New Delhi’s clinching of a US$5 billion deal to purchase the S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system from Russia while concluding cooperation deals with the US during the recent 2+2 dialogue seem to have indicated a shift in India-China relations.

It is pertinent that after the 74-day Doklam standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries, the two countries attempted to reset their relations, starting from an informal meeting between their leaders in Wuhan, China, in April and followed by meetings on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao in June and the BRICS summit in July.

The key outcomes of the meetings were discussions pertaining to partnership in economic projects and capacity-building in Afghanistan and setting up a hotline between their military headquarters to strengthen communication and build trust and mutual understanding to avoid any future Doklam-like situations.

While these discussions are yet to see results on the ground, Beijing’s move to block New Delhi’s attempts at seeking United Nations Security Council sanctions against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder Masood Azhar, the alleged mastermind of attacks on India’s Uri military base in 2016, and its announced sale of 48 high-end drones to Pakistan close on the heels of India’s agreement with Russia to procure the S-400 missile system, point to prevailing distrust between India and China.

The perception of a Chinese threat gained ground with India’s defeat in the 1962 border war, as the military clash was not only a breach of trust and the spirit of the Panchsheel Agreement signed between the two countries in 1954 in the Indian perception, it ended the vision of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, of a friendly China.

India was not only the first non-communist state to recognize and maintain diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after its establishment on October 1, 1949, New Delhi under Nehru’s leadership reportedly rejected a US offer of permanent membership in the UN Security Council and supported China’s candidature instead. Thus the border war came as a deceptive move from China, which largely stayed with the public perception and shaped the knowledge and understanding of succeeding generations of politicians and experts within India, even though different foreign scholars provided different accounts of the war.

In 2014, Australian journalist Neville Maxwell made part of the Henderson Brooks report public by putting it in his blog. It indicated that India’s forward policy (which endorsed erection of military outposts and launching of aggressive patrols in the disputed India-China border areas) both on the eastern and western frontiers with China invited reactive measures from Beijing, finally culminating in the 1962 border war.

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and Asia Times contributor, however, maintained that China’s moves to enhance its influence in the Tawang region (currently part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh), failure of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” strategy, the deaths of around 30 million to 40 million people in a famine and Mao’s weakening popularity led him to look for an external enemy to divert popular attention. Hence the decision to go to war against India was made quickly after the flight of the Dalai Lama.

However, New Delhi continued to suspect Chinese moves along the border after the occupation of Tibet, and such suspicions grew even stronger when Arunachal Pradesh was often claimed as part of China.

Apart from the border issues, relations between the two countries continued to sour over the continuous supply of Chinese arms and nuclear technology to Pakistan under bilateral agreements on defense production and military-technology transfer and China turned out to be the largest supplier of arms to two of India’s neighbors – Pakistan and Bangladesh – while it also supplied arms to Sri Lanka as well as Nepal.

China’s substantial military assistance to embolden Myanmar’s military leaders during a period when the country was facing international isolation due to a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators after 1989 raised lingering Indian suspicions over Chinese intentions.

Around this time, China had already begun to improve its relations with India since the mid-1980s, but in the view of many Indian experts, Beijing took advantage of the improved relations by building a network of roads and airfields that later turned into its muscle-flexing along the border areas.

Apart for this, China continued to raise objections to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and permanent membership in the UN Security Council, which prevented India-China relations from improving despite a spectacular growth in bilateral trade.

BRI and CPEC

India perceived the Chinese foray into the Indian Ocean and South Asian region under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as threatening and conceived it as Beijing’s “String of Pearls” encirclement strategy.

The BRI invited serious Indian concerns as Beijing’s investments in construction of roads, railways and airports within landlocked Nepal to creation of ports, bridges and airport facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives could be used for military and strategic purposes.

India had already expressed reservations over the BRI from the beginning, alleging its violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity, particularly with reference to inclusion of the Gilgit-Baltistan region into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project without consulting India.

New Delhi seems poised to beef up its defense preparedness in view of growing Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean and along the Himalayan borders. Raising Indian concerns, China has not only acquired a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, there have been reports of Chinese warships and nuclear submarines making port calls in Colombo. As well, Chinese acquisition of Hambantota Port for 99 years raised further concerns in New Delhi and compelled it to get assurance from the Sri Lankan government that the activities at the port remained confined to commercial purposes alone.

While at the beginning of 2018 China and Maldives announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo, there were speculations and Indian concerns that China would build a military port in Maldives. In the Indian perception, not only has Chinese influence has grown in the archipelago state but Beijing has played a proactive role in diminishing Indian influence there.

Indian concerns also remained as to the reports of proposed deployment of nuclear submarines at Gwadar Port, which is part of CPEC.

Even as New Delhi takes measures to boost its defense capacity to allay its perceptions of a Chinese threat, defense ties and agreements with external powers to attain this objective have raised eyebrows in Beijing.

New Delhi can choose friends and foes but not neighbors. As it must co-exist with powerful China, whose influence has expanded rapidly in India’s neighborhood. New Delhi needs to take steps to put the post-Doklam breakthroughs back on track.