The Rise and Fall of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai

The long, tricky frenemyship of Asia’s two biggest powers.


Ever since India lost a brief border war to China in 1962, it has resented and mistrusted its neighbor to the north. But when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Beijing in October 1954, expectations were high that the leaders of the world’s two most populous nations could build a bilateral relationship based on dignity and respect. "The United States does not recognize our two countries [China and India] as great powers," Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong told Nehru, according to archival material released on Sept. 15 by the Wilson Center. "Let us propose that they hand over their big-power status to us, all right?"

India was a new and messy democracy, China an impoverished communist dictatorship. Culturally, politically, and socially, they were worlds apart. Yet for a brief period in the mid-1950s, China and India came together in the spirit of "Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai" (India and China are brothers).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his guest, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is visiting India on Sept. 17 and 18, are heirs to this legacy. Like Mao and Nehru, they are trying to strengthen bilateral relations: Both have voiced support for expanding economic ties and have pooled efforts as BRICS and advocates of the diffusion of global power at the expense of the West. Yet the torturous history of Sino-Indian relations since the 1950s suggests that great friendships are easier declared than sustained. Caught up in the toxic discourse of domestic nationalism and blinded by ideological dogmas, the leaders who worked to create the Sino-Indian friendship were the same ones who brought it to ruin.

When Mao met Nehru in Beijing, China had just barely begun to recover from nearly a half-century of war and revolution. But having just seen China fight the United States to a stalemate in the Korean War, Mao was upbeat about the future: Everywhere he looked, he saw imperialism in retreat, and complete liberation of the East no longer seemed like a distant prospect. "Historically, all of us, people of the East, have been bullied by Western imperialist powers," he told Nehru. "The imperialist powers still look down upon us," helping forge an "instinctive feeling of solidarity" between China and India. Nehru replied that the two countries had a great many people between them, and that they were bound to attain "immense influence." China and India, the two leaders seemed to be saying, would lead the developing world to a brighter future.

But Mao and Nehru had very different ideas about what that future might bring. Nehru wanted the developing nations to follow India’s lead in staying out of the ideological quarrels of the Cold War. Mao, by contrast, perceived the Third World as central to the coming global revolution, which China would lead by example. From the start, China and India were engaged in a competition for influence. It did not take long before Sino-Indian solidarity gave way to frustration and bitterness.

Tibet was the trigger. Following China’s brutal suppression of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, thousands of Tibetans, and their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, sought asylum in India. From there, the Chinese government alleged, they continued to instigate rebellion, moving across the border to carry out subversion and sabotage. The Chinese responded by increasing their military presence in the border area, which in August and October 1959 led to a series of skirmishes that resulted in the deaths of several Indian border guards.

As China and India faced off across the Himalayas, they started reminding each other and the rest of the world about their territorial dispute — which even now remains unresolved. China claims roughly 32,000 square miles of Indian-administered territory in what is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh, south of the McMahon line, which marks the de facto Sino-Indian frontier in the east. India disputes China’s possession of a nearly 17,000 square mile area further northwest in the strategically important Aksai Chin region that links Xinjiang and Tibet. It was at the latter locale that tensions heated up again in April 2013, when China’s border troops allegedly breached the Line of Actual Control, briefly setting up an encampment on what India deemed to be her side of the line; in mid-September of this year, Indian officials claimed that hundreds of Chinese troops had recently crossed the border.)

Ironically, when the border conflict first erupted in 1959, it was the Chinese who pushed for a prompt resolution. Records reveal that when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai met with Nehru in Delhi in April 1960 to discuss the crisis, the Chinese premier effectively proposed an exchange: China would withdraw its claims to the eastern section of the border, if India did the same in Aksai Chin.

The Chinese delegation, which also included then Foreign Minister Chen Yi, explained their reasons: for all of China’s concern about Tibet, its real worry was the eastern seaboard. "We do not want to offend India," Chen said. "Our relations with the United States and Japan in the east are tense. It would be stupid if we created a tense situation with India in the west."

China was also under pressure from the USSR to mend fences with Delhi: the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had come to Beijing in September-October 1959, nearly came to blows with his hosts over what he saw as China thoughtless pushing of India into the arms of the United States. And domestically, China faced an unprecedented catastrophe: the 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward and its ensuing famine, which led to the death of tens of millions of people. For all these reasons, Zhou came looking for a solution, and the records suggest he was prepared to make concessions.

Nehru would have none of it. He spoke of the importance of upholding "India’s dignity and self-respect." But in his view, that required that China relinquish all claims to the areas India considered hers — meaning a Chinese withdrawal from the Aksai Chin. The records suggest that Nehru had an excellent opportunity to resolve the border dispute from a position of relative strength. But, concerned that a settlement would undermine his standing in the eyes of the public, he simply stonewalled China’s proposals.

Over the next two years, tensions grew. On Oct. 20, 1962, China launched an offensive across the border, quickly routing the Indian force. As India’s lines of defense crumbled, Nehru frenetically pleaded for U.S. help, of which little was forthcoming. The war on the roof of the world abruptly ended a month later, just as China seemed poised for a decisive strike. The Chinese, after teaching Nehru a "lesson," withdrew behind the de facto border.

Xi and Modi are old enough to remember the war, and the bitterness and humiliation it engendered. Nevertheless, they have worked hard to cultivate their relationship. Xi has come to India bearing gifts: a pledge for $20 billion of investments in India’s infrastructure and industrial projects that are meant to signal China’s long-term commitment to India and their interdependence. Modi has promised that the two countries would work together "to create a better tomorrow for all of mankind." Both emphasize their mutual rapport and a degree of intimacy unseen since the heyday of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai.

Yet many in India, including Modi, are apprehensive of Beijing’s increasing presence in South Asia — including in India’s own territory. "I raised our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border," Modi told reporters after meeting with Xi on Sept. 18. China’s border incursions, its increasing ability to project naval power in South Asia, and its strengthening ties with regional players like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan cast a shadow over the future of Sino-Indian friendship.

Mao’s comments in 1954 of China claiming great power status were unrealistic, of course. His China was poor and underdeveloped — a paper tiger. They’re unrealistic no longer. China today has the power to challenge the status quo in ways the chairman could not have dreamed. During his last meeting with Nehru on October 26, 1954, Mao told the Indian visitor about the Chinese saying "to seize someone’s pigtail." China and India, he said, "do not seize each other’s pigtail. We are not on the alert against each other."

Today, as then, the Chinese and the Indian leaders are emphatic that theirs is not a rivalry but a partnership of equals. Yet, China’s booming economy, first-rate infrastructure, technological sophistication, and military strength trump India’s capabilities. Unfortunately for Modi, if it does come to pigtail grabbing, India cannot contend. China has much stronger hands and today, unlike in the late 1950s, it has no need of compromise.

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko