As both India and China ascend to the global top table, a great deal of attention has been afforded to the delicate relationship between these two ancient powers. There is abundant potential for regional co-operation, but an equally real risk that tensions could flare.

Historically, the relationship between India and China has been cordial, as evidenced by a healthy exchange of ideas – from Buddhism to trade and technology – via the age-old Silk Road. Conflict between the two has been virtually non-existent, in part due to the physical barrier of the Himalayas.

However, relations between India and China have been tense since a border dispute sparked the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and have soured in the past decade as Pakistan has shifted its attentions from the United States in favour of closer relations with China.

Sino-Pakistani relations fuel tension

Chinese investment in Pakistan has been impressive, with the “Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) budgeted for $62 billion. This support extends far beyond economic assistance, however, as the Chinese and Pakistani military share close defence and diplomatic ties.

Indeed, China provides Pakistan with military hardware at a generous price; one such example being the JF-17 multirole fighter which forms the backbone of the Pakistani Air Force. In the realm of diplomacy, China has even gone as far as vetoing sanctions placed on anti-India terrorists operating within Pakistan.

Pakistan air force JF17 fighter jet
Chinese-built JF-17 fighter planes now form the bulk of the Pakistani airforce. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

But this has come at a cost. India sees China arming its close enemy as a blatant act of aggression, leading to significant trust issues between the two countries. It must be noted that no nation has ever managed to maintain close, significant relations with both India and Pakistan.

China’s ceaseless ambition

Moreover, the reaction to China’s ambitious “One belt, One road” (OBOR) initiative gives an insight into India’s attitude towards Beijing’s quest to expand. Nearly 70 countries and organisations have signed up to the mega infrastructure project, projecting investment upward of $4 trillion, aimed at increasing commerce between China and the rest of the world akin to the Silk Road.

However, India, alongside Japan, has already rejected an invitation to join hands with China in the initiative. This is partially born from a fear of falling into an “economic trap” laid by China, and partially due to wanting to prevent Chinese domination on the continent.

Furthermore, India has made a great deal of noise about China’s OBOR plan to connect with Pakistan via disputed territory, Pakistan-administered Kashmir. From a Chinese perspective, they not only see this as a rejection of a chance of closer relations with India, but also as India acting as a thorn in its side with its own plans to connect to the Arabian Sea.

Head-on clashes

But most importantly, China and India have come into direct confrontation in recent months. In June this year, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan requested India’s intervention as Chinese forces appeared in the disputed Doklam region between China and Bhutan. The soldiers arrived with bulldozers and excavators to construct a mountain road to enable the transport of heavy military vehicles, near India’s border.

India answered the Bhutanese request by sending troops in June to evict the Chinese army’s construction party from the Doklam Plateau. China maintained that they were constructing transportation links on sovereign territory, and any question of that would be “interference” by India on an issue that only concerned China and Bhutan.

India army paratroopers
Indian troops were disputed to Bhutan earlier this year. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

However, India said that it was answering the call of Bhutan, which had protested the construction of the road, and that no building should take place on disputed territory, especially on land that would enable quicker militarisation.

Fears of conflict

There was a real fear of an all-out military showdown between the nations as neither would step down from its position. However, diplomatic talks behind closed doors helped to ease the situation, as both nations withdrew in order to maintain the 70-year-old status quo.

This was likely China testing India’s military resolve, and thus a sign of what might be to come. Economic and political disagreements between the two nations on the global stage could lead to military agitation at their borders.

Because of this, India has made overtures to Japan, the US and Australia for a “quadrilateral Indo-Pacific alliance” to place checks on Chinese provocations. The alliance is aimed at forging closer military co-ordination, via exercises and diplomatic cooperation.

Diplomatic missions

Recent visits to India by the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and the United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have underlined their commitment to a “quadrilateral Indo-Pacific alliance”. Japan has taken this one step further by putting forward a trade plan, in cooperation with India, to directly counter China’s OBOR.

With the US recognising India’s rise and its potential as a counterweight to China’s power, it has sought to form closer ties. This is evident in defence dealings between the two nations: in the past year, the United States and India have signed deals for Apache and Chinook helicopters and are weighing up further deals to supply F-16 and F-18 fighter jets.

India’s policy junction

There are three options on the table for India. Firstly, it can actively pursue a closer military and economic alliance with Japan and the US to contain China. India could also antagonise China by nudging sensitive issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea.

Potala Palace Tibet Lhasa
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Despite hosting thousands of Tibetan refugees, India has succeeded in not antagonising China over the issue. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, another territory that China disputes, ruffled the feathers of some in Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, told reporters that the move had “caused serious damage to China’s interests and China-India relations”.

However, this would be a dangerous path, possibly leading to further Indo-Chinese confrontations as well as China antagonising India on the world stage, for example its stubbornness in refusing to accept a seat for India on the United Nations Security Council without strings attached.

The second option that India could pursue is one of cooperation. This would involve buying into China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, increasing trade and diplomatic missions, settling border disputes with clarity and, crucially, moving away from any United States-Japanese-Indian axis.

Yet, the trust with China does not exist. India continues to promote the Dalai Lama and house the exiled Tibetan government; while China continues to antagonise with its investment and diplomatic support for Pakistan.

Unilateral indifference

Finally, the third option for India is what the nation has adopted since its inception in 1947: remain non-aligned. On the one hand, it can increase economic and defence ties with the United States, Japan and other nations in South East Asia – such as Vietnam – whilst not stepping over the line by getting involved in issues beyond its own borders.

India has given refuge to hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, yet has not seriously antagonised China on the Tibet issue, recognising that it is indeed a part of the People’s Republic of China. Again, it has formed close relations with Japan in recent times but refuses to budge from its position on the South China Sea, that it is an issue that does not involve them and must be solved bilaterally.

However, India’s lack of commitment to addressing Pacific disputes will be viewed as hesitancy towards an Indo-Pacific alliance. In turn, the country’s lack of commitment towards Chinese trade and development plans would appear to be a rejection of amiable Sino-Indian relations. The fear is that India can only play a non-aligned role for so long, and sooner or later it will be forced to choose a side.

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