congenial group at a post-event drinks session when he stated that India was “an undisciplined country where the plague and leprosy still exist. How a big, dirty country like that can rise so quickly amazed us”.
It is this Chinese sentiment of disdain and also grudging admiration that explains much of Beijing’s attitude towards New Delhi. Indeed, one needs to go beyond strategic and military competition to understand the depth of rivalry between Asia’s two rising giants.
China shares land borders with 14 countries. Over the past 30 years, it has made concerted attempts to improve relationships with all of them by settling border disputes. In the case of Russia, China granted significant concessions in order to improve its relationship with Moscow. But the one exception is India.
Outstanding disputes such as the one over the Switzerland-sized area of Arunachal Pradesh continue to bedevil relations. China’s militarisation of the Tibetan plateau — including placing a third of its nuclear arsenal in that region — is a direct challenge to Indian sensibilities. Indeed, India is the only country not formally covered by China’s ‘no first use’ nuclear policy.
Add to these the growing naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean that is driven by resource competition and insecurity and we have what Chinese leaders openly admit to be a “very difficult relationship” with India. These factors point to the persistence of the India-China rivalry.
But they do not fully explain why Beijing has made little effort to work towards settlement of these disputes with New Delhi, as it has with its other land-based neighbours. A more complete explanation needs to take into account the non-material factors behind China’s strategic rivalry with India.
The first factor is one of shock and surprise at India’s continued rise. Until the late 1990s, people at the highest levels in China were dismissing India’s prospects. It was only early this century that China abandoned viewing India through the lens of the 1962 war when Indian forces were decimated and New Delhi humiliated.
Because Indian national scars and weaknesses are there for all to see, little is hidden or explained away. China met India’s re-emergence initially with disbelief, then with disdain, and now with wariness. Beijing does not react calmly to strategic surprises and its gruff response to Indian ambitions in Asia is evidence that Beijing is yet to determine a grand strategic response to India’s re-emergence.
Second, Chinese leaders view the region in hierarchical terms. And the hierarchy is not just based on economic and military benchmarks but also on culture and history. The Chinese see the idea of Asia as having a Chinese core with a number of cultures and polities in the periphery. They call themselves the ‘Middle Kingdom’ for a reason.
Hence, they see little room for another culture and civilisation with equally big historical claims in their concept of Asia. In East and Southeast Asia, Indian culture and civilisation plays second fiddle to Chinese culture and civilisation. But in south and central Asia, Indian cultural influence and ‘soft power’ far exceeds China’s.
As the other great foundational civilisation in Asia, India presents a unique challenge to China that other big Asian powers such as Japan do not. Hence, just as China demands ‘respect’ from the West, Beijing will have grave difficulty accepting that there is another big country also driven by a sense of its enduring civilisation on its doorstep.
Third, as much as both countries will seek to deny it, there is an ideological contest taking place between the rise of authoritarian China and democratic India. The traditional Chinese response to Western expectations that it pursue political reform is to point out that democratic politics would derail the economic progress of such a big, developing country. India is a direct contradiction of this reasoning.
Moreover, democratic India enjoys advantages that authoritarian China does not. For example, China silently fumed at the ease with which the United States was able to embrace India as a legitimate nuclear power after decades of diplomatic hostility. The rapid improvement in military-to-military relationships between India and countries such as America, Japan and Indonesia exceed the progress of such relationships with China — despite 15 years of a Chinese ‘charm offensive’.
As Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, himself not a noted democrat, has observed, few countries in East and Southeast Asia fear India’s rise even as they remain wary of China’s.
Finally, as far as the Chinese are concerned, India has something which few other democracies in Asia have: a preparedness to go to war. This immeasurable national and political characteristic is highly respected by the Chinese. That such a potentially big country like India has it greatly concerns Beijing.
In a sense, these are compelling reasons why China should want to construct a better relationship with India. Its strategists know this. But fundamentally accepting the legitimacy of India’s rise — and therefore its ambitions — is the harder task for Beijing.
**John Lee is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, and the Hudson Institute, Washington DC.
**The views expressed by the author are personal.