China Is Pushing India Closer to the United States
Border issues, Pakistan issues, and an aggressive Beijing are causing New Delhi to pick sides in the new cold war.
As Chinese soldiers rough up Indian ones around Pangong Lake in Ladakh along the two countries’ disputed border, one thing is clear—while India and China have faced off in the region before, nobody knows what’s coming next. India’s friendship with China once seemed natural for a country that put socialist principles in its national constitution and that prided itself on Cold War neutrality. It was unsurprising that India under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was interested in broadening ties with other newly created socialist nations, including China. But factors more powerful than ideological affiliation knocked the relationship off course, leading to an overlooked war and the tensions of today.
At first, the relationship was all smiles and comradeship. In its early days, the Indo-Chinese relationship was supposedly based on five principles enunciated in the Panchsheel Agreement: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual nonaggression, mutual noninterference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These principles, plus a shared belief in socialist economics, led to a strong relationship. As the slogan went, “Hindi Chini bhai-bhai”—India and China are brothers.
In 1954, Nehru met Mao Zedong in Beijing, and the two leaders agreed on many issues—chiefly, the need to remain strong against Western imperialism. Nehru had little love for the United States, despite being hosted by Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. In the early days of the Cold War, he commented that “there is on the whole more reason on the side of Russia.” Mao saw himself as continuing the anti-imperialist tradition of Chinese revolutionaries.
But India and China disagreed on the border between the two nations, thanks in part to the legacy of uncertain colonial boundaries. The Ardagh-Johnson Line was a border drawn by British India that placed Aksai Chin inside Jammu and Kashmir in India. China claimed to have never accepted this border and instead argued for the Macartney-MacDonald Line, a later boundary that gave it more territory. The McMahon Line, meanwhile, was named for a former foreign secretary for the British government in India, Henry McMahon, who signed an agreement in 1914 in Simla with the then-effectively independent Tibet—though China rejected this agreement. There were talks in India in April 1960 between Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to address the border issues but no solution. Keen to maintain a strategic barrier between the two nations, India kept funding resistance movements in Tibet and hosted the Dalai Lama when he fled.
Tensions on the border continued to grow, and India and China continued to send forces to the region. In 1962, the idea of Indo-Chinese brotherhood died 14,000 feet above sea level when the two nations went to war. The Indian forces were overwhelmed as Nehru was caught off guard. China was able to breach Indian territory and later withdraw on its own terms. Yet China didn’t see India as a permanent enemy—Mao once remarked that force would be able to “knock Nehru to the negotiating table.” The war of 1962 had domino effects that would be felt for years domestically after the fact. Future Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a young member of parliament, denounced Nehru’s government for its failure, and even today, the events of 1962 are broadly seen as humiliating domestically.
But even more critical to understanding the India-China relationship today may be the role of the Pakistan-China alliance. Initially, the United States was an important ally to Pakistan, and as a function of that, Pakistan and China weren’t especially close. But that soon changed.
As both Pakistan and China had border issues with India, common cause soon emerged. One of the most important events was the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. China supported Pakistan in this war both with military aid and through millions of dollars in loans. Though Pakistan lost the war to India in 1971, favors continued to flow both ways. China vetoed Bangladesh’s attempt to enter the United Nations until 1974. In addition, Pakistan offered support to the Chinese in the days after the Tiananmen Square massacre and has taken China’s side on a number of key issues, such as Taiwan and Tibet.
In recent years, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his predecessors have sought to deepen ties with China through initiatives like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, combined with Chinese funding for Gwadar Port and other economic initiatives. That has muted any Pakistani criticism of China’s oppression of Muslims, such as the million-plus Uighurs and other minorities sent to camps in Xinjiang. At the same time, Pakistani cooperation with the United States has crumbled under pressure. If there is a new cold war, Pakistan has chosen a side.
This has in turn helped strengthen the relationship between the United States and India, although there are also other factors at play. Since the 1990s, India has been slowly pushed ever closer to the West. In the early 1990s, India undertook incredibly ambitious economic reforms—more radical than those required by the International Monetary Fund for desperately needed loans. The two key economic reforms dealt with conducting business in India and international commerce. Business in India between 1947 and the early 1990s was subject to the License Raj, the burdensome regulations needed to run even a small business. China, which had liberalized its economy to a degree in the 1980s, was storming ahead as a result.
India choosing free markets was a sea change for a nation, demonstrating that the country was ready to move past failed economic policies, and a shift toward the Western/American economic sphere soon followed. As India began to see high rates of growth, it became more of a viable competitor with China. This happened in tandem with India tightening relations with Chinese adversaries and American allies such as Vietnam and Japan.
Today, the United States remains important to the Indo-Chinese relationship. In recent times, India has sought to strengthen ties with Washington, partially powered by a fear of Chinese economic and political influence in the region—especially in ports in nearby oceans. As the Chinese get more aggressive in the Indian Ocean, India has been seeking an ally to bolster deterrence.
Then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a civilian nuclear deal with President George W. Bush in the early 2000s, and Barack Obama maintained close ties with New Delhi. Finally, the relationship between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and that between Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump, set up an interesting contrast. When Xi visited India in 2014, Modi allowed Tibetan exiles to protest—a luxury that had not been extended by the previous government in Delhi. When Trump visited this year, Modi greeted him with a rally in his home state attended by more than 100,000 people and viewed by nearly 50 million.
China has responded to this by further strengthening ties with Pakistan. Beijing and Islamabad have joined efforts against both locusts and the coronavirus pandemic. China has donated both products like masks and expertise in managing the fallout from the twin crises. Meanwhile, defense ties between the United States and India have only grown. 2019 featured the first land, sea, and air exercise in the history of Indo-American relations. This was in many ways a continuation of policy pursued by the Bush and Obama administrations—both of which saw India as a partner in the pivot to Asia and tried to move closer through areas like arms sales.
Border issues may be the focus of Sino-Indian conflict today, from the near-clash in Doklam in 2017 to today’s standoff—but the geopolitical tensions and alignments involved are much bigger. India’s growingly comfortable relationship with the West heralds a clear choice in any global conflict. We’re a long way from Hindi Chini bhai-bhai.
Anik Joshi is a public policy professional in Washington D.C.