The year 2010 marked the sixtieth anniversary of established diplomatic relations between China and India. Despite the initial euphoria attached to the concept of “Chindia,” a term first coined by Indian Parliament member Jairam Ramesh, the bilateral relationship between China and India continues to face numerous challenges. Jabin Jacob, senior research fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, offered his predictions for the future of Sino-Indian relations at the second of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center’s China-South Asia Dialogue series. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Post-2005 Downslide

Jacob argued that, due to a lack of diplomatic will and creativity as well as to changes in global geopolitics, Sino-Indian relations have been on a downward slope since 2005.

  • United States as a Third Party: One particularly significant change has been the U.S.-India strategic partnership, which gained traction with the announcement of intended nuclear cooperation in 2005 and whose strength was shown in President Obama’s November 2010 visit to India. Jacob noted that a segment of each country’s population views this relationship as a means of countering China—a sentiment that is positive neither for Indo-U.S. relations nor for Sino-U.S. relations. While China may be apprehensive about growing Indo-American cooperation, it will eventually accept it, if not fully embrace it, he said.

  • Border Incursions: The Chinese have signaled their displeasure or discomfort with the growing closeness in Indo-U.S. relations in a number of ways, Jacob said. For example, there has been increased attention to border incursions by the Chinese military at the Line of Actual Control. While it is unclear whether the actual number of incursions has risen, Indian media coverage of China and Chinese incursions has risen since 2006. He cited, as instigation for the increased Indian attention, the 2006 speech by then Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi, who stated that the contested territory of Arunachal Pradesh is part of China. Trends in the Indian media have led to the appearance of increasingly aggressive behavior by China, although such activities are most likely not new.

  • Infrastructure Development: China has always invested heavily in its border regions with India. While India has focused on how China’s infrastructure development facilitates its military build-up at the border, India’s investment in roads and other infrastructure is bringing once inaccessible areas within reach. Jacob argued that the civilian advantages of engaging these regions in trade and development are just as potent a reason for greater access as any military endeavor.

  • Stapled Visas: The repeated denial of visas for political and military officers hailing from Arunachal Pradesh has always been a sore point for India, Jacob noted. Since 2008, however, China has begun issuing stapled visas to citizens of the disputed areas of Jammu and Kashmir, which he said is a more worrying trend. These visas, stapled to passports rather than glued, single out residents of Jammu and Kashmir when traveling to China. While some Indian analysts see this behavior as evidence that China considers only Indian Kashmir—and not Pakistani Kashmir—as a disputed area, Jacob disagrees. He suggests that this uneven practice was likely intended to reassure Pakistan, which faces increased U.S. presence in the region, volatility within Afghanistan, and domestic instability. China is increasingly aware of the costs of its ties with Pakistan, but has sought to maintain a balance between India and Pakistan, Jacob concluded.

  • Tibet: While India recognizes that Tibet is part of China, Jacob emphasized that China should also acknowledge India’s close historical and cultural ties with the region. He noted it is especially difficult for Indian nationals to travel to Tibet, even though the two enjoyed strong economic ties in the first half of the twentieth century. A resumption of positive interactions between India and Tibet across the Line of Actual Control could serve as a confidence-building measure and boost Sino-Indian regional cooperation, he suggested.

  • Media: While the Indian media has portrayed China in an increasingly negative light, the Indian government has not encouraged such portrayal and has consciously sought to cool tempers on this issue, Jacob said. Elaborating on the provocative nature of Indian media, he emphasized that most of the media hostility toward China comes from English-language newspapers; there is very little coverage of China in the regional language newspapers. The vast majority of Indians are indifferent toward China, argued Jacob. Indian deficiencies in the Chinese language, combined with the lack of regular contact between the populations and few full-time Indian correspondents in China, has fed into the media’s negative portrayals of China.

Potential for Improvement

  • Border Rapprochement: While some Indian strategists predict that China and India will go to war over the border by 2012, Jacob disagreed, arguing that the influx of new leadership into both China and India is expected to facilitate rapprochement. When Saalman asked whether new leaders might instead adopt a more hard-line stance, Jacob said border differences are likely to diminish as older leaders step down from power. Despite tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, he contended that the changes of leadership and the rising global profiles of both countries might enable Sino-Indian relations to regain some equilibrium by the end of the decade.

  • Reciprocal Visits: Saalman asked for Jacob’s reaction to President Obama’s visit to India in November, which was followed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit in December. Jacob argued that both India and the United States must accustom themselves to moderating their expectations and dealing with one another as partners. Not every U.S. visit to India requires landmark agreements or business deals to be considered a success, he said. The same applies to the exchange of high-profile visits between India and China. Wen Jiabao’s anticipated visit to India also did not result in any major outcomes but was still a step in the right direction, Jacob concluded.

  • Arenas of Cooperation: To facilitate greater interaction between the two countries, Jacob suggested expanded coordination on natural disaster response and relief, language training—particularly to enhance Indian fluency in Chinese—and nuclear and space cooperation. When an audience member suggested the need to create a forum for trilateral dialogue among China, India, and the United States, Jacob agreed such a measure could supplement bilateral interaction and help reduce Chinese misperceptions about the U.S.-India relationship. Asked about Sino-Indian cooperation on climate change, Jacob said that entente and cooperation between the two countries had been overplayed at the Copenhagen summit, but added that Beijing and New Delhi share common interests on the issue.

Prognosis for the Future

While institutional links, dialogues, exchanges, and high-level visits will grow and flourish between India and China, they will not necessarily signify better relations, Jacob warned. Both countries will continue to be wary of each other, argued Jacob, and their relationship will see a mix of cooperation and competition that is unlikely to change in the near to medium term.

In the longer term, the two countries may need to better distinguish themselves, given their similarly placed economies and global statures, Jacob argued. While he did not predict future armed conflicts, he saw the potential for a rivalry of U.S.-Soviet proportions and a “cold peace,” where proxies in other parts of the world are used to wage battles of influence by adopting either the Indian or Chinese model of political and economic development.