Evolution of ties INDIA – CHINA


FOR almost 50 years after their emergence as independent nation states in the late 1940s, India’s relationship with China had a highly uneven trajectory, marked by extreme vicissitudes. 

 It took almost three decades after the 1962 conflict for this relationship to start acquiring a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional character. Significant hurdles have marred the progress towards normalization, namely, the issue of Tibet, the China– Pakistan alliance, the contested boundary, and the role of major powers. 


  • In the case of civilizational-states such as India and China, it is evident that there are sturdy historical legacies that are manifest in the present, which still inform attitudes and perceptions on both sides. 
  • Their shared experiences during their respective struggles for independence and liberation from the colonial yoke found expression in Rabindranath Tagore’s 1924 China visit, which had a major impact on the Chinese intelligentsia—though he came in for a fair share of criticism as well from some nationalist sections as well as the proponents of Westernization.
  • Shared perspectives on imperialism were also seen in the interaction between the Indian delegation led by Nehru and the Chinese delegation at the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels in 1927
  • Indian and Chinese historical experience and common concerns, Nehru believed, called for a policy of friendship and cooperation—any other approach would only lead to confrontation and draw hostile lines across Asia. He was also convinced that given the possibility of superpower intervention, China would never attack India. India thus became the first Asian non-communist country to recognize the new regime in China and has consistently upheld the ‘one-China’ policy.
  • The crux of the PRC’s problem with Nehru and the nature of the political leadership in India, was unquestionably about Tibet. 
  • The Chinese consolidation of military and administrative control of Tibet in January 1950. Subsequently, India’s role and diplomacy in the 1950–3 Korean War (which directly contributed to the PRC being invited to the Geneva peace talks), and the nationalistic upsurge in the Afro-Asian world during the 1950s, led to a change in the Chinese evaluation of the non- aligned countries and brought the desired break in India–China relations. 
  • With the signing of Panchsheel, however, India formally renounced its traditional privileges and position in Tibet, which it had inherited from the British, and established the official Indian position that Tibet was a part of China and that India would not permit any anti- China activity on its soil. 
  • However, India–China relations were stretched to breaking point, especially with the establishment of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama had settled. Though it was not accorded any recognition by the Indian government, a ‘dual policy’ appeared to be operating (wherein some sort of Indian involvement in, and support to, the resistance movement, was in place), which was clearly a source of suspicion and annoyance for the PRC and a major irritant in the relationship. 


  • There is a tremendous profusion of writings, documentation, and analysis of the events that led up to the 1962 conflict . The letters and memoranda continuously exchanged between the two governments right up to 1962, revealed differences not just on the boundary but in their worldview, their attitude to international law and to the sanctity of colonial treaties. 
  • China’s concerns vis-à-vis the Soviet Union were building up and trouble within Tibet was gathering pace. So when in late 1961, India embarked on a proactive policy to set up its posts in what it considered its territory, but were north of the then Chinese positions, the Chinese responded swiftly. They successfully pushed back the Indian troops south of the MacMahon Line in the east, seized control of Aksai Chin in the west, and then withdrew after declaring a unilateral ceasefire. Ambassadors were recalled and the curtains came down on the fraternal friendship—which in any case had begun to fray—by the end of 1962  
  • Further, the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 provided the opportunity for the Chinese to show their solidarity with Pakistan—not only did they supply military equipment but they also threatened to open another front on the Sikkim border.
  • Simultaneously, 1960s was also the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, when the domination of ultra-left factions led the Communist Party of China (CPC) to ‘export revolution’ by intervening in the domestic politics of various states, including India. 
  • China also supported insurgencies in the north-east and the Maoist movements in India, which still lingers in Indian memories. 
  • In 1969, the Chinese and Soviet troops clashed along the Ussuri River, accelerating the pace of Sino-American rapprochement, transforming great power relations, and inaugurating a period of realignment in international relations. 
  • Subcontinental dynamics were largely shaped by two events: the PRC signed an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Pakistan and India began moving closer to the Soviet Union, with a Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Cooperation in 1971 in the shadow of the Bangladesh crisis. 
  • Overtures from India in 1974 were stalled once again with the merger of Sikkim in India, which was denounced as ‘naked annexation’ in the Chinese media.
  • The fundamental stance of the Janata government, which came to power in 1977, was that unless the boundary dispute was sorted out, no meaningful relationship with China could be established.  
  • The then Indian Foreign Minister A. B. Vajpayee paid a visit to China in 1979 and met Deng Xiaoping, who urged the opening of a new chapter in their relationship. 


