Analysing India-China relations

Ramachandaran visited China many times from 2013–19 and was a journalist in China with China Daily, Global Times and China-India Dialogue from 2008–2016, thus well placed for an objective view of the bilateral relationship.

Analysing India-China relations

Photo: Cover page of 'Beyond Binaries the world of India and China'

Ramachandaran visited China many times from 2013–19 and was a journalist in China with China Daily, Global Times and China-India Dialogue from 2008–2016, thus well placed for an objective view of the bilateral relationship. For all the media restrictions in China, he writes, there remain “unexplored possibilities and spaces”, and many assume restrictions and censorship where there are none.

India-China relations are a binary of democracy versus communism or free market against state control, but there have been periods of calm cooperation between the two countries. China’s technology and management methods could stimulate India’s economy, and China can benefit from India’s market and ‘the force of consumerism’. In pushing for exports, capital expenditure and foreign investment, both nations are similar. India is a huge market and could use investment in infrastructure from the investible surplus in China. For the Indian market to thrive, people need economic empowerment with the “kind of purchasing power that China had been able to ensure for a majority of its people.”



Modern China shows that infrastructure development and poverty alleviation are achievable even for large populations. More than 700 million have been raised from semi-feudal poverty since 1979. Yet vast sections are stuck with bygone practices, such as in healthcare, which is filled with gaps and fraud. The working-age population has declined since 2011, and the current 3-child policy will not change this soon since rapid urbanisation has reinforced a 1-child tendency.

The actual size of the Communist Party is obscure. Each year, 20 million apply; less than 3 million succeed; the strength might be about 96 million. By 2011, it had become a party of the middle and professional class, no longer custodians of the poor.

Change in China is always slow and orderly; there is no scope to let off steam. Its rise is due to stability, prosperity and inclusive growth without restrictions on education, employment, travel, trade, or enterprise. Mega-events like the Olympics always bring out the best in China. China was the biggest beneficiary of free trade, and the yuan was added to the SDR basket.

China needed to change its growth model, not dependent on external markets but on domestic consumption. China did not have the skills to outsource business, but India lacked the infrastructure and low production costs to compete with Chinese manufacturing. Digital India was a path taken by China more than 10 years earlier. After 2015, it was inevitable that cyber security would be a priority, and Indian and Chinese cyber security laws are not too different.

China expects others to be demonstrably mindful of its concerns. Its challenges are mainly internal: small incidents, demonstrations, riots, restive minorities, pockets of poverty, and the down side of rapid economic growth. Reform in China means fighting corruption and inequality.


Ramachandaran lists the issues between India and China as the border: membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the UN listing of Azhar as a terrorist, both opposed by China; India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); stapled visas for Kashmiris and Arunachalis; the presence of the Dalai Lama; and China’s support for Pakistan.

At certain times, leaders like Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao wanted to push forward despite powerful Indian pro-US lobbies. China’s economy was slowing and needed a shift to new markets and consumers. But there was a lack of Indian “excitement about opportunities, especially economic, entrepreneurial, educational and cultural.”

The author traces the military clashes in 2013 (Depsang), 2014 (Chumar), 2017 (Doklam), 2020 (Galwan), and 2022 (Tawang) as strategic escalation. China has only just considered sending an ambassador to India since 2022 and seems in no hurry to halt the downward spiral. “There are no clear and convincing answers to why the Ladakh incident of 2013 happened.” With their political strength, “Modi and Xi could have shaped public opinion…to the level where the border dispute could have been talked about” and the Nehruvian legacy undone. More than once, bilateral visits were marred by Chinese incursions, forcing both sides to revert to taking one step at a time. The dominant narrative in India about China is pessimistic, despite MEA’s attempt to deny that the border is fraught with tension. MEA and Defence speak in different voices, the latter reflecting a “powerful section of the armed forces”. Perhaps under RSS influence, Modi pulled back from meaningful talks with Pakistan and China. Modi has had more dealings with China than any previous prime minister, having visited nine times, but his reliance on personal chemistry does not work with China.

