What If India And China Find Common Ground?

London is known for its open intellectual climate, where no idea is off-limits. But even in this dynamic city – and indeed in Washington too – it’s almost blasphemous to suggest that Russia and the West can be partners, or that the US and China can coexist as global powers. Recently, Nigel Farage, the Reform Party leader in the UK, faced a storm for urging the West to negotiate sensibly with Russia over Ukraine, calling the war a ‘complete stalemate’. People accused him of “echoing Russian propaganda”.

In India, we often hear that we don’t cultivate a society where all ideas are welcome. But let’s hope that suggesting a new chapter of “Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai” (India-China brotherhood) isn’t seen as blasphemy. The strong anti-China sentiment after the Galwan Valley clash in 2020 seems to have subsided. We’re buying more Chinese goods now than ever. In 2023, our bilateral trade hit over $136 billion. Hopefully, even those who burnt Chinese products in Gujarat and Delhi following the border skirmishes are more open to the idea now.

Sure, it might sound crazy to suggest that India and China should become trusted partners like the US and India, or Russia and China. But, it’s not entirely out of the question.

Sure, it might sound crazy to suggest that India and China should become trusted partners like the US and India, or Russia and China. But, it’s not entirely out of the question.

Major Geopolitical Shifts

India’s rise to become a global power is unstoppable; even China knows that. Talking to Chinese academics and journalists, you get the sense that they’re open to establishing long-term ties based on mutual respect. They like India, they want more people-to-people interactions, and one of them even wondered recently why India does not try to cast its spell over the dragon through its soft power of Bollywood  

Both countries have the responsibility to lift millions of their combined 2.8 billion people out of poverty. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to make India a developed country by 2047, which is a huge task. There are challenges, but if India and China team up and leverage each other’s strengths, it could be a major geopolitical shift, with far-reaching implications for global politics. 

Read | Modi-Hasina Should Worry About China, But Not Too Much

The US and its allies might be shocked and deeply concerned by a close India-China partnership. The West has benefited from the rivalry between the two countries as it aligns with their strategy of counterbalancing China’s rise. A partnership between these two Asian giants could undermine the West’s strategic interests in the region. Kishore Mahbubani, former Singaporean ambassador to the UN, has often said that most of Asia would cheer if this were to happen.

So, can India and China find common ground despite tensions over their disputed border? Prof. Mahbubani believes that while the two may never be best friends, they can have a good working relationship. He even says the 21st century belongs to the CIA (China, India, and ASEAN) countries. With US power on the decline, these countries will drive the world’s economic growth.

A Rollercoaster Ride

The idea of India and China being close friends isn’t new. Historically, they’ve acted like quarrelsome neighbours who fight and make up repeatedly. They share a long history of cultural and economic exchange dating back over two millennia. The Silk Road facilitated trade, and Buddhism, which started in India, found a significant following in China. These ancient ties laid a foundation of mutual respect and cultural affinity. During the colonial era, both countries faced subjugation by Western powers, fostering a sense of shared struggle. 

After gaining independence from the British, India faced border issues with China, and they continue to strain their relationship. In the early 1950s, the relationship was marked by camaraderie, epitomised by the slogan “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai“. However, this period of cooperation was short-lived. The border dispute escalated into a full-scale war in 1962, leaving a lasting scar on bilateral relations. The disputed borders, particularly in the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh regions, remain contentious issues.

The rivalry between the US and China will continue, and India will remain under US pressure in its effort to manage China. However, India’s strategic positioning between the US and China can work to its advantage.

Before the Galwan incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi naturally leaned towards engaging with China. As Gujarat’s Chief Minister, he made four trips to the country to attract investment. As Prime Minister, he has visited China twice, and President Xi Jinping reciprocated with two visits to India. Both countries have emerged as major global economic powers, engaging in significant economic competition and areas of cooperation within multilateral frameworks like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Strategic Rivalry

Strategically, India and China view each other with suspicion. The latter’s close ties with Pakistan, its infrastructure projects in South Asia under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its military presence in the Indian Ocean have heightened India’s security concerns.

Conversely, India’s growing partnership with the US and its participation in the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) is viewed warily by China. The 2020 Galwan Valley clash exacerbated tensions and highlighted the fragility of the relationship. Despite several rounds of military and diplomatic talks, a comprehensive resolution to the border disputes remains elusive.

Mumbai’s Shanghai Dreams

Many youth in India might not know that not too long ago, India used to compare itself with Pakistan in all spheres. This attitude changed around the turn of the millennium, when the Maharashtra government launched a mega project to revamp Mumbai in 2004, based on the “Vision Mumbai” report by Bombay First, an organisation comprising some of Mumbai’s super-rich stakeholders. The report outlined strategies for transforming Mumbai into “another Shanghai”. While the project to transform Mumbai is still a “work in progress”, it marked the beginning of India’s comparisons with China. Today, China sees India as its great rival, at least in Asia.

Read | China Is Revamping Its Military, And India Must Not Take It Lightly

Projections show that the Indian economy will surpass Germany and Japan’s to become the world’s third-largest one by 2027. Currently, however, India’s economy is only 19% the size of China’s, even though it feeds nearly the same number of people. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India’s nominal GDP in 2023 stood at $3.5 trillion, compared to China’s $18.2 trillion. India’s per capita income was $2,411, while China’s was $12,720. China’s exports last year exceeded $3.38 trillion, while India’s exports were $778 billion.

Collaboration Possibilities

Since China opened its economy in 1978, it has lifted 800 million people out of poverty – a feat that hasn’t been matched by any regime in history. India has also succeeded in reducing poverty significantly. Both nations have many more millions to help. Collaborating in economic development, technology, infrastructure, environmental initiatives, healthcare, cultural exchange, and geopolitical stability can benefit both countries and the world. Overcoming historical tensions and building trust through consistent dialogue will be crucial.

The intense rivalry between the US and China will continue, and India will remain under pressure from the US to stay a reliable partner in its effort to manage China. However, India’s strategic positioning between the US and China can work to its advantage. Ultimately, New Delhi’s strategic interests are best served by a balanced approach that navigates the complex dynamics of US-China relations while advancing its own national objectives. 

India knows that neighbours with shared borders may fight at times, but they can still continue to believe in the ‘love thy neighbour’ dictum.

(Syed Zubair Ahmed is a London-based senior Indian journalist with three decades of experience with the Western media)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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