India and China as Rising Powers: Collision or Cooperation?

India and China as Rising Powers: Collision or Cooperation?

The parallel rise of India and China is one of the most significant developments in the twenty-first century. It excites a lot of curiosity and speculation, on the one hand, and has immense theoretical and empirical significance on the other. The key question being asked everywhere is whether India and China will be rivals or partners. This is hardly surprising since the relationship between the two Asian giants is likely to play a decisive role in not only shaping the stability and security of Asia but also defining the contours of the emerging global order in the new century.

The United States National Intelligence Council Report (2004) “Mapping the Global Future” by 2020 has compared the emergence of China and India in the early 21st century to the rise of Germany in the 19th and America in the20th, with potentially dramatic impacts. The import of their bilateral relationship is not lost on China and India. In one of his meetings with the Indian Prime Minister, the former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is reported to have remarked: “When we shake hands, the whole world will be watching.”  Although India-China relations transcend bilateral issues and have now acquired a global and strategic character, yet the trajectory of their relationship remains as complex as ever and difficult to decipher despite positive developments in the last few years.

Theoretical Debate on the Rise of India and China

The rise of new major powers like China and India has ignited the realm of theoretical debates in International politics. There are two main theoretical discourses– Realism and Liberalism—that claim to provide the most plausible explanation of the emerging reality. According to the Realists, as both India and China rise simultaneously, competition between them is inevitable because rising powers have always tried to reshape their strategic environment to reflect new realities of power. They maintain that in the power competition game, China has clearly surged far ahead of India and any attempt by New Delhi to narrow the power gap will be strongly resisted by Beijing. Moreover, as rising powers, the two could compete for geographic space – which was the reason in the past for clashes between centers of power– especially in areas such as Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, that they consider vital to their future growth and prosperity.

In addition, there could be economic reasons for conflict. In a global system increasingly short of scarce resources vital for sustaining development, China and India compete against each other for energy and water and possibly some minerals vital for development. The Realists conclude that despite the current enthusiasm about the Sino-Indian economic relations and growing political and strategic understanding between the two, there are deep-rooted conflicts between the two emerging giants and their relations could take an ugly turn if China begins to pursue its major territorial claims against India, if its commitment towards détente and peaceful resolution of disputes diminishes or if its arms transfer policies, defense ties and arms buildup is viewed as threatening by India.

Liberal scholars, on the other hand, see the rise of India and China as a positive force within Asia—the two economic giants who through their economic strength and constructive diplomacy contribute to the overall stability of the region. They argue that there is enough space for both nation-states to continue to grow and simultaneously achieve their aspirations. They maintain that as rising states and industrializing economies, India and China today share many common interests, including in trade, technology transfers, energy security, climate change and the construction of a multi-polar world and there is no reason why their relationship will not mature and stabilize in the future.

They further assert that the main issues of border dispute and China’s defense relationship with Pakistan do not constitute a near-term threat to India and that notwithstanding China’s much larger nuclear inventory, a stable strategic relationship between the two countries is likely to be sustained. The late K. Subrahmanyam, India’s foremost strategic analyst, for instance, had argued that China’s desire for increasing its bilateral trade with India and collaboration in sectors such as information technology could be effectively leveraged by India in shaping Beijing’s attitudes vis-à-vis New Delhi.

In his book Making Sense of Chindia: Reflections on China & India (2007), Jairam Ramesh, an influential member of the Congress Party, has advocated the concept of “Chindia” that denotes synergy between the two Asian giants. He views closer economic cooperation between China and India as the best way to build trust and friendship, leading to a long-lasting peace between the two states. In short, the liberals conclude that “nations that trade goods do not trade blows”. However, the Sino-India issue and the nature of their future relationship have not just been confined to abstract theoretical level; rather it has provoked widespread public debate in each country that needs a detailed analysis.