China built infrastructure in border areas, but its priority is internal stability. China’s media said India looked upon China as ‘an imaginary enemy’, and joined the USA, Japan and Vietnam. The Chinese view is that “the US-led West used the India-China standoff as an issue to advance their own strategic agenda…defence deals, and flattering India as a Quad member.” China thinks India engaged in an international campaign against BRI. The border is hardly discussed in China, but “prevailing sentiments and political mood in both countries precluded the possibility of any solution being explored…the strategic maturity of not allowing differences to become disputes is a good mantra to deal with the challenges.”

Why did China resort to military provocation? Perhaps India’s deepening ties with the USA and Quad, opposition to BRI, establishing deterrence, to push Modi to settle the border. “It is difficult to say which country’s leadership is more set on resolving the boundary issue.” The US approach is to benefit from China’s economy but restrain its military and strategic influence, “pushing overtly and covertly to ensure that China-India relations do not move too far from the brink of conflict.”

An obstacle to Chinese domination of Asia is India; it does not command trust and support in the West; India has greater acceptability. If peace with India serves China’s global ambitions, then Beijing may revisit the engagement. Despite a lack of warmth and trust, there cannot be war since both sides would suffer. Just as there are differences between the Indian MEA, Defence and armed forces, in China there are differences between the party, military and government.


In 2014, China offered to invest $300 billion in Indian infrastructure in three years, a lost opportunity. Bilateral trade was $135 billion in 2022. India is a leading IT country, and China is the world’s factory. But since 2020 there is pessimism about ties and the climate is “most unfavourable” with hostility and obstruction, lack of flights and visas.


Indian cultural and religious influences exist in Tibet, but without much economic or strategic heft. Tibetans have economic and social development without religious and political freedoms. They are being enlisted in the army, and the Dalai Lama is making no political headway; “Tibetans in China may be left with no choice but settle for the autonomy they have.”

South Asia and Multilateralism

China has been emerging as a South Asian power, and India must act without being interventionist to check China. “Smaller South Asian nations, far from being a meeting ground, are a battleground for India and China,” and underlying tensions are not beneficial for the region. Whether the small countries are getting the best out of the two big nations or losing out on being part of the Indian zone of influence is a moot point; partnership would serve everyone’s interests better. Barring India, all SAARC members want to include China. In the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), India is the only one opposed to BRI. SCO membership has not improved India-China relations, and making the Delhi SCO summit virtual in 2023 seemed a pushback at China and Pakistan in deference to the USA. As for Pakistan being dependent on China, China is also dependent on Pakistan for access to the Anglo-American, Islamic and Arab worlds.


India does not figure prominently on China’s radar. Taking a dig at China comes naturally to some Indians: “India is obsessed with China and not in a good way.” As future big powers, India and China want a peaceful rise, reform of the UN, financial institutions and WTO, cooperation on climate change, and to face challenges of poverty, inequality, and disparity between advanced Asia and developing Asia. Greater mutual trust and a common purpose are needed to dissolve distrust.

Like the USA, the business of China is business; commerce can pave the way for better relations. The border cannot be settled by force, and China has no option but to come to terms with India. The 2008 India-US nuclear agreement gave access to technology, reactors, and nuclear fuel, so Indian preoccupation with membership of NSG is unnecessary.

This compilation of essays from 2008 to 2022 has considerable detail, but there is confusion as to which articles are already published and which are written for this book. Since dates are not given, there is a jagged back-and-forth in chronology that makes placing any context extremely difficult. It is unclear what has been written in China and what in India. Together with an unhelpful structure, there are internal contradictions in the arguments and reiterations. But this neutral assessment of India-China ties was necessary.

The reviewer is a former foreign secretary

Book details

Beyond Binaries: The World of India and China
By Shastri Ramachandaran
Genuine Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2024
309 pages, Rs 450/-