by John Lee
In a recent security conference in Washington, a Chinese delegate caused an awkward silence among the congenial group at a post-event drinks session when he stated that India was “an undisciplined country where the plague and leprosy still exist. How a big, dirty country like that can rise so quickly amazed us”.
It is this Chinese sentiment of disdain and also grudging admiration that explains much of Beijing’s attitude towards New Delhi. Indeed, one needs to go beyond strategic and military competition to understand the depth of rivalry between Asia’s two rising giants.
China shares land borders with 14 countries. Over the past 30 years, it has made concerted attempts to improve relationships with all of them by settling border disputes. In the case of Russia, China granted significant concessions in order to improve its relationship with Moscow. But the one exception is India.
Outstanding disputes such as the one over the Switzerland-sized area of Arunachal Pradesh continue to bedevil relations. China’s militarisation of the Tibetan plateau — including placing a third of its nuclear arsenal in that region — is a direct challenge to Indian sensibilities. Indeed, India is the only country not formally covered by China’s ‘no first use’ nuclear policy.
Add to these the growing naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean that is driven by resource competition and insecurity and we have what Chinese leaders openly admit to be a “very difficult relationship” with India. These factors point to the persistence of the India-China rivalry.
But they do not fully explain why Beijing has made little effort to work towards settlement of these disputes with New Delhi, as it has with its other land-based neighbours. A more complete explanation needs to take into account the non-material factors behind China’s strategic rivalry with India.
The first factor is one of shock and surprise at India’s continued rise. Until the late 1990s, people at the highest levels in China were dismissing India’s prospects. It was only early this century that China abandoned viewing India through the lens of the 1962 war when Indian forces were decimated and New Delhi humiliated. Because Indian national scars and weaknesses are there for all to see, little is hidden or explained away. China met India’s re-emergence initially with disbelief, then with disdain, and now with wariness. Beijing does not react calmly to strategic surprises and its gruff response to Indian ambitions in Asia is evidence that Beijing is yet to determine a grand strategic response to India’s re-emergence.