India’s China Debate

The chasm in India’s China debate divides those who want to proceed on the basis of Beijing’s words and those who want policy to be founded on Chinese deeds. There are three broad views in India on how to deal with China and Mohan Mallik (2003) has categorized them as pragmatist, the hyperrealist, and the appeaser.  The pragmatists, who represent India’s dominant school of thought on China, consider Beijing as a long-term threat and Sino-Pakistan nuclear/missile nexus is of greater immediate concern. They, however, suggest that the Sino-Indian rivalry can be managed by engaging China economically because intensifying trade and commerce would eventually raise the stakes for Beijing in its relationship with New Delhi.

The hyperrealists are hawks who view China as a clear and present danger and maintain that only Indian military power and a containment-cum-encirclement strategy by a ring of Asian powers will hold Beijing in check. The appeasers consisting of Communists, left-leaning academics, journalists, pacifists, anti-nuclear, anti-U.S. elements and idealists view China not an aggressive power that threatens or bullies its neighbors but a developing country like India which seeks to improve the lives of its billion plus people. The problem, in their view, is India, not China.

Steven Hoffman (2004) has also argued on similar lines. He has characterized Indian position on China into three categories: the Mainstream position, China-Is-Not-Hostile position, and China-Is-Hostile position. These three types closely correlate with the pragmatists, the appeasers, and the hyperrealists coined by Malik.

China’s India Debate

India’s fast economic growth and its diplomatic activism have also attracted increasing attention from Chinese scholars and analysts in recent years. Gone are the days when Chinese analysts could look down upon India as a lightweight and a regional power confined to South Asia. China’s recent debate on the rise of India can be broadly divided into three main categories: those who have moderate views, those who take extreme position and those who prefer the middle path.

The moderates are mainly from government research institutes, universities, civilian think tanks, business circles and the general public who take a positive view of India’s rise and development. For them, India’s rise as a global power is inevitable in the long run and is compatible with China’s preference for a multi-polar world. They recognize that both China and India are developing countries, share many common views on regional and international affairs and need a stable international environment for their domestic economic growth. They consider Indian activities in South Asia, Southeast Asia or the Middle East as mainly for expanding Indian regional influence and are part of its general strategy of becoming a world power, rather than targeted at China.

Based on this premise, they adopt a forward-looking approach to India’s rise and advocate greater Sino-Indian cooperation. The benign view of Sino-India relations is reflected in a 2006 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey of public attitudes. 56 percent of the Chinese public surveyed believed that China and India are mostly partners while only 30 percent thought they are rivals. Indeed, a majority of the Chinese public surveyed support India’s growth both economically and even militarily.

Those who take extreme position consisting of Chinese military and the defense-industrial complex see in India’s rise a serious challenge to China’s security interests with regard to territorial disputes, energy security, and regional and global power realignment. They are concerned about New Delhi’s eastward strategy of developing greater economic and military ties with Japan and the ASEAN countries many of which have ongoing territorial disputes with China.

They are also worried about the implications of a growing U.S.-India strategic partnership that spans from nuclear cooperation to the building of a so-called democracy arch. For them, the US action to enlist India is to balance against China’s rapid rise. In addition, the U.S. also recognizes the value of India as an emerging market and would like to see India succeed economically as an alternative to the so-called “Beijing Consensus” (i.e., economic success with relatively tight political control). They are also particularly attentive to what they see as New Delhi’s ambitions for building a blue-water navy: a fleet of 145 oceangoing surface ships by 2015, capable of operating beyond the Indian Ocean. To them, if India were to control this area, it would control the arteries of the global economy. They also advocate that as India’s manufacturing sectors develop and China’s service sectors become more competitive, it is possible that these two countries’ trade competition in different regions of the world will become more serious in future.

In short, although they don’t see any immediate threat from India to China, yet they are worried on the patterns and trends of developments in India that could transform it into a formidable adversary in the long run, thus potentially diverting Chinese resources from its top policy priorities (economic development and the eventual resolution of the Taiwan issue) and making any settlement of the border issue more elusive than ever.

