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Explaining China’s India Policy

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • September 17, 2008

    Let the fact speak for itself. China was not happy about India gaining the waiver in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and it played the role of a spoiler till such time it could. The Indian Government now feels betrayed. Perhaps India expected China’s reciprocity in exchange for its gracious support for the successful tour of the Olympic Torch. Indeed, it was naiveté that led India to believe Chinese rhetoric. India’s failure to read China correctly as has happened time and again, essentially because it tends to view its relationship with China from a bilateral perspective, which prevents it from taking cognizance of China’s larger geo-political objectives in Asia. Instead of viewing India-China relations through the prism of either ‘betrayal’ or ‘bhai-bhai’, one needs to understand China’s strategy in Asia. The primary factor that determines China’s policy towards India is US predominance in Asia and the world at large and its attempt to reshape the Asian balance of power.

    The 1998 nuclear tests were an important turning point in India-China relations. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s letter to President Clinton citing China as the main reason for testing nuclear weapons marked a shift in China’s perception of India. Though China could no longer ignore India, it still continued to view India as a South Asian power.

    9/11 had a major impact on US-China relations, which, in turn, also had a bearing on Sino-Indian relations. Though US-China co-operation to counter terrorism increased, the War against Terrorism also brought the United States to China’s doorsteps – to its northwestern border in Central Asia, to its southern and southwestern borders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to its eastern and southeastern borders in the Asia-Pacific region. During the same period, India-US relations also saw a marked improvement. China interpreted Condoleezza Rice’s statement on the American wish to help India emerge as a major power in the 21st Century as part of the new American strategy towards China. The unfolding high-level defence cooperation between the US and India further added to Chinese fears about a US containment policy.

    Writings in the Chinese media and in academic journals in the years 2005 and 2006 raised alarm over the Indo-US nuclear deal. A write-up in the official weekly Beijing Review highlighted the ‘China factor’ in “boosting US-India relations” and asserted that the US policy of helping India become an Asian power is aimed at counter-balancing China. The People’s Daily carried a report stating: “Although both sides say the agreement has nothing to do with China…, the China factor is only too obvious. Both of them felt keenly uneasy about China’s development, though neither of them mentioned it.”

    A result of the more robust India-US relations was the perceptible shift in China’s assessment of India. During his 2005 visit to India, Premier Wen Jiabao called India a ‘major power’ for the first time. An article in Beijing Review noted: “While the rise of the Chinese dragon propels Asia to global prominence, India’s outstanding performance is not far behind in Asia’s global economic emergence. With its 1.1 billion population, seventh largest land mass and strategic location on the Indian Ocean rim, India has everything necessary to become a major power.” Talking about ushering in a truly Asian century, the Chinese leadership spelt out that it can happen only with the simultaneous development of both India and China. Indeed, such rhetoric of an Asian renaissance was articulated to preclude India from falling into the American embrace.

    China’s role at the NSG meeting in Vienna similarly demonstrates its apprehensions about the US role in Asia. It is little wonder that China tried to scuttle the NSG waiver for India, and from the beginning displayed a non-committal approach on the issue. In fact, two days before the NSG meeting, the People’s Daily (September 1) carried an article written by Fan Jishe, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which stated: “Whether motivated by geo-political considerations or commercial interests, the US-India nuclear agreement is a major blow to the international non-proliferation regime.” The article in fact lashed out at the United States for following “multiple standards on non-proliferation issues.”

    Quite clearly, the NSG waiver for India is primarily seen by China as a part of US containment strategy. By ending India’s 34 years of nuclear isolation, the NSG waiver has opened the gates for India to conduct nuclear commerce with the world and has raised hopes of India emerging as a hi-tech power. In effect, the NSG waiver can be seen as an attempt to reshape the Asian balance of power. Though the contours of the new system are yet to unfold, the fundamentals have indeed changed with the decoupling of India’s nuclear status from that of Pakistan and by giving India strategic parity with China on the nuclear issue. It also ushers in an era of deeper Indo-US engagement, much to the anxiety of China.

    China’s principal foreign policy thrust in Asia is to dilute American preponderance. In the context of growing India-US ties and the American attempt to reshape the Asian balance of power, India would be naïve to expect full Chinese support on critical strategic issues like the waiver at the NSG or at a later date a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council.