China’s Strategic Assessment of India
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and India. Ties between Beijing and New Delhi have been fraught throughout those decades, including a border war in 1962, the Sikkim skirmishes in 1967, the Sumdorong Chu Valley skirmish in 1987, and the Doklam standoff in 2017. The two countries continue to harbor disagreements over their shared border, the issue of Dalai Lama, China’s security cooperation with Pakistan, trade, and the geopolitics of South Asia and Asia as a whole.
China’s policy toward India in the past two to three years has shifted. It now actively promotes closer ties. The reason for this move was the drastic rupture from the Doklam standoff between China and India in 2017, in which Chinese and Indian troops faced off along part of their disputed border. In addition, Beijing fears an emerging India-U.S. alliance as part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. In fact, China and India have announced 70 events throughout the year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. The official rapprochement between these two global giants represents a case of major realignment — a rare case for the Chinese playbook.
Despite high-profile visits by senior leaders, China remains profoundly suspicious of India’s strategic ambition and intentions. Such duality — formal rapprochement on the surface versus distrust and hedging in private — will continue into the foreseeable future with major implications for the region’s peace and stability.
The Trajectory of Bilateral Ties
China believes in power politics and its own natural superiority. Beijing’s vision for Asia is strictly hierarchical — with China at the top — and does not consider India an equal. Recognizing India’s historical influence in South Asia, its capability as a regional power, and its global potential, China’s policy toward India has largely followed a pattern of balancing India in South Asia by propping up Pakistan and developing ties with small countries in the region. In addition, China has sought to prevent an India-U.S. alignment in Asia. When possible, Beijing has tried to build a “coalition” with India on the global level as members of the “Global South.” Disputes and disagreements existed but were managed as neither side was willing to change the status quo in a radical manner.
Xi and Modi becoming the leaders of China and India, respectively, significantly elevated the stress on bilateral relations. Both leaders are ambitious and keen on expanding their countries’ influence while bolstering their vitality: Xi through the Belt and Road Initiative and Modi through the Modi Doctrine. On the bilateral level, China believes Modi is trying to force China’s hand on border disputes, India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, Masood Azhar’s terrorist designation, and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects in Kashmir. Convinced of its superiority, Beijing did not believe it needed to cater to India — although it does now — and rejected Modi’s demands on all fronts.
China’s condescension and India’s frustration culminated in the Doklam standoff in the summer of 2017, in which Chinese and Indian troops staged a confrontation for more than two months over China’s road construction in the trijunction area between China, India, and Bhutan. This standoff was a watershed event in China’s policy toward India during recent decades. Although both countries refrained from the use of force, India’s assertiveness forced China to reassess India’s strategic capability and resolve. This reassessment challenged much of the previous longstanding bias that colored China’s judgment, including the simplistic and static view of India’s inferior status in the regional power hierarchy.
The Asymmetry of Threat Perceptions
For China, the Doklam standoff raised fundamental questions regarding the nature of India’s threat. Despite the asymmetry of their national power — India’s GDP is 20 percent that of China’s — China is disadvantaged by the asymmetry of threat perceptions. Simply put, India sees China as its primary threat while China sees India as a secondary challenge. Beijing’s national security priorities unequivocally lie in the western Pacific. Such asymmetry of security priorities means that India may not yet rival China in national power or in a conventional or nuclear arms race, but its resolve and focus on China are significantly stronger than those of China.
Because India is not China’s primary threat and South Asia is not China’s primary theater, China would prefer to save on costs and minimize military and strategic resources on India. In the event that a conflict is unavoidable, China could mobilize to an overwhelming capacity to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield — which is why the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 was constantly mentioned during the Doklam standoff.
However, China doesn’t want to have a conflict with India, over either the border or the status of Kashmir. Even if China could defeat and contain India through a war, the payoff for China would remain minimal because it wouldn’t address China’s key external security challenges in the Pacific. Instead, a breakdown in ties with New Delhi would only further expose Beijing in its primary theater vis-à-vis the United States.
China’s strategic goal is to stabilize relations with India in order to avoid a two-front war with the United States and India — all while minimizing distractions. But the challenge of this goal lies in how it can be achieved. For China, the Chinese and Indian demands are different and asymmetrical by nature. Key concessions that India demands from China — such as the border settlement and U.N. terrorist designations for anti-India militant groups based in Pakistan — are hard commitments that cannot be reversed. What China needs from India — such as neutrality and political alignment — is ephemeral and easily adjustable. While New Delhi sees addressing these issues as the prerequisite for India to trust China, Beijing doesn’t believe that relinquishing its leverage will in any way stop India from conducting hostile actions down the road — especially given their clashing regional visions.