Finally are some Chinese analysts who propagate a middle path on Sino-India relationship. They believe that “conditional engagement with India certainly is preferable to open conflict, with the prospect of pushing New Delhi further into the U.S. camp”. They suggest that ad hoc management of the bilateral relationship is possible till the two countries solve all their outstanding issues. They hold that India has various strategic suspicions toward China, and because of these suspicions, New Delhi has no will and determination to establish real strategic partnership with Beijing.

However they suggest that it is important for the two sides to cooperate further and exchange more information, so as to reduce misunderstanding and enhance mutual trust.  But full and complete normalization, let alone the development of a strategic and cooperative partnership between rising Asian giants, is possible only if China and India can set a clearly defined timetable for the resolution of their border disputes. Beijing and New Delhi must also manage well the China-India-Pakistan triangle and prevent conflicts in the Indian Ocean as both countries recognize the growing importance of energy security in their national economic calculations.

Critical Perspectives & Future Roadmap

The theoretical and public debate in the two countries clearly shows that ties between India and China are extraordinarily complex and are certainly misunderstood both within the two nations and in much of the academic world. Neither in fact clearly matches with the real direction of Sino-Indian relations.  For instance, whether it is Realism or Liberalism, each speaks about one aspect of the reality and leaves the other one untouched.

As we will see later on, while the Realists fail to explain the noticeably broadening and deepening multilevel engagement and the remarkable volume of trade between India and China in recent years, the Liberals fail to answer why despite remarkable improvement in their bilateral relationship, there is still a low level of mutual trust and confidence between the two countries.

Similarly, so far as India’s public debate on China is concerned, it is deeply divided between those who see China as the country’s principal long-term threat and those who for ideological reasons have long romanticized the prospects for building an Asian century in collaboration with China. The same can also be said about China—the gulf between those who consider India’s rise as compatible with China’s preference for a multi-polar world and those who see a serious challenge to China’s security interests in India’s rise.

While a healthy debate is essential for its positive impact on public policy, problems arise when issues are sensationalized leading to the hardening of attitudes as happened in 2009 when India-China relations reached a precipitous low following a media frenzy and irresponsible speculation on an upcoming war between the two countries. Moreover, this debate on both sides is clearly dominated by a “Realist” consideration: a prioritization of security imperatives over the “low politics” of economic interest, wariness toward erstwhile enemies, and a preoccupation with territorial sovereignty.

However, two positive developments can be mentioned about the Chinese public debate on India. First, the debate on Sino-Indian relationship is not quite one-sided and asymmetrical as often claimed and believed to be. It is asymmetric only to the extent that India regards China as its “principal rival”, and China regards India as its “strategic rival”. Second, the Chinese analyses of the rise of India’s growing economic strength, military capabilities, and diplomatic relationships show a new image of India in China. While India was perceived in the context of the status of Tibet, Sino-Indian border issues, and the security situation in the subcontinent in the past, recent analyses of India regard it as a growing strategic player in Asia and the world.

This does not mean that the older issues have become unimportant. Instead, it means that the Chinese have begun to seriously acknowledge India’s growing strategic profile and its impact on the security architecture of Asia and beyond.

However, those who project Sino-Indian collusion thesis clearly misread the fundamental change in the context of Sino-Indian relations. Unlike in the previous decades, the India-China relationship has now acquired a comprehensive and multidimensional character. Despite much accumulated baggage, such as their unresolved border dispute and China’s military and nuclear support of Pakistan, they have carefully steered the bilateral relationship around many crises and challenges as was evident during the border stand-off in 2014. While new elements of competition are indeed visible, it is unlikely that it will acquire an antagonistic dimension. Both New Delhi and Beijing reject the thesis of rivalry in Asia and beyond.

Whatever might be the tone of the somewhat exaggerated public debate in India about rivalry with China, policy-makers in New Delhi are acutely conscious of its limitations in Asia. Their aim is to expand India’s strategic weight in the region and not to set up a rivalry with China. Indian leaders at the highest levels and quite consistently have argued that Asia is large enough to let both China and India meet their aspirations. Beneath that rhetoric is the realism that any attempt to construct its security ties with other Asian countries in the context of an intractable rivalry with China will be counter-productive.

