JPRI Occasional Paper No. 48 (January 2014)
An Uneasy Strategic Triangle: the Troubled China-India Relationship and U.S. Asia Policy
By Brahma Chellaney [*]

Asia faces many serious obstacles to a continued rise. It must cope with entrenched territorial and maritime disputes; harmful historical legacies that weigh down its most important interstate relationships; increasingly fervent nationalism; growing religious extremism; and sharpening competition over water, energy, and other resources. Moreover, political integration in the Asia Pacific lags behind economic integration, and, to compound matters, it lacks an adequate regional security framework.

Nothing better illustrates Asia’s challenges than the troubled relationship between its two demographic giants, China and India. The disputes and tensions between the two countries hold significant implications for international security and Asian power dynamics. As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing more international attention. Their underlying strategic dissonance and rivalry, however, usually attracts less notice. The issues that divide India and China extend from land to water issues, with their larger geopolitical rivalry shaping their attitudes and policy approaches.

China and India are more than just nation-states; they are large ancient civilizations that together comprise nearly two-fifths of humanity. Though they represent markedly dissimilar cultures and competing models of development, they also followed similar historical trajectories in modern times, freeing themselves from colonial powers and emerging as independent nations around the same time.

Today, both seek to play a global role by reclaiming the power they enjoyed for many centuries before they went into decline after the advent of the industrial revolution. In 1820, China and India alone made up nearly half of the world income, while Asia collectively accounted for 60 percent of the global GDP. Today each views the other as a geopolitical rival. [1]

The simmering Sino-Indian tensions threatened to become open conflict in 2013 when Chinese troops stealthily crossed the disputed Himalayan border at night in the Ladakh region, establishing a camp 19 kilometers (12 miles) inside Indian-held territory. China then embarked on coercive diplomacy and withdrew its troops three weeks later only after India destroyed a defensive line of local fortifications. This episode showed that stoking tensions with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines over islands in the South and East China Seas did not prevent an increasingly assertive China from opening yet another front. The fact is that, with its “peaceful rise” giving way to an increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, China has broadened its “core interests” and territorial claims while showing a growing readiness to take risks to achieve its goals.

Origins of Disputes

The vast Tibetan plateau separated the Indian and Chinese civilizations throughout history, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts. It was only after Tibet’s annexation that Han Chinese troops appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers.

Tibet’s forcible absorption into China began within months of the Communist victory in China. In one of his first actions after seizing power, Mao Zedong confided in Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that Chinese forces were “preparing for an attack on Tibet.” [2]

As new neighbors, India and China began their relationship on a promising note. India, in fact, was one of the first countries to recognize Communist China. Even when the Chinese military began eliminating India’s outer line of defense by occupying Tibet, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (an incorrigible romanticist) continued to court China. New Delhi rebuffed the then-independent Tibet’s appeal for international help against Chinese aggression and even opposed its plea for a discussion in the United Nations General Assembly in November 1950. By 1954, Nehru surrendered India’s British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet and recognized the “Tibet region of China” without any quid pro quo. [3]

The pact recorded India’s agreement both to fully withdraw within six months its “military escorts now stationed at Yatung and Gyantse” in the “Tibet Region of China” as well as “to hand over to the Government of China at a reasonable price the postal, telegraph and public telephone services together with their equipment operated by the Government of India in Tibet Region of China.” Up to its 1950 invasion, China had maintained a diplomatic mission in Lhasa, just as India did, underscoring Tibet’s independent status.

Such was Nehru’s intense courtship of Beijing that he rejected a U.S. suggestion in the 1950s that India take China’s place in the United Nations Security Council. The officially blessed selected works of Nehru quote him as stating the following on record: “Informally, suggestions have been made by the U.S. that China should be taken into the UN but not in the Security Council and that India should take her place in the Council. We cannot, of course, accept this as it means falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China to not to be in the Council.” The selected works also quote Nehru as telling Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai A. Bulganin in 1955 on the same U.S. offer: “I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.” [4]

