One Year After They Almost Went to War, Can China and India Get Along?
By Sameer Lalwani
While Sino-Indian friction will continue, relations have improved from last year’s low, and a border standoff seems unlikely for three reasons: learning, national self-interest, and drifting U.S.-India relations.
First, it is plausible both sides have learned, offering a modicum of stability. During the standoff, China seemed to escalate threats while underestimating Indian resolve and geographic advantages, demonstrating what Yun Sun has described as “strategic contempt” and hubris towards India. Since Doklam, anecdotal evidence suggests Beijing has sought to correct this bias by allotting greater resources to the analysis of South Asia. China may better appreciate Indian sensitivities, local capabilities, and the Modi government’s resolve, reducing risks of miscalculation.
Doklam likely reminded Delhi of its periphery’s vulnerabilities. Despite initial triumphalism, Indian strategic discourse has grasped that victory at Doklam was tactical, provoked greater Chinese fortifications, and failed to restore the status quo. The standoff exposed Delhi’s lack of even 10 days of ammunition reserves and a functioning sea-based deterrent. After staring into the abyss, both sides may have decided to reevaluate each other’s positions, avoid provocations, and navigate frictions with caution rather than false optimism.
National self-interest in economics and geopolitics can also bolster stable relations. For an underperforming Indian economy facing “jobless growth,” China offers perhaps the largest source of new foreign direct investment (FDI) to India, totaling $8 billion last year. Recently, China has appeared willing to drop barriers to reduce the trade deficit with India. Chinese FDI combined with capacity transfer can also stimulate Indian manufacturing. Another border standoff might foreclose on such opportunities as it did during Doklam, when Chinese investment was delayed or deterred. India entering an election year further incentivizes avoiding conflict that could be economically damaging.
Engagement with China instead of strident opposition could also dampen geopolitical competition in India’s own backyard, which may afford Delhi consultations or geopolitical bargaining. One senior official privately remarked that India could have leveraged approval of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for Chinese backing of Indian overland access to Afghanistan. Similarly, China could benefit strategically from leveraging concessions in India’s neighborhood to subvert Indian integration into U.S.-led alliance systems in Asia.
Since Beijing was concerned by Delhi’s seeming gravitation towards a U.S.-led military alliance, the perceived deceleration of the U.S.-India strategic relationship reduces tensions that fueled Doklam. Though rhetorically strong, the relationship’s substance—including arms sales, technology transfers, interoperability, investment, and joint operations—has been erratic and slow-moving, leading to talk of “India fatigue” in the Pentagon.
Drift stems from several sources. Structurally, India’s Cold War distrust, risk-averse bureaucracy, and governments engrossed with endless election cycles constrain transformational foreign policy. U.S. preoccupation with Afghanistan also constrains nimble innovation in its Indo-Pacific strategy. Moreover, the current administration has injected new uncertainties, particularly over the credibility of U.S. commitments, encouraging Indian hedging and buck-passing.
Though perhaps distressing from an American standpoint, U.S.-India drift, along with lessons learned and a hard reappraisal of national self-interest, may ensure stable China-India relations prevail.
This article was originally published as a part of a series of expert commentaries by ChinaFile.