India’s relations with China have a long history. The origins of China’s expansionist and aggressive designs can be traced to its full occupation of Tibet, a vast region in Central Asia, often called the "Roof of the World" and the "Forbidden Land". It brought China to the very edge of our border.

The decades-old cordiality, which marked the “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” days and all the impressive talk of Panchsheel (five principles of peaceful co-existence), to which China was also a vocal party during Nehru’s time, were turned into hostility as a result of the sudden invasion of India by China in 1962 and forcible occupation of about 35,000 square km of Indian territory.

Every now and then, the Chinese, officially or unofficially, release maps in a bid to establish their legal right over Indian territory which it seized in 1962 and other areas.

Several rounds of talks have been held, frequent gestures of friendship made, feelers thrown by both countries and false hopes aroused of a settlement of the vital border question. The results of the prolonged discussions, do not mark concrete achievements towards the solution of the boundary question which naturally continues to be the topmost priority from the Indian viewpoint.

Relations with China have also remained soured because of its support to Pakistan in making nuclear weapons. India has often protested about this but the co-operation has continued. China’s hand in the making of the Pakistani nuclear bombs was all too evident but India did not make it into an international issue. Nor has it highlighted the plight of the Tibetan refugees in India. More and more have been crossing the border and settle in India to escape the prosecution in China.

The Chinese set of principles were aimed at pursuing Mr Deng Xiaoping’s package deal which envisaged freezing the status quo on the India-China border.

India made it known to the Chinese that it could not accept the package plan which amounted to accepting the Chinese occupation of more than 20,000 square km of Indian territory. This includes Aksai Chin, as also Indian territory which the Chinese captured by their blatant, deceitful aggression in 1962. To this total should be added the Indian territory under Pakistan’s illegal occupation which was ceded to China under the Sino-Pakistan Agreement of 1963.

Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s five-day visit to China in December, 1988, created an atmosphere of goodwill and set the stage for a settlement of the border dispute between the two countries. The two sides had in-depth discussions and agreed to develop their relations in several fields and work hard to create a favourable climate and conditions for a fair and reasonable settlement of the boundary question. Both sides agreed that concrete steps would be taken, such as establishing a joint working group on the boundary question and a joint group on economic relations, trade, science and technology. The Indian side assured that anti-China political activities by Tibetan elements would not be permitted in the country.

India and China signed a landmark agreement on September 7, 1993, during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s Beijing visit. It generated much goodwill and set the stage for peaceful resolution of the vexed border issue.

The accord was a pragmatic step forward to promote understanding and mutual confidence. The two sides agreed to reduce their military forces along the Line of Control (LoC). They also agreed that neither side would undertake specified levels of military exercises in identified zones.

Relations with India and China improved during 1995. On March 4, 1995, India and China reached an agreement to open two more points along the border at Nathu La in the Sikkim sector and another in the middle sector, for meetings between their military personnel. On July 17, 1995, then Home Minister S.B. Chavan, during a visit to China, reiterated India’s willingness to continue to work with China to maintain substantive contacts in all areas.

A meeting of the Sino-Indian Joint Working Group (JWG) on the border question yielded a breakthrough at New Delhi on August 20, 1995, when both countries agreed to pull back troops at four points on the Arunachal Pradesh border. The agreement ended a 33-year-old eyeball-to-eyeball deployment where the two forces are separated by as less as 50 to 100 yards.

India and China marked 50 years of diplomatic contact on April 1, 2000. For most of these five decades, ties between Asia’s two largest countries had been uneasy, especially since the short border war of 1962. Much had happened since and today India and China are discussing the border problem across the table. Though it has been a long, slow process, with no concrete results, the hostility and suspicion, at least, has not led to military skirmishes.

A bilateral trade agreement between the two countries helped remove one more barrier to China’s 14-year bid for membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The agreement was hailed as a boost to Sino-Indian relations. The joint statement said that India gave full support to China’s entry into global trading body and would work with China to develop trade ties in future.

In August, 2000 both the countries signed a five-year memorandum of under­standing on critical areas of information technology, during the visit of Information and Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan to Beijing.