Yet when China invaded India in 1962, Nehru—like a jilted lover—publicly bemoaned that China had “returned evil for good.” A more realistic leader would have seen that war coming and taken necessary steps to repulse the invasion. After all, using the 1954 friendship treaty as a cover, China had started furtively encroaching on Indian territories and incrementally extending its control to much of the Aksai Chin, a Switzerland-size plateau in the Ladakh region that was part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Sino-Indian relations became tense after the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas to India in 1959, while Beijing using its state media to mount vicious attacks on India. Nehru, however, still believed that China would not stage military aggression against India. The Indian army remained undermanned and ill equipped. [5]

Just as Mao had started his invasion of Tibet while the world was occupied with the Korean War, he chose a perfect time for invading India in 1962—in the style recommended by Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The launch of the attack, spread over two separate rounds, coincided with a major international crisis that brought the United States and the Soviet Union within a whisker of nuclear war over the stealthy deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

A little over a month after launching the invasion of India, Mao announced a unilateral ceasefire that significantly coincided with America’s formal termination of Cuba’s quarantine. Mao’s premier, Zhou Enlai, publicly said that the 32-day war was intended “to teach India a lesson.” India suffered a humiliating rout—a defeat that hastened Nehru’s death but set in motion India’s military modernization and political rise.

Rising Tensions Today

More than fifty years after that war, tensions between India and China are rising again amid an intense geopolitical rivalry. Their entire 4,057-kilometer-long border—one of the longest in the world—remains in dispute without a clearly defined line of control in the Himalayas separating the rival armies. This situation has persisted despite regular talks since 1981 to settle their territorial disputes. These talks, in fact, constitute the longest and most futile negotiating process between any two nations in modern world history.

During a 2010 New Delhi visit, Premier Wen Jiabao bluntly stated that sorting out the Himalayan border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.” [6] The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has articulated the same line. If so, what does China (or India) gain by carrying on the border negotiations?

Even as old rifts fester, new issues have started roiling relations. For example, since 2006 China has publicly raked up an issue that had remained dormant since the 1962 war—
Arunachal Pradesh, a resource-rich state in India’s northeast that China claims largely as its own on the basis of the territory’s putative historical ties with Tibet. In fact, the Chinese practice of describing the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet” started only in 2006. A perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward India is also manifest from other developments including Chinese strategic projects and military presence in the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir. Kashmir is where the disputed borders of India, Pakistan and China converge.

While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on supporting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India, trying to alter the line of control bit by bit. Indian defense officials have reported that Chinese troops, taking advantage of the disputed border, have in recent years stepped up military intrusions. One of the novel methods that the People’s Liberation Army has employed is to bring ethnic Han pastoralists to the valleys along the line of control and give them cover to range across it—and in the process driving Indian herdsmen from their traditional pasturelands.

The military crisis in spring 2013 was sparked by China’s use of direct military means in a strategic border area close to the Karakoram Pass linking China to Pakistan. Because the line of control has not been mutually clarified, China claimed its intruding troops were merely camping on “Chinese land.” The fact is that China clearly sought to exploit India’s current political disarray to alter the reality on the ground. A paralyzed and rudderless Indian government, in fact, initially blacked out reporting on the incursion, lest it come under public pressure to mount a robust response.

In response to China’s increasingly muscular approach in recent years, India has been beefing up its military deployments in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim state, and the Ladakh region to prevent any further Chinese land-grab. It has also launched a crash program to improve its logistical capabilities through new roads, airstrips, and advanced landing stations along the Himalayas. The belated and bumbling Indian efforts to plug the gaps in defenses have only riled China.

Meanwhile, the broader Sino-Indian geopolitical competition has been sharpened by China’s strategic projects around India including new ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and new transportation links with Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, as well as China’s own major upgrades to military infrastructure in Tibet. American academic John Garver describes the Chinese strategy in these words: “A Chinese fable tells of how a frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked.” This homily, wen shui zhu qingwa in Chinese, describes fairly well China’s strategy for growing its influence in South Asia in the face of a deeply suspicious India: “move forward slowly and carefully, rouse minimal suspicion, and don’t cause an attempt at escape by the intended victim.” [7]

One apparent Chinese objective is to chip away at India’s maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean—a theater critical to fashioning China’s preeminence in Asia. China’s strategy also seeks to leverage its strengthening nexus with Pakistan to keep India under strategic pressure. Indeed, given China’s control of one-fifth of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, and its new military footprint in Pakistani-held Kashmir, India now faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of Kashmir. Moreover, by building new railroads, airports and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move additional forces to the border to potentially strike at India at a time of its choosing.

