Review: India versus China; Why They Are Not Friends by Kanti Bajpai
An attempt to explain how the relationship between the two countries became so fractious despite their periodic attempts at cooperation
Last year marked the lowest point in the history of China-India relations since the 1962 border war. The death of 20 Indian and at least four Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers on June 15, 2020, was the inflection point in bilateral relations. It also fractured the border management framework that both sides had built since the early 1990s. But this was not a one-off incident as the two countries were involved in at least five major border stand-offs in the last decade: Depsang in 2013, Chumar and Demchok in 2014, Burtse in 2015, Doklam near the China-India-Bhutan tri-junction in 2017 and the ongoing stand-off at multiple points in eastern Ladakh. Scholars have attributed these stand-offs to the manifestation of change in China’s approach to foreign and security policies that took an assertive turn in 2008 from Deng Xiaoping’s model of “keeping a low profile” (tao guang yang hui) to a more active framework of “to strive for achievement” (fen fa you wei). Kanti Bajpai’s book, India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends, attempts to dive deep into the subject and explain how these two countries got to be so fractious despite their periodic attempts at cooperation.
The author highlights negative perceptions, differences over perimeters, rival partnerships and the power asymmetry between the two countries as the four drivers (four Ps) of the China-India conflict. Interestingly, Pakistan – the ‘fifth P’ – which describes its relation with China as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey, and so on” is a product rather than a source of the conflict according to Bajpai. While introducing his framework, the author sets expectations by claiming that the book is not specifically about the Ladakh stand-off, India’s changing China policy, or resolving the power differential between the two countries. This arguably is the most important aspect of the book as it informs the reader of what to expect, unlike many other topical releases.
Bajpai argues that China and India lack a shared sense of admiration and trust among policy elites and the general populace. From a respectful relationship in ancient times, the two countries now view each other less respectfully with mutual suspicion and contempt. Furthermore, the author highlights that the dominant strategic world views – Kautilyan and Great power for India and Tianxia, Great Power and Communism, for China – do not give much hope for the bilateral relationship to be premised on an equal footing. The combination of the mutual dislike among elites and historic world views makes manoeuvring bilateral relations a challenging task for both countries.
Bajpai underlines that the perimeter difference between China and India is the crux of the border dispute. Over 70 years, the two countries have not been able to agree on the delineation of the border, the status of Tibet, and appropriate military actions and behaviour along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). He argues that mutual distrust, a zero-sum security view, “cognitive dissonance” and a combination of domestic compulsions and weak leadership on both sides are four broad reasons for continued territorial differences between China and India. He accepts that the confidence-building measures initiated since the early 1990s, which were in line with the kind of measures that NATO and the Warsaw Pact negotiated, served the limited purpose of maintaining peace along the border – temporarily. But it failed to build enough confidence to resolve at least the LAC delineation, if not the boundary dispute. This is because India claims that since 2008, the PLA has been intruding in areas they had earlier left alone. Notably, this is also when China started adopting an assertive foreign policy posture.
Bajpai highlights that China and India have mostly partnered in opposing ideological groupings during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. This is except for two brief occasions from 1949 to 1958 and 1989 to 1998, when China and India feared and resented US dominance. India’s partnerships with the US and the USSR have aimed to balance the Chinese threat. But China’s partnerships with the US and the Soviets, and now Russia, are not primarily directed towards India – but India inevitably ends in the opposing camp. The Chinese feel they can deal with India with the help of Pakistan, claims the author. An important theme that Bajpai emphasises while explaining India and China’s changing partnerships in the last 70 years is that change is the only constant. This is an important lesson for young scholars who often analyse geopolitical situations based only on contemporary facts.
Finally, the book also discusses the increasing economic, military, nuclear and soft power asymmetries between China and India. There is a substantial gap between the two countries in economic and soft power capabilities. In military and nuclear terms, the differential is relatively less considering geography, strategy and posture. The author argues that the power differences matter as the relatively weaker power in the China-India dyad is unwilling to make concessions and further embolden the strong power.
The book concludes with a question on the factors (four Ps) that could have resulted in the border dispute in Ladakh. Throughout the book, the author draws insights from various works of scholarship like John Graver’s Protracted Contest, Ranjit Singh Kalha’s India-China Encyclopedia and Srinath Raghavan’s War and Peace in Modern India. The book is heavily researched and benefits from personal anecdotes from the author’s travels in China and India. For instance, Bajpai notices China’s phenomenal infrastructural transformation in three decades based on his travel from Beijing to Shanghai on the bullet train and compares it with his New Delhi to Mumbai trip on Indian Railways.
However, the absence of Chinese language resources throughout the book is surprising. This is even more so as the ‘first P’ of the ‘four Ps’ framework is about China and India’s perceptions of each other. Nonetheless, the book fills a major gap in developing the framework for understanding China-India relations. Such systematic study is indicative of a broader trend for the future of China-India study as a discipline for emerging scholars.
Suyash Desai is a research associate in the China Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution.