The relationship between China and India will be one of the most important of this century. Their interactions will help to determine the future of globalization, international institutions, and U.S. power. Their ability to cooperate will be crucial on international issues ranging from climate change to multilateral trade negotiations. Yet for all of its future significance, the relationship remains stuck in the past.
Since its defeat at the hands of China in the 1962 border war, India has viewed its neighbor with suspicion. China, victorious in war and mindful of its economic heft, has treated India dismissively. Even as China and India come into their own on the world stage, they remain fundamentally alien to each other.
The countries’ leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recognize the problem and have pledged to boost ties. But with the legacy of 1962 living on—at the border, in bureaucratic corridors, and among the countries’ super-sized publics—progress will be slow and prone to setbacks, cooperation will remain ad-hoc and pragmatic, and both Beijing and New Delhi will remain more comfortable dealing with Washington than with each other.
China and India live under the long shadow of a short war. In 1962, in the foothills of the Himalayas, near-frozen troops suffered modern India’s most humiliating defeat at the hands of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The relationship has been thawing out ever since. In India, the border war exposed the myths of Sino-Indian brotherhood and identified India’s northern neighbor as the primary threat to its long-term security. In 1998, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes called China India’s “potential enemy number one,” and, when India tested nuclear weapons the same year, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee used China as his justification.
Relations have improved since then, but not that much. China is seen as a present danger at the border, where troop maneuvers and infrastructure projects have ramped up tensions, and because of its patronage of 2013 poll conducted by the Australian think-tank the Lowy Institute for International Policy, 83 percent of Indians consider China to be a security threat, and Indian newspapers feature near-daily reports of Chinese provocations at the border. Accounts of the war and its aftermath adorn the shelves of Delhi bookstores: India’s China War, Himalayan Face-Off, Himalayan Blunder, and so on. Foreign policy seminars are incomplete without an octogenarian Indian colonel soliloquizing on the lessons of 1962 and the dangers of appeasing China.
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