Even as the territorial and maritime issues fester, water is becoming a new source of discord between these two water-stressed countries. India has more arable land than China but much less water. Compounding the situation for a parched India is the fact that most important rivers of its northern heartland originate in Chinese-controlled Tibet. The Tibetan plateau’s vast glaciers, huge underground springs, and high altitude make it the world’s largest freshwater repository after the polar icecaps. Although a number of nations stretching from Afghanistan to Vietnam receive waters from the Tibetan plateau, India’s direct dependency on Tibetan waters is greater than that of any other country. With about a dozen important rivers flowing in from the Tibetan Himalayan region, India gets almost one-third of all its yearly water supply of 1,911 billion cubic meters from Tibet, according to United Nations data. [8]

China is now pursuing major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau that threatens to diminish international-river flows into India and other downstream states. Whereas India has signed water-sharing treaties with both the counties located downstream to it—Bangladesh and Pakistan—China rejects the very concept of water sharing. It does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbor, although it is the source of river flows to multiple countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Nepal, and Myanmar.

One dangerous idea China is toying with is the construction of a dam of unparalleled size on the Brahmaputra River, known as Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans. The proposed 38,000-megawatt dam— almost twice as large as the Three Gorges Dam—is to be located at Metog, just before the Brahmaputra enters India, according to the state-run HydroChina Corporation. In fact, an officially blessed book, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China, has championed the northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra. [9]

With water shortages growing in China’s northern plains owing to environmentally unsustainable intensive irrigation and heavy industrialization, Beijing has increasingly turned its attention to the abundant water reserves that Tibet holds. China’s hydro-engineering projects and territorial disputes with India serve as a reminder that Tibet remains at the heart of the Sino-Indian divide. Tibet ceased to be a political buffer when China annexed it more than six decades ago. Unless it becomes a political bridge, there can be no enduring peace—a fact also underscored by the growing Tibetan unrest and self-immolations on the Tibetan plateau.

An Uneasy Triangle: China, India, and the United States

The India-China relationship has entered choppy waters. The more muscular Chinese stance toward New Delhi—highlighted by the anti-India rhetoric in the state-run Chinese media—is clearly tied to the new U.S.-India strategic partnership, symbolized by the nuclear deal and deepening military cooperation. As U.S. President George W. Bush declared in his valedictory speech, “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India.” Yet, will Washington take New Delhi’s side in any of its disputes with Beijing?

The fundamental U.S. strategic objective in Asia has remained the same since 1898 when America took the Philippines as spoils of the naval war with Spain to establish a stable balance of power in order to prevent the rise of any hegemonic power. Yet the United States, according to its official National Security Strategy, is also committed to accommodating “the emergence of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and that cooperates with us to address common challenges and mutual interests.” Therefore, America’s Asia policy has in some ways been at war with itself. [10]

The United States indeed has played a key role in China’s rise. One example is the decision to turn away from trade sanctions against Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and instead promote China’s integration with global institutions. By contrast, the opposite policy approach was pursued against Burma after it similarly crushed pro-democracy protests in 1988; the United States led efforts to escalate sanctions, which are only now beginning to be relaxed after 24 long years. China’s spectacular economic success—illustrated by its boasting the world’s biggest trade surplus and largest foreign-currency reserves—actually owes much to U.S. policy since the 1970s. Without the significant expansion in U.S.-Chinese trade and financial relations since then, China’s growth would have been much slower and harder.

U.S. economic interests now are so closely intertwined with China that they virtually preclude a policy that seeks to either isolate or confront Beijing. Even on the democracy issue, the United States prefers to lecture some other dictatorships rather than the world’s largest and oldest-surviving autocracy. Yet, it is also true that the U.S. policymakers are uneasy about China’s not-too-hidden aim to dominate Asia—an objective that runs counter to U.S. security and commercial interests as well as to the larger U.S. goal for a balance of power in Asia. To help avert such dominance, the United States has already started building countervailing influences and partnerships, without making any attempt to contain China. Where its interests converge with China, the U.S. will continue to work closely with it.