As such, China’s policy towards India is pulled in two opposite directions — between a perhaps genuine desire for friendly ties with India so it can focus on the United States and the Pacific, and an equally genuine hostility due to conflicting agendas in Asia. The former points to a positive trajectory with reduced distrust and enhanced ties. The latter explains the lack of substantive progress in achieving such results.
China’s Debate on India-U.S. Ties
China’s distrust of New Delhi is greater as the result of burgeoning India-U.S. ties. Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, released three months after the Doklam standoff, seeks to anchor India in its larger Asia posture. The role, assistance, alignment, and power status the United States have offered India contributed to China’s speedy rapprochement with India and its deepening suspicion of India at the same time. The Indo-Pacific Strategy has sent China into a frenzy of damage control in order to prevent the emergence of an India-U.S. alliance. When China was more or less reassured by Modi’s reiteration of “strategic autonomy” and reluctance to embrace the Indo-Pacific concept in public, China elevated the status of Sino-Indian relations to an unprecedented level, resulting in a rather abrupt positive shift after the Doklam crisis.
Since then, the U.S. factor has become the most important consideration in China’s policy toward India. For China, the prospect of facing the American military at sea and the Indian military along its southern border and in the Indian Ocean becomes much more real and dangerous with defense cooperation between the United States and India. Such cooperation will not only damage the security and stability of China’s western borderland while undermining China’s strategic influence in South Asia; it will also hinder China’s power projection capability in the Indian Ocean with the potential to threaten China’s energy supply from the Middle East. Regionally and globally, the U.S. endorsement of India’s leadership status dilutes and diminishes China’s soft power, and encourages other countries like Japan and Australia to follow suit in seeking closer ties with New Delhi.
China’s elevation of relations with India reveals an inconvenient truth: exogenous factors primarily drive China’s rapprochement with India. Had Washington not adopted the Indo-Pacific Strategy and pursued alignment with India, the trajectory of China’s policy toward India would have looked very different. Before and after the Doklam standoff, nothing endogenous in Sino-Indian relations fundamentally changed, including the unresolved border disputes, the competition between China and India for influence in South Asia, the longstanding Tibet issue, the growing trade imbalance, the Pakistan factor, and the two countries’ vastly different visions for the regional order. China might have concluded that improved ties with India were in its interests, but the decision to reach out to New Delhi occurred when it did because Beijing saw the United States swaying India’s preference.
While India has no place in China’s vision for the regional order, the United States offers India a significant position in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. U.S. President Donald Trump’s India policy is the biggest factor that has altered China’s calculation about India’s strategic importance and pushed Beijing to appease New Delhi. But, if the assessment is that India has accepted a de facto alliance with United States, China will have to prepare for a very different approach toward India.
The Chinese South Asia policy community is currently debating the nature of the India-U.S. alignment and the malleability of India’s preferences. The consensus in China seems to be that India wants and needs to rely on the United States to balance China’s growing regional dominance. The disagreement lies in the extent to which India will align and cooperate with Washington for this shared agenda.
Chinese civilian observers and diplomats — former and current — have rather low expectations about India-U.S. cooperation. For them, India and the United States appear to be innately incompatible. In terms of strategic culture, India follows a non-alignment tradition while U.S. global strategy is based on alliances. In terms of strategic goals, India does not seek a total confrontation with China though a confrontation appears to be America’s aim. In terms of partners, India seeks diverse partnerships, including with Russia, a U.S. adversary. In terms of technical compatibility, India has no intention to completely abandon Russian weapons systems, which makes America’s proposed interoperability a challenge in the least. For these Chinese experts, the India-U.S. alignment is tactical — out of expediency — and lacks systematic commitment and binding arrangements. When conflicting calculations arise — and they will arise — the India-U.S. alignment will fall apart.
Unlike their counterparts who are more focused on diplomacy and foreign policy, Chinese defense strategists and security experts are concerned about the substance of the growing India-U.S. ties. In their view, Washington is making India offers that India cannot refuse, including but not limited to defense industry cooperation, arms sales, and information and intelligence sharing. Even if India thinks it is maintaining its autonomy, Chinese strategists see India enticed, entangled, and potentially enmeshed in institutionalized cooperative frameworks that it later cannot reject despite its aspiration for autonomy.