In May 2001, the Chief of Indian Air Force,  Air  Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, visited China to help enhance military to military ties. Tipnis became the first IAF Chief to visit China in the 51 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Later, two Chinese naval ships—Harbin and Tailing—arrived in Mumbai to engage the Indian Navy in a three-day ‘Pasex’ exercise or naval exercise while on passage.

Beijing assured New Delhi of its active co-operation in the fight against international terrorism, including Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism, when the two countries held a bilateral dialogue on terrorism for the first time in Beijing in November 2001.

The two sides also discussed developments in the region following the September 11 attacks in the US, and expressed concern on the grave threat faced by India and China from terrorism. Though Beijing had earlier also condemned acts of terrorism in India, it was the first time that it  recognized New Delhi’s concern on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s six-day visit to India, in the second week of January, 2002, took place at a time when military tensions between India and Pakistan were on the boil. The message of China, a close friend of Pakistan, during the India visit was, however, clear. It wanted to expand economic, scientific and business ties between India and China.

Mr Rongji reiterated the Chinese position that the India-Pakistan dispute should be resolved through negotiations. He also assured India that China posed no threat to it, and that Beijing will keep out of the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir.

Both China and India also agreed to expand cooperation in order to combat terrorism, which had assumed global dimensions. It was announced  that the two countries would hold regular dialogue on the subject and constitute a joint working group on terrorism, and cooperate with another on intelligence sharing and exchange know-how to combat  terrorism.

India and China also agreed to speed up resolution of their border dispute—a legacy of the bitter border war in 1962—by clarifying the 3268 km long Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Prime Minister Zhu, however, preferred to concentrate on the business of strengthening bilateral economic ties. Five Memoranda of Understanding and contracts worth more than $100 million were signed during the visit.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Beijing, Luoyang and Shanghai from June 22 to 27, 2003. The visit helped in taking the relationship to a new level.Ten agreements and a Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China were signed during the visit. While the Declaration contained the sensitive formulation on Tibet, what held more interest from the Indian point of view was a Memorandum of Understanding signed on expanding border trade.

In the first-ever joint declaration of Principles of Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation signed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao, India recognised that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. It reiterated that New Delhi will not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The declaration was the first-ever joint document signed by leaders of the two countries.

In the MoU on expanding border trade, the Indian side agreed to designate Changgu of Sikkim State as a venue for the border trade market. The Chinese side agreed to designate Renqinggang of the Tibetan Autonomous Region as the venue for the border trade. And the two countries agreed to use Nathu La as a pass for entry and exit of persons, means of transport and commodities engaged in border trade.

What was most important in this MoU was related to the status of Sikkim, whose merger with India in 1975 China had consistently refused to recognise. Through this document China extended a de facto recognition by agreeing to open a new trade route between the two countries through Sikkim—something that China had been refusing to do earlier.

Also, in an attempt to speed up resolution of the border dispute, India and China agreed to appoint a special representative to explore, from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship, a framework on the boundary settlement. This is an acknowledgement that the key issue in resolving the dispute is political and discussion at a purely official and technical level may have reached a plateau.

In a major move to foster friendly ties with India, China, on October 8, 2003, removed Sikkim as a separate country from its Foreign Ministry website, honouring an understanding reached on the issue during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s historic visit to Beijing in June 2003.

On May 31, 2004, China took another significant step to recognise Sikkim as part of India by not showing the North-eastern State as an independent country in the Annual Year Book (2004 edition). China took a strategic step forward in its relations with India by formally endorsing India’s candidature to the UN Security Council. The decision was conveyed during a crucial visit to India by Tang Jiaxuan, State councillor and one of the senior-most leaders in China.

Seeking to upgrade bilateral relationship, India and China held their first-ever ‘strategic dialogue’ on January 24, 2005, to discuss major global and regional issues, including international terrorism, non-proliferation and energy security. The aim of the strategic dialogue was to broaden the scope of the blooming bilateral relationship, allowing both sides to exchange notes on global and regional security issues.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China paid a State visit to India from April 9-12, 2005. The visit was substantive in its outcome. Heralding a new dimension in bilateral ties, India and China agreed to work for “early” settlement of the vexed boundary question, establish a strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity and further promote exchanges in the military field.