In this light, China’s more aggressive stance poses a difficult challenge for India. Until 2005, China was eschewing anti-India rhetoric and pursuing a policy of active engagement with India, even as it continued to expand its strategic space in southern Asia—to New Delhi’s detriment. In fact, when Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in April 2005, the two countries unveiled an important agreement identifying six broad principles to govern a border settlement. But after the unveiling of the Indo-U.S. defense framework accord and nuclear deal separately in mid-2005, the mood in Beijing perceptibly changed. Since that time Chinese newspapers, individual bloggers, security think tanks, and even officially blessed websites have ratcheted up an “India threat” scenario. Indeed, the present pattern of border provocations, new force deployments, and mutual recriminations is redolent of the situation that prevailed in the run-up to the 1962 war.

A U.S.-India military alliance has always been a strategic nightmare for the Chinese and the ballyhooed Indo-U.S. global strategic partnership (although it falls short of a formal military alliance) triggered alarm bells in Beijing. That raises the question whether New Delhi helped create the context, however inadvertently, for the new Chinese assertiveness by agreeing to participate in U.S.-led “multinational operations,” share intelligence, and build military-to-military interoperability (key elements of the defense framework accord), and to become America’s partner on a new “global democracy initiative.” While Beijing cannot hold a veto over New Delhi’s diplomatic or strategic initiatives, couldn’t India have avoided creating an impression that it was potentially being primed as a new junior partner (or spoke) in America’s hub-and-spoke global alliance system? [11]

India—with its hallowed traditions of policy independence—is an unlikely candidate to be a U.S. ally in a patron-client framework. The high-pitched Indian and American rhetoric of the new partnership represented a tectonic shift in geopolitical alignments apparently made Chinese policymakers believe that India was being groomed as a new Japan or Australia to the United States—a perception reinforced by subsequent arrangements and multibillion-dollar defense transactions. In the decade since President Bush launched the U.S.-Indian strategic partnership, India has fundamentally reoriented its defense procurement, moving away from its traditional reliance on Russia. Indeed, nearly half of all Indian defense deals (by value) in recent years have been obtained by the United States, with Israel a distant second and Russia relegated to the third slot.

New Delhi failed to foresee that its rush to forge close strategic bonds with Washington could provoke greater Chinese pressure and that, in such a situation, the United States would offer little comfort to India. Even as Beijing calculatedly has sought to badger India on multiple fronts, President Barack Obama’s administration has shied away from even cautioning Beijing against any attempt to forcibly change the existing territorial status quo. Indeed, on a host of issues—from the Dalai Lama to the Arunachal Pradesh issue—Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing. That, in effect, has left India to fend for itself alone.

President Obama had stroked India’s collective ego by inviting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his presidency’s first state dinner, leading to the joke that while China gets a deferential treatment and Pakistan secures billions of dollars in U.S. aid periodically, India is easily won over with a sumptuous dinner and nice compliments. The mutual optimism and excitement that characterized the warming U.S.-Indian ties during the Bush years has given way to more realistic assessments as the relationship has matured. Geostrategic and economic forces, however, continue to drive the two countries closer. Indeed, to lend strategic heft to the Obama-declared U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, closer U.S. strategic collaboration with India has become critical.

While the geostrategic direction of the U.S.-India relationship is irreversibly set toward closer collaboration, such cooperation is unlikely to be at the expense of Washington’s fast-growing ties with Beijing. The United States needs Chinese capital inflows as much as China needs American consumers—an economic interdependence of such importance that snapping it would amount to mutually assured destruction (MAD). Even politically, China, with its veto power in the United Nations and international leverage, counts for more in U.S. policy than India. Against this background, it is no surprise that Washington intends to abjure elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including, for example, holding any joint military drill in Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, Washington has quietly charted a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal Pradesh issue.