For hardliners in Beijing, the benefits that the United States has offered in material and diplomatic terms have already emboldened New Delhi to pursue risky policies vis-à-vis Pakistan in addition to a more assertive negotiating posture towards China. Within the region, China has grown increasingly wary of the destabilizing effect of Modi’s foreign policy. From Beijing’s perspective, the Modi Doctrine is heavily imbued with his Hindu nationalism and was recently strengthened by his victories on Article 370, changing the legal status of Kashmir, and a controversial citizenship law. Moreover, the Modi Doctrine directly reflects what the Chinese see as a risk-seeking or, at a minimum, a risk-neutral policy toward Pakistan. The Chinese are innately distrusting of any country’s foreign policy that is linked to radical domestic politics — a bitter lesson China learned from itself during the Cultural Revolution. In the case of India, China is also worried that its domestic ethno-religious conflicts could potentially spill over across the border.
The Implication for South Asia Crisis Management
The changing power equilibrium and alignment among the United States, China, India, and Pakistan have a critical impact on the crisis dynamics of South Asia. Despite the warming of ties on the surface, the suspicion and embedded hostility between China and India have in fact deepened since the introduction of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Regional dynamics have shifted, leaving the United States and India on one side with China and Pakistan on the other.
These changing dynamics will have important implications for U.S. policy toward South Asia and crisis management down the road. The prospect of China playing a helpful and constructive role in a future India-Pakistan crisis is inevitably dampened. In the 2019 Pulwama crisis, China publicly called for de-escalation and restraint as usual, but some have raised questions regarding the information Beijing shared with Pakistan. China may increasingly view South Asia as a zero-sum game — any perceived win for India will register as a loss for Beijing, and vice versa. As a result, China will be more inclined to manipulate the game to improve its strategic payoff vis-à-vis the United States and India. In that case, the best that the United States can hope for might be for China to not become a spoiler.
In the past, the United States enlisted Chinese constructive support in crisis management between India and Pakistan. Such a role was conditioned upon a perceived relative balance of power between India and Pakistan. However, as Beijing has keenly observed, that delicate balance of power between India and Pakistan increasingly favors New Delhi. If Pakistan is no longer able to act as China’s balancer of India in South Asia, China’s most direct remedy is the strengthening of Pakistan’s power by way of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a massive infusion of funding and infrastructure projects to revive Pakistan’s economy. However, if that strategy is not successful in the near future, China could step in with more direct involvement in the form of further security assistance.
As the competition deepens between China on the one hand and the United States and India on the other, China will have less incentive to “deliver” Pakistan in a crisis scenario. A widely shared perception in China is that India’s appetite only grows when China makes concessions and forces Pakistan’s hand. From the perspective of Beijing, India’s new-found alignment with the United States has emboldened Modi’s adventurism. For example, India revoked Article 370 five months after its brinkmanship in Pulwama, which directly challenged China’s territorial claims in Ladakh. For China, whatever it delivers on Pakistan will not be seen as China’s good will but a concession extracted due to India’s strength. Following that logic, India will make even more demands if China delivers anything.
The subtle changes to China’s calculations regarding crisis management in South Asia do not mean that Beijing will actively facilitate or expedite a crisis in South Asia. Given China’s reactive strategic culture and the fact that its strategic priority lies in the West Pacific, it is almost inconceivable that China would deliberately prompt a confrontation to change the status quo in South Asia. China has traditionally resorted to diplomatic mediation to defuse crises between India and Pakistan. However, in the midst of a changing power equilibrium and external alignment in South Asia, a China that feels defensive and vulnerable is unlikely to be as helpful as the United States would like to see.
However, China could be more helpful under one scenario: when Washington treats crisis management in South Asia as its overwhelming priority and China’s cooperation as an indispensable component. Since its ties with Washington have plummeted in recent years, China has been desperately seeking issues that could still merit cooperation with the United States to prove that Sino-U.S. relations are not yet damaged beyond repair. If Washington pursues Beijing to jointly manage a crisis in South Asia, China would be willing to cooperate. However, in that case, it is also foreseeable that China will be unlikely to facilitate a long-term solution so that it can continue capitalizing on the U.S. need for Chinese cooperation — just like what it has done with North Korea. In light of the prevailing great-power competition between Beijing and Washington, however, crisis management in South Asia is probably another case of collateral damage.
Despite China’s public embrace of India and the official elevation of Sino-Indian relations to an unprecedented level, Beijing’s distrust and hostility toward India run deep, and vice versa. While the two countries have incompatible interests on a range of key issues, there’s little chance of reconciling those differences any time soon. In the meantime, China is trying to both stabilize ties with India and prepare for future disruptions.
China and India are both powers with regional hegemonic ambition and potential. Their structural conflict is irreconcilable until the two countries find a mutually agreeable compromise in their regional arrangements. Efforts to address the endogenous frictions — such as the border dispute and trade imbalance — could foreseeably help to facilitate that compromise. However, in the era of great-power rivalry and domestic populism, such efforts would be exceedingly difficult.
Yun Sun is the director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.