"The Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other." The words — uttered last month by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi — point to an attempt by the world's two most populous countries to reduce their high tensions in the Himalayas less than a year after they nearly came to blows in the Doklam standoff. Amid the prospects of a "reset" in ties, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will pay Chinese President Xi Jinping an informal, two-day visit starting April 27 in Wuhan. During the meeting, which marks the latest in a series of high-level exchanges between Indian and Chinese officials, the leaders aim to lay the groundwork for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit scheduled for June in Qingdao. From a broader perspective, however, the irreconcilable differences in the strategic objectives of the nuclear rivals suggest that their emerging bonhomie won't mask their deeper differences for long.
In the 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor pointed to the intensifying rivalry between India and China. On the surface, a diplomatic reset would appear to challenge that trend, but a deeper look at the structural factors behind Sino-Indian relations indicates that the two countries are simply returning to a managed state of tension in which the key irritants persist.
From Brotherhood to War
The Indian-Chinese rivalry stretches back decades. At the dawn of the Cold War, the two large and impoverished countries forged links based on post-colonial solidarity, but this fraternity lasted only until 1962, when China defeated India in a monthlong war over their disputed Himalayan frontier. That loss precipitated a paradigm shift in India's defense orientation, forcing a demoralized Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister, to bolster the armed forces. His decision eventually triggered the launch of the country's nuclear weapons program after China's first test of a nuclear device in 1964. During the same era, Beijing also forged a strategic partnership with New Delhi's most implacable foe, Pakistan, to keep India off balance.
In later times, China also aided Pakistan in the latter's acquisition of its own atomic bomb, and the alliance between the two neighbors has forced India to remain eternally vigilant about the prospect of a two-front war. And as if the military competition wasn't enough to give India headaches, Beijing's current economic expansion into South Asia as part of its pan-Eurasian Belt and Road Initiative poses a profound challenge for the subcontinent's giant. It is forcing New Delhi to scramble to compete with the influx of Chinese capital as it safeguards its traditional role as the region's dominant power.
When Tensions Are No Longer Manageable
These enduring structural factors underpin the two types of tension that shape Sino-Indian relations. The first is a state of managed tension — the default settings in the relationship under which the two countries agree to address their unresolved problems. The two sides resolve mutual incursions or skirmishes through meetings involving local border personnel while also referring questions regarding disputed territories, such as Aksai Chin in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh in India's northeast, to a special bilateral mechanism that discusses such matters. Under this framework, the two sides have continued constructing infrastructure along the 4,057-kilometer-long Line of Actual Control. As part of this managed state of tension, India has maintained its protests of China's support for Pakistan, especially as it relates to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive bundle of highways, power plants, industrial parks and special economic zones that crosses through Pakistan-administered Kashmir — a territory that India claims as its own. In response to the links between Beijing and Islamabad, New Delhi is ramping up its military readiness to counter both countries. Last week the Indian Air Force concluded a massive military drill to test its preparedness for a nuclear war on the country's borders with China and Pakistan. Beijing, meanwhile, frequently reiterates its objections to New Delhi's decadeslong support for the Dalai Lama, whom China views as a Tibetan separatist.
But while these elements form an important component of the pair's rivalry, they fail to paint the entire picture. Occasionally, India and China take actions that create a second type of problem — heightened tension — in which open warfare appears imminent. Last year's confrontation over Bhutan's disputed Doklam Plateau offers a case in point. As a buffer state between Tibet and India and vital to New Delhi's strategic defense, Bhutan is the only state besides India that has an ongoing border dispute with China. After Beijing moved last June to extend a road in the disputed territory of Doklam, the Royal Bhutan Army requested Indian backup. The resultant mobilization put Indian and Chinese troops face to face — rather than just the countries' respective border personnel following errant incursions — in a standoff that lasted 2 1/2 months. In response, Modi tacitly threatened to skip a summit of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that Xi planned to host in September 2017. By failing to appear, Modi would have painted China in a bad light, but the standoff — somewhat unsurprisingly — ended a few days before the summit, removing any obstruction to the Indian leader's attendance.
Political Differences on the Back Burner
Today, circumstances are changing. Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) commenced its 2019 electoral campaign on April 6, and because of the prime minister's wish to focus on domestic politics and avoid another Doklam-style standoff that could provide grist for the oposition's mill, India is likely to moderate tension with China. (Indeed, Modi even appointed former Ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale, a fluent Mandarin speaker, to be foreign secretary in January.) Xi, on the other hand, has two reasons to soothe Modi. First, it provides assurances that he will attend the SCO summit on a positive note, enabling China to project itself as a benign Asian power whose relationships with the other SCO nations (Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia) are stable. Second, Washington's protectionist measures against China have compelled Beijing to forge a unified front with New Delhi in support of globalization — a point that the Chinese Foreign Ministry highlighted on April 23. Accordingly, the Middle Kingdom wishes to avoid picking fights with other powers on its periphery (hence the simultaneous move to decrease tensions with Japan) when tensions with the United States are growing.
Modi and Xi are likely to smile for the cameras when they meet on April 27 as part of a broader move to dial down tensions to a more manageable level. But even if the two could be content to restrict themselves to counterbalancing each other while avoiding military standoffs or crises, the conflicting imperatives of the two military and economic rivals suggest that the friction between them will only increase as they compete for influence across South Asia and the Indian Ocean.