Moreover, despite the recent diplomatic rifts between India and China, economic ties between them are growing both in strength and importance. Bilateral trade between the two countries is booming and went to $70.59 billion dollars in 2014. The leadership of two countries have fixed a trade target of $ 100 billion in 2015. China has already become India’s largest trading partner in 2008. The two countries are embarked on a dialogue to resolve their long-standing political differences. In 2003, the two countries resolved their differences over Sikkim’s integration into India. They are also engaged in an intensive political exercise to find a fair and reasonable solution to their difficult boundary dispute.

Both countries are also united in their quest for energy. Though there has been much political strife over the control of equity stakes in exploration projects, there have also been many instances when each country has opted for joint exploration in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Both are calling for the creation of an Asian oil and gas grid to end what an Indian Oil Minister had dubbed a “wretched Western dominance.” Both India and China are also calling for greater market access to the developed world, including the United States, and are cooperating with each other in the WTO, G-20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

An example of cooperation between India and China needs special mention. During the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December 2009, India and China so finely coordinated their negotiating positions at the talks that the online edition of the German magazine Der Spiegel felt provoked to put out an article titled “How India and China sabotaged the UN Climate Summit”.

These positive trends, however, do not necessarily imply that the sources of competition between the two countries have dried up. As both nations acquire greater economic and political clout, there is also a sense of competition between them across a broad front —from the maritime domain to outer space. From Latin America to Siberia, and from Southern Africa to Central Asia, China and India are locked in a global competition, and occasional cooperation to ensure resource security. Citing the protection of their sea lines of communication, China and India are determined to expand naval power and ensure maritime presence far away from their shores.

That China and India might increasingly bump into each other in far corners of the world does not necessarily mean India’s relations with China will inevitably turn adversarial. The Sino-Indian relationship is likely to see enduring elements of both competition and cooperation. The challenge before Beijing and New Delhi is to continuously expand their cooperation and develop a better mutual understanding and prevent any potential misreading of each other’s intentions.

Four propositions, however, must be kept in mind in assessing India’s future relationship with China. First, India’s main objective is to emerge as an indispensable element in the Asian balance of power. Second, India’s emphasis will be on simultaneous expansion of political and economic relations with all the great powers such as the US, EU, China, Russia and Japan and avoid choosing sides between them. Three, it is reasonable to expect that there will be greater military and strategic content to Indo-U.S. relationship than in Sino-Indian ties but an expanding relationship with the United States could raise the stakes for China in an improved relationship with India. Fourth, the Indian economy is currently much smaller than China’s and New Delhi faces long-term challenges which reduce the prospects of its attaining strategic parity with Beijing.


For decades China and India had looked at each other with a mixture of apathy and suspicion. As India’s economy opened up in the early 1990s and exchanges between these two countries have increased, Chinese perspectives on India have become more positive. The two Asian giants have now entered into a pragmatic dialogue that puts more emphasis on trade and commerce than on their political differences. However, their size, geographic proximity and contemporaneous rise to greater political and economic power ensure that competition will remain a feature of their relationship. Although, competition is not necessarily awful yet it is important that this competition is kept in a benign framework and managed in the best interests of the two countries.

China and India boast a combined population of 2.6 billion. The imagery would overawe anyone. Two fastest growing economies with close to 40 percent of the global population, can do wonders both at the bilateral and global levels. For this to happen, the two needs to broaden the scope and depth of their strategic dialogue and to continue confidence-building measures that will minimize and dispel mutual suspicions and threat perceptions against each other.

In addition, China and India should consult more on international and regional issues where they share many common interests. But full and complete normalization, let alone the development of a strategic and cooperative partnership between Asia’s two rising powers, is possible only if China and India can set a clearly defined timetable for the resolution of their border disputes and manage well the Pakistan factor in their bilateral relations.

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