Yet the present muscular Chinese approach paradoxically reinforces the very line of Indian thinking that engendered greater Chinese assertiveness. That is, the notion that India has little option other than to align itself with the United States. Such thinking blithely ignores the limitations of the Indo-U.S. partnership arising from the vicissitudes and compulsions of U.S. policy. Washington indeed is showing through its growing strategic cooperation with India’s regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, that it does not believe in exclusive strategic partnership in any region. Left to fend for itself, New Delhi has decided to steer clear of a confrontation with Beijing. Discretion, after all, is the better part of valor.

Concluding Observations

The strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and the world’s largest democracy has sharpened despite their fast-rising bilateral trade. Between 2000 and 2010, bilateral trade rose 20-fold. But far from helping to turn the page on old disputes, this commerce has been accompanied by greater Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry and military tensions. This shows that booming trade is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between countries. Unless the estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to create goodwill or stabilize their relationship.

How the India-China relationship evolves will have an important bearing on Asian and wider international security. China seems to be signaling that its real, long-term rivalry is not so much with the Unite States as with India. It clearly looks at India as a potential peer rival. India’s great-power ambitions depend on how it is able to manage the rise of China—both independently and in partnership with other powers. A stable, mutually beneficial equation with China is more likely to be realized if there is no serious trans-Himalayan military imbalance.

The larger Asian balance of power will be shaped by developments not only in East Asia but also in the Indian Ocean, which is a crucial international passageway for oil deliveries and other trade. Nontraditional security issues in the Indian Ocean region—from energy security and climate security to transnational terrorism and environmental degradation—have become as important as traditional security issues, like freedom of navigation, security of sea lanes, maritime security, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and ocean piracy. The Indian Ocean region indeed is becoming a new global center of trade, energy flows, and geopolitics. If China were to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean region at India’s expense, it will mark the end of India’s world-power ambitions.

The United States can play a key role in stabilizing the India-China equation, including through U.S.-China-India trilateral dialogue and initiatives for stability and security in the vast Indian Ocean region. If Tibet is to serve as a political bridge between China and India, its strategic significance must be clearly recognized in policy. It is past the time to stop treating Tibet as a moral issue and instead elevate it as a strategic issue that impinges on Asian and international security.


[*] Brahma Chellaney, Ph.D., is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He was formerly a fellow of the Nobel Institute (Oslo) and has served as a member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the foreign minister of India as well as adviser to India’s National Security Council. Dr. Chellaney is the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). His previous books include Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan (New York: HarperCollins, 2010) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), winner of the 2012 Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Book Award. [Return to Text]

[1] Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001); and Kuroda Haruhiko (president, Asian Development Bank), “The Financial Crisis and Its Impact on Asia,” speech to a Conference in Montreal, June 9, 2008. [Return to Text]

[2] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). [Return to Text]

[3] What is popularly known as the Panchsheel Treaty is the Agreement between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India, signed on April 29, 1954, in Beijing; ratified August 17, 1954. This treaty was designed to govern India’s relationship with the “Tibet Region of China”—an implicit, if not overt, recognition of China’s annexation of Tibet a few years earlier. [Return to Text]

[4] H.Y. Sharada Prasad, A.K. Damodaran and Sarvepalli Gopal, editors, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 29, 1 June 1955 - 31 August 1955 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 231. [Return to Text]

[5] See “Address to the Nation on All India Radio, October 22, 1962,” in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speeches, September 1957 - April 1963, vol. 4 (New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1964), pp. 226-230. [Return to Text]

[6] Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, “Working Together for New Glories of the Oriental Civilization,” Speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, December 16, 2010. [Return to Text]

[7] John W. Garver, “The Diplomacy of a Rising China in South Asia,” Orbis (Summer 2012), p. 392. [Return to Text]

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “Aquastat” online database. [Return to Text]

[9] HydroChina Corporation, “Map of Planned Dams.” Li Ling, Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo: Da Xi Xian Zai Zao Zhongguo Zhan Lue Nei Mu Xiang Lu (Tibet’s Waters Will Save China), in Mandarin (Beijing: Zhongguo Chang’an chu ban she, November 2005), book sponsored by the Ministry of Water Resources. [Return to Text]

[10] The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: White House, March 2006), p. 41. [Return to Text]

[11] This commitment is found in the nuclear deal. See: The White House Press Release, “Joint Statement Between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,” Washington, D.C., July 18, 2005.
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