By Peter Marino
For centuries, the relationship between China and India was the diplomatic Dog that Didn’t Bark. The two largest, most populous, most durable Asian countries, for most of their collective history, have lived alongside each other with an almost studied indifference to the military, economic and cultural activities of the other. This dynamic began to change in the postcolonial period, but slowly, unevenly and with as much backtracking as forward progress.
However, the recent news that Delhi and Beijing may be establishing a military hotline – reminiscent of the admittedly apocryphal “red telephone” between the White House and the Kremlin – has shown how much the Sino-Indian relationship has expanded and matured in recent years – and also how much distance still remains.
How India and China manage their relationship will have global consequences. Their sheer size influences global markets in commodities, and China’s stock market gyrations have already begun to have knock-on effects around the world. And as two nuclear-armed states with long-term unfinished territorial business between them and a good amount of mutual suspicion, diplomatic missteps between India and China risk nuclear escalation.
For most of their history, geography was the primary reason that the two countries maintained a diplomatic distance, keeping their interests separate and avoiding substantial political and economic exchanges. Then, as the modern era dawned, China descended into domestic chaos and India found itself a direct colony of Britain, precluding any deeper ties as long as those conditions persisted. Only in the early 1950s did China and India begin to interact as modern governments in a sustained way, bonding over their shared former status as the exploited and downtrodden of Western Imperialism and the newly-emancipated developing world. But their lack of deep ties allowed disputes to escalate, culminating in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, which left them with diplomatic differences until the early 1990s.
However, that relationship has been changing rapidly. The last decade has seen a flurry of Sino-Indian diplomacy, trade and exchange, even as military tensions between the two remain substantial. The occasional border skirmish and bilateral interaction are tainted by their divergent views on relations with Pakistan, still-archrival of India and an increasingly close ally of China. This closeness between Beijing and Islamabad, coupled with a deepening skepticism in Washington over the wisdom of its own relationship with Pakistan, has pushed India and the United States closer to each other, overcoming decades of mutual suspicion as the regional dynamics change underfoot. Read more