  • The reinstatement of ambassadors imparted regularity to the official/bureaucratic process of exchanges  visits and exchanges at a functional level as areas of low politics—culture, trade, economic linkages, exchange of students, academicians, sportspersons, etc.—gained momentum.
  • Simultaneously, both sides communicated to the other their respective approaches to resuming talks as regards the disputed boundaries. An important intervention came from Deng Xiaoping in 1980, when in an interview to an Indian journalist, he outlined a proposal that subsequently came to be known as the ‘package deal’. The Indian leadership did not respond to this offer. 
  • Rajiv Gandhi became the second Indian Prime Minister to visit China in November 1988—30 years after Nehru’s visit— and as he told Deng, ‘It is now time to look into the future. I have come to renew an old friendship.’  
  • With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the PRC moved quickly to formalize its frontiers with the newly emerged states in Central Asia and the 1990s witnessed the conclusion of a number of treaties and agreements with almost all its bordering states—a fact that must have been closely watched by the Indians.
  • The Chinese Premier Li Peng’s visit to India in 1991 reaffirmed the desire of stabilizing their relationship and thereby the neighbourhood. 

Pokharan II and After 

  • If the 1962 conflict constituted the first major watershed in terms of taking the India–China relationship from one extreme to the other the Indian nuclear explosions of May 1998 can be seen in comparative terms. In hindsight, the letter of the then Prime Minister Vajpayee to the US President, citing China as the reason for the tests appeared to irk the Chinese more. 
  • However, with the visit of Prime Minister Vajpayee in June 2003, a decisive and rational (philosophically understood) shift was brokered between China and India with regard to the boundary dispute.  
  • This shift was formalized and substantiated during the visit of Wen Jiabao to India, with the signing of an agreement in April 2005 on the ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question 
  • Wen’s visit finally yielded China’s recognition of Sikkim as a part of India and the Joint Statement announced the establishment a ‘Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity’ 


  • The collapse of the socialist bloc and the end of the systemic divide on the one hand and domestic requirements on the other, in conjunction with the deepening forces of economic globalization, provided the necessary impetus for India and China to formulate policies which would reduce tensions in the neighbourhood and allow for greater concentration on the tasks of modernization.  
  • The yin and yang of India–China relations may be stated in terms of a paradox: on the one hand, there is a visibly expanding and deepening multi- level engagement, and the remarkable increase of trade, and on the other hand the low levels of mutual trust and confidence. 

Economic Dynamism 

the India–China trade in goods was the world’s fastest-growing trade during 2000–12, surpassing, in 2009, India’s trade with its then largest trading partner, the United States (which increased only by 23 per cent compared to 29.7 per cent with China)

Analysts, however, highlight two drawbacks: in terms of product composition, the Indian export basket is still extremely limited, comprising mostly primary products, and since 2005–6, we see a continuous and rising trade deficit in favour of China. India has consistently demanded that China give greater market access to Indian pharma and IT sectors (two areas where India is competitive) and there is undoubtedly urgent need to restructure India–China trade relations. Hitherto, security concerns have limited the possibilities of Chinese investment, though the extent of Chinese presence and operations has been described in a recent publication as ‘Asia’s best-kept secret’ 

Expanding Ambit: From the Bilateral to the Global 

  • China’s rise and India’s emergence is by no means on the same page—but their growing global footprint has inevitably led to a gradually expanding dialogue on a range of international issues: international terrorism, multipolarity, energy security, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, UN reforms, globalization, etc.
  • Joint-stands on some critical matters, such as the WTO and the unbalanced international economic order, environmental issues, human rights, reform of the United Nations, and disarmament are also gathering momentum.
  • Both are acquiring more prominence in trilateral (India–China–Russia) and other multilateral platforms such as the BRICS (Brazil-Russia–India–China–South Africa).
  • A gradual reorganization in global economic and political power is taking shape and to varying degrees, both China and India are contributing to this process 

The US Factor 

  • The United States and China have experienced a longer period of close politico- strategic cooperation, and since the end of the bipolar world, the United States has been firmly in the centre of Chinese strategic calculations and considerations.
  • They have had a ‘strategic partnership’ since November 1997 but there are elements of both ‘contention’ and ‘collusion’, ‘containment’ and ‘engagement’—or ‘congagem’, which have at times revived memories of Cold War hostilities.
  • India too, had been moving closer to the United States, particularly since the late 1990s. 
  • The US response has been two-pronged: on the one hand it has sought to deal with China’s ‘rise’ by accommodating it as a responsible stakeholder in the globalizing world order, and on the other attempted to promote a strategic partnership with India which could constitute the classic counterweight. Exploiting the ‘communist’ China and ‘democratic’ India divide, 
  • From the Indian perspective, the triangular dynamic rests on seeing the United States as a natural ally on the one hand, and China as a partner in building a multipolar world on the other.  
  • Both India and China would have to take full cognizance of the relationship of each with the United States (and the West)—neither in zero-sum terms nor as a hurdle in political cooperation amongst them. 
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