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India, China reset links amid rising geopolitical friction

In September 2014, India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed his first important foreign guest, China’s President Xi Jinping, with an eye to resetting both countries’ historically fraught relations.

In September 2014, India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed his first important foreign guest, China’s President Xi Jinping, with an eye to resetting both countries’ historically fraught relations.

Eager for Beijing’s support for his drive to modernise India, Mr Modi received Mr Xi in his hometown, Ahmedabad, where the two leaders sat on a traditional Indian swing on the bank of the Sabarmati River. Later, deals envisioning Chinese investment of up to US$20 billion (S$26.7 billion) in India were signed.

But Mr Xi left little sense of bonhomie behind. The heady talk of mutually beneficial economic cooperation was overshadowed by a tense stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops along the disputed Himalayan border, which hundreds of Chinese soldiers had crossed during the presidential visit.

The episode marked the onset of heightened tensions between the two nations that have since reached new highs and were the focus of a visit to India by Mr Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, last weekend.

The visit came at a crucial juncture, analysts say. In public, India and China have professed friendship and desire for stronger economic ties. But friction over geopolitics — and each country’s web of strategic relationships — have been rising sharply.

New Delhi reacted with dismay at recent, unprecedented joint military patrols by Chinese and Pakistani troops in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir — contested territory that India claims as its own. Meanwhile, China was displeased at India’s public support for an international tribunal ruling against Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which 55 per cent of India’s seaborne trade is carried.

It is these vexing issues — along with China’s opposition to India’s proposed membership in the nuclear supplier’s group that controls global nuclear commerce — that formed much of the substance of Mr Wang’s visit. “The relationship is clearly under stress,” said Mr Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security adviser. “We need to find a new equilibrium between elements we’ve always been juggling — economic competition and complementarity, and strategic sensitivities.”

In Delhi, Mr Wang called on Mr Modi, and had a lengthy meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. The two countries agreed to set up further formal high-level talks on some of the friction points, and the state of the overall relations.

Mr Modi and Mr Xi will also come face to face during the two upcoming international summits, the G20 summit in Hangzhou next month, and October’s Brics summit in Goa.

While the two countries’ differences may not be fully bridged, analysts say the high-level diplomacy can improve the atmospherics and keep a lid on the rising tensions. “The stage is being set for bringing the relationship back to some kind of even keel,” Mr Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary, told the Financial Times. “The challenge is how do you manage an adversarial relationship so it doesn’t descend into open conflict.”

Ahead of Mr Wang’s visit, China’s Global Times, the English-language affiliate of the Communist party newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged India “to avoid unnecessary entanglement with China over the South China Sea debate ... if the country wishes to create a good atmosphere for economic cooperation”.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, fervently advocated fraternal relations with Beijing, even coining the slogan “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” — “India and China are brothers” — in the 1950s. But the relationship soured after they failed to agree on the demarcation of their 4,000km boundary, and India sheltered the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. In 1962, Chinese troops overran some mountain regions of India in a brief but devastating border war, humiliating Nehru and leaving a legacy of suspicion and mistrust in New Delhi.

Subsequently, Beijing and New Delhi worked out a modus vivendi, in which they relegated contentious issues — like the border dispute — to the backburner, while cooperating in areas of mutual concern, such as giving developing countries more say over the governance of international institutions.

But analysts suggest this accommodation has been eroding in recent years, as India’s economy has gained momentum, and New Delhi has forged closer strategic ties with the US and Japan, developments that Beijing has been eyeing warily. Ms Tanvi Madan, head of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, the think-tank, said: “India, until very recently, wasn’t a country that many quarters in Beijing thought too much about. But as India’s economy has grown and as the US and Japan relationship has grown, today it might be seen as a spoiler, but potentially a rival.”

For its part, New Delhi is alarmed by Beijing’s plans for US$46 billion infrastructure investment in its nemesis Pakistan as part of the ambitious Chinese Belt and Road initiative. Although ostensibly intended to provide access to the Indian Ocean for eastern China, the blueprints for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor also include projects in disputed Kashmir, the object of multiple wars between India and Pakistan.

“The expectation is not that problems will be solved,” Mr Saran says. “The expectation is that the two countries will make sure that relations don’t fall off the cliff.” Financial times


Amy Kazmin is the Financial Times’ South Asia correspondent.

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