India-China Relations Are Unlikely to See Much Progress

India-China Relations Are Unlikely to See Much Progress
India-China Relations Are Unlikely to See Much Progress
India-China Relations Are Unlikely to See Much Progress Top

    By: Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

    February 15, 2024

    India-China relations are unlikely to see much progress in the coming year. Tensions between the two countries increased dramatically after a clash along their disputed border in 2020. Despite more than a dozen rounds of talks since then, there has been no resolution and only minor progress. While it may not be in the interests of either India or China to let the situation escalate, the risk is real.

    There are several reasons for the intense dispute between the two Asian giants. One is the worsening balance of power between the two countries, which increases Indian insecurity. India is an emerging power with a fast-growing economy, but China’s rise has been far more impressive and consequential. That China has been able to bring its vast economic resources and influence to bear at both the regional level and even globally has put great pressure on India.

    This political pressure has been wielded by Beijing against India at a number of points. For example, China scuttled India’s application for membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), despite a personal appeal from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China’s leader Xi Jinping. India has been seeking membership to the NSG, a nuclear technology control regime, for several years as part of its efforts to integrate with the global non-proliferation architecture.1 Similarly, China has repeatedly used its influence to block India’s proposals to place individuals in Pakistan wanted by India on terror charges on a United Nations watchlist.  

    Beyond such political pressure, the growing imbalance also matters in relative military power. U.S.-China competition means that China’s military power is growing fast. For example, China has concurrently developed two stealth fighter planes, making it the only country other than the United States to do so.2 For a long time, India was proud to be the only Asian country operating aircraft carriers, but China now has two operational carriers, and its new class of aircraft carrier has nearly twice the displacement of India’s. Beijing is also building naval vessels at a pace that India cannot match. Sooner than later, these carriers will likely begin to operate in waters closer to India. Although India has not made any official public comment yet, China’s recent and unprecedented nuclear weapon expansion will also likely begin to gnaw at India’s deterrent force.  

    The gap in military power between India and China is at least partly because India’s conventional military power is suffering due to years of underinvestment and neglect. Quoting a senior defense official, one Indian media report cited an acute shortage of artillery guns, main battle tanks and light tanks, infantry combat vehicles and assorted helicopter types and even assault rifles, carbines and sniper rifles.  

    Meanwhile, the Indian Navy is struggling to keep its inventory afloat amid its quickly depleting underwater fleet. India has 15 tactical submarines, many of which should have been retired several years ago but have had their operational lives extended with repairs and modifications. The Indian Air Force also faces serious shortages. Against a fighter squadron strength of 42, the Indian Air Force has merely 29 squadrons in addition to other critical inadequacies, including mid-air refuelers and rotary-wing aircraft. Compounding these issues, India has been worrying about the possibility of a two-front threat in which China and Pakistan coordinate to put military pressure on India.  

    These insecurities are further exacerbated because India and China share an un-demarcated and disputed border. While there is a long historical context to the border conflict, China has pushed forward in the recent past. In 2017, this led to a 71-day stand-off in an area called Doklam at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction. More recently, in 2020, China appears to have deliberately instigated a clash in the Galwan River Valley that resulted in dozens of casualties.  

    After more than three years, and despite 19 rounds of military-level talks and a number of meetings between the foreign ministers—and even between the two leaders on the sidelines of other summit meetings—there has been no disengagement of the military forces. There are still more than 60,000 troops on each side of the border on regular deployment, which brings with it serious risk of escalation. There is little sign that either side has much flexibility, which means that the border issue is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.  

    As India-China relations have worsened, India’s response has increased China’s insecurities. To China’s discomfort, India has accelerated its partnerships with the United States, Japan, and Australia, especially through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad). However, these are not comfortable relationships for India, as occasional developments indicate. The Indian position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the continuing dalliance with Moscow suggest that even though New Delhi may be enhancing the level of its partnership with the United States and its other Quad partners, Russia will continue to be an important security partner for India. That India is deepening partnerships with the United States and its allies despite its own discomfort says a lot about how insecure New Delhi feels about China’s power and behavior.

    Nevertheless, this also means that India-China relations will get even more challenging. China initially dismissed the Quad as just “sea foam” that will dissipate soon, but Beijing has become harsher as the grouping has slowly deepened security partnerships across the region. Their relationship is increasingly taking on the appearance of a spiraling security dilemma, as their responses to each other ratchet up their conflict.  

    Thus, relations between India and China are likely to continue to remain troubled or worse. There is very little likelihood that there will be any resolution to the border conflict or the current tensions between the two countries. And as long as forces are massed at the border, the risk of escalation remains. ChinaPower

    Dr. Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. As a senior Asia defense writer for The Diplomat, she writes a weekly column on Asian strategic issues.

    Photo Credit: KENZABURO FUKUHARA/AFP via Getty Images

    Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan. "India-China Relations Are Unlikely to See Much Progress" China Power. February 13, 2024. Updated February 27, 2024. Accessed April 24, 2024.