The Future of India-China Relations

While not new, relations between India and China have been marked by a new round of tensions these past months. How can we understand the situation, and what prospects can we expect over the coming months? The OCC sat down with Professor Rajiv Ranjan, from Shanghai University in China, to hear him about the challenges that are related to this key geostrategic issue.

OCC- Over summer, India and China sounded as if they were on the brink of an armed conflict. What are the roots of the India-China issue?

Rajiv Ranjan – The roots of the India-China issue lie in a long unsettled boundary. The India-China border is divided into three sectors, namely Western, Middle and Eastern.  In the Western Sector, India claims the Johnson Line as the boundary between India and China as proposed by the British in the 1860s, extending up to the Kunlun Mountains; but China refuses to accept the Johnson Line as the boundary line.  In the Middle Sector, in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the dispute is on the precise alignment of the line. In the Eastern Sector, in Arunachal Pradesh, the dispute is over the MacMahon Line. China controls Aksai Chin in the West while India controls the boundary up to the McMahon Line in the East. On top of that, along the 3,488-km long border, there is not even a mutually agreed Line of Actual Control (LAC).

OCC – Some weeks ago, India decided to release a Chinese soldier that it had retained short before. How can we read the Indian attitude?

R.R. – Many newspapers reported that the Chinese soldier who strayed across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Demchok sector on October 18 had done so as per established protocols. The Indian Army said the Chinese soldier was provided food and warm clothes to protect him from the harsh climatic conditions, as well as medical assistance, including oxygen.

This clearly indicates that even when there are deep tensions, the Indian Army is respecting the protocols and showing goodwill to defuse the tensions.

OCC – When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, his renewed foreign policy choices were coined as an example of “Modiplomacy”. Has PM Modi innovated compared to his predecessors?

R.R. – Prime Minister Modi has brought many positive changes in India’s diplomacy, and he tried to engage with all like-minded countries in order to maximize India’s interests. On the very day of his oath ceremony as Prime Minister, Modi invited all the SAARC leaders to participate in the ceremony. The ‘Look East’ policy has been rechristened as an ‘Act East’ policy to strengthen economic, security and political relationship with the countries of the region. PM Modi has renewed India’s focus in Europe to build a value-based shared multilateral world order. The India-US relationship under the Modi government has reached new heights. At the recently concluded India-US 2+ 2 Ministerial Dialogue, both countries signed the last of four foundational agreements, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), in New Delhi. The other three agreements were the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), all of them had been signed earlier.

Nevertheless, the changes in India’s internal policies also had an impact on the way the country deals with its neighborhood, and this brought disappointment to some people within the current Indian administration. That said, overall, PM Modi has provided much-needed direction and speed to Indian diplomacy.

OCC – How is the situation with Pakistan, almost one year on from India’s decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir?

R.R. – After the abrogation of article 370 which changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir, the Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs declared that this was an internal matter for India. However, Pakistan took the issue to the UNSC, yet in vain. Both countries have downgraded their diplomatic ties and suspended the terms of an already abysmally low trade exchange. People to people contacts severely curtailed, and bilateral relationship thus is frozen.

OCC – How do you see the future of the India-China relations?

R.R. – The death of 20 Indian Army personnel following clashes with China’s People’s Liberation Army in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control in June had marked the lowest point in India-China relations since the two countries went to war in 1962. This single event has undone 30 years of progress in the bilateral ties. Standoff in the western sector of India-China border in the Laddakh has yet to be resolved; despite several rounds of talks, both countries still need to restructure dialogue mechanisms and settle the foundational irritants of their bilateral relationship if they want to achieve any meaningful and stable engagement. Both countries must realize that managing the border disputes, although it succeeded to translate into improving economic relations and cultural connections, failed though to extend to the political and the strategic arena.

That said, although the Indian government has banned Chinese apps and restricted Chinese investments, trade data suggests that India’s exports to China increased by 26.3% between April and September 2020, reaching a total amount of USD 10.6 billion. Import from China dipped to USD 27.4 billion during the same period, dropping 24.5% compared to the year before.

Moreover, the current border clash has deepened the mutual distrust and soured the public sentiments in both countries, significantly altering the diplomatic balance in the relationship.

Overall, India-China engagement is at its lowest point today, and it will most probably experiment more frequent clashes especially since border infrastructures improved significantly, causing more encounters with patrolling forces along the undefined LAC. Moreover, both countries are competing with each other in the region and beyond, unsuccessfully arriving to common grounds.


To quote this article, please use the following reference: Rajiv Ranjan (2020),“The Future of India-China Relations”.

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein