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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

India-China Relations: The History of War in the Himalayas

Article by: Supriya Prasai

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Historical Background of China-India Relations

India and China have profoundly influenced each other in the 20th and 21st century. The “Panchsheel Agreement” was the most significant milestone as it demonstrated both economic and security cooperation between these two nations. Signed on the 29 April 1954, this agreement consisted of five governing principles. These included mutual recognition of sovereignty and territorial integrity, a pact for non-aggression, mutual non-interference with internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and an arrangement for peaceful coexistence. However, this agreement, while initially very promising, has failed to maintain its strength. During the early 1950s, the “flowering relations” between India and China were driven by notions of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Leaders of both nations throughout history expressed admiration for each other, valuing their similarity of geography, population and tradition. However, since emerging as an independent state in 1947, India has engaged in border disputes with China and vice versa; thereby shattering hope for cooperation, and even evolving into mutual hostility following the 1962 Sino-Indian war. This war is still considered the most critical reference point in the history of China-India military stand-offs, and contemporary demonstrations of conflict still exist between these nations today.

The Galwan Valley and the Yangtse Clash

The Galwan Valley Clash in Ladakh on the 15 June 2020 is considered the “deadliest clash in 45 years.” This conflict is a recent demonstration of China and India’s long-lasting border feuds. Indian government sources confirmed that 20 Indian army personnel lost their lives, along with an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers. Prior to the clash, both India and China were engaged in a border stand-off in eastern Ladakh that began in May 2020. Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, expressed “great betrayal by the Chinese government” after he had expressed to have extended a hand of goodwill and peace to China. On the other side of the border, China does not view itself as an aggressive actor, which was underscored by the Chinese foreign minister and state councilor, Wang Yi, who stated that China “will effectively design its territorial sovereignty and maintain peace and tranquility in the border area.” China then further expressed interest in bilateral relations, hoping for the two countries to find common ground. Yet, Modi appeared to be at odds with these claims of alleged cooperation, as he called on China to better “work towards border peace”. On the 9th of December 2022, Indian and Chinese troops clashed again at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Yangtse in Arunachal Pradesh, leaving 34 Indian and approximately 40 Chinese soldiers injured. This clash had been building since October that year as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doubled its troops along China’s side of the boarderat the LAC. Tensions between India and China within the Yangste region had already been evidently high since 2011. Before the Galwan Valley and the Yangtse Clash, the last major clash took place in 2016, and again in October 2021 when the PLA attempted to claim a 17,000 foot-high peak that was under Indian control.

Where Are They Now?

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2023 which revealed that the majority (67%) of the Indian population had an unfavorable view of China. This trend has become more common in India since 2019, following the recent surge of border conflicts. These tensions have built up into a frenzied infrastructure-building competition, suggesting that both China and India have “strategically decided to leverage peacetime to bolster their logistical capabilities for a potential war.” However, assertive foreign policies and red herrings, which include Sino-Pakistan relations and tensions around the succession of the Dalai Lama, have further threatened the advancement of positive relations. According to Mohammed Ayoob in his 1967 article ‘India as a Factor in Sino-Pakistani Relations’, Sino-Pakistan relations were created on the foundations of a common factor or “an area of coincidence”, thereby allowing Pakistan and China to build a cooperative alliance against India. In 2023, this partnership progressed to involve China’s “deepening” of its military ties with Pakistan to expand both their “mutual interests” and establish a strong front against potential threats from India.

Economic Competitiveness

Despite these hurdles, the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China (GACC),  have concluded that India’s exports to China rose from $16.25 billion to $16.99 billion in the period between January and November 2023 and in the same time frame during 2022. Simultaneously, Chinese exports to India fell from $108.98 billion to $107.27 billion in 2023 during the same period. Economic competitiveness between the two nations have become evident from a recent study from June 2023 which emphasizes the potential of India surpassing China as the next economic superpower in years to come. This is also reflected through India outpacing China in economic growth over the last two years, growing its GDP by 6.1% compared to China’s 4.5%. However, the expansion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has reached the borders of most South Asian countries, prompting India to leverage foreign aid and investments to reach its goal as a leading player in South Asia. 

The Unpredictable Future

The 18th G20 Summit was held in Delhi on the 9 and 10 September 2023. Prior to this, India and China had engaged in productive discourse which generated some hope for resolving their current issues with border security and hostility. However, China’s President Xi Jinping did not attend the summit;  hindering the opportunity that the forum presented to restore cooperation and “normalcy” in India-China relations. Xi Jinping’s office did not provide a reason for his absence, however, China agreed to the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration which emphasized economic solutions and an establishment of cooperate mechanisms. Nonetheless, India hosted a successful summit in the presence of international leaders; advancing the country towards strong diplomatic relations and promoting productive growth of strategic partnerships between India and the United States. India’s growing defense cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners has also inserted a level of mistrust and dispute concerning China. This is reflected by China’s close examination of India’s diplomatic and foreign policy strategies with nations such as Australia, Japan, the EU and the United States, reaffirming the persistent nature of economic competitiveness that is likely to persist in the future.

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