After wide-ranging discussions, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed a landmark Joint Statement that contained a vision of where India-China relations are headed and an action plan for cooperation in bilateral, regional and global domain.

The two countries also agreed on the importance of comprehensive reforms in the UN system. China conveyed that it attached great importance to the status of India in international affairs and understood and supported India’s desire to play an active role in the UN and international affairs.

India hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in December 2010, in an attempt to stabilize Sino-Indian ties, which had undergone great turbulence in the past two years.

There was no dearth of warm words during the visit: Wen, in a lecture in New Delhi, invoked Mahatma Gandhi as "a man of love and integrity" who "has always lived in my heart." He stressed that although Sino-Indian relations have experienced major turns, they were only a short episode in a 2000-year history of friendly bilateral exchanges.

As in the past, economic ties ended up being the focus of the visit. The two sides have now set a target of $100 billion in trade expansion by 2015 from the present $60 billion. Wen had come to India with a group of around 300 Chinese executives; business deals worth about $16 billion were signed. But there was no progress on the regional trade agreement as India remained concerned about its growing trade deficit with China.

China did not concede to India on any major issue while India decided to play hard-ball on various issues of importance to China. Wen, for example, refused to acknowledge Indian concerns over China's issuance of stapled visas to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir, the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and anti-India terrorist groups operating from Pakistan. Unlike other major powers, China has refused to unambiguously demand that Pakistan shut down the terrorist infrastructure on its soil.

For its part, India this time refused to explicitly state that it recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the Chinese territory.

There was little movement on a range of concerns that India had flagged before the visit. India had expressed concerns about Beijing damming rivers like the Brahmaputra as well as the non-tariff trade barriers to Indian companies in China.

Despite the lack-luster nature of Wen's India trip, the new-found robustness in India's China policy was rather striking. After trying to push significant differences with China under the carpet for years, Indian decision-makers are being forced to grudgingly acknowledge that the relationship with China is becoming more contentious.

Ignoring pressures from Beijing, India decided to take part in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in Oslo. Beijing had asked several countries, including India, to boycott the ceremony, describing the prize as open support for criminal activities in China.

As India grows outwardly, the two giants are beginning to rub shoulders in different parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. New economic prosperity and military strength is re-awakening nationalist pride in India, which could bring about a clash with Chinese nationalism. The existence of two economically powerful nations will create new tensions as they both strive to stamp their authority on the region.

In the power competition game, while China has surged ahead by acquiring economic and military capabilities under-pinned by a clear policy to achieve broader strategic objectives, India has a lot of catching up to do.

The existing asymmetry in international status and power serves Beijing’s interests very well; any attempt by India to challenge or undermine China’s power and influence or to achieve strategic parity is strongly resisted through a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic means.

Maritime competition is also set to intensify as Indian and Chinese navies show off their flags in the Pacific and Indian oceans with greater frequency. Their maritime rivalry is likely to spill into the open in a couple of decades’ time when one Indian aircraft carrier will be deployed in the Pacific Ocean and one Chinese aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, ostensibly to safeguard their respective sea lanes of communication. Perhaps sooner rather than later, China’s military alliances and forward deployment of its naval assets in the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Myanmarese ports would prompt India to respond in kind by seeking access to ports in Vietnam (Cam Ranh Bay), Taiwan (Kao- hsiung), and Japan (Okinawa), which would allow for the forward deployment of Indian naval assets to protect India’s East Asian shipping and Pacific Ocean trade routes, as well as access to energy resources from the Russian Sakhalin province.

For the foreseeable future, India-China ties will remain fragile and as vulnerable as ever to sudden deterioration as a result of mis-perceptions, accidents, and eruption of unresolved issues. Simmering tensions over territory, overlapping spheres of influence, resource scarcity, and rival alliance relationships ensure that relations
between the two rising Asian giants will be characterized more by competition and rivalry than cooperation for a long time to come.

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