A China-India Partnership Beyond the Security Dilemma

25 Mar, 2020    ·   5666

Dr Siwei Liu argues that it is possible for China and India to move towards formulating a new security lens that emphasises mutual benefit, while still acknowledging the obstacles

2020 marks the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and China. Both countries have experienced rapid development, and their individual regional and global influence has also increased significantly. The two Asian giants share a long history of friendly exchanges and cooperation, but also competition, and in some cases, conflict. In this context, China and India must plan for the future development of their ties, particularly in terms of stepping out of the current security dilemma.

In fact, from ‘Wuhan Spirit’ to ‘Chennai Connect’, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have already begun to paint a blueprint for a new partnership. Both sides have vowed to push forward Sino-Indian ties, and have stressed the importance of strengthening their multi-layered cooperation. For example, China and India have once again emphasised cooperation in anti-terrorism and enforcement; jointly responding to regional security threats; and new models of cooperation, like the China-India-Plus cooperation in regional connectivity and governance.

While the spirit of cooperation exists, finding avenues to actualise it is not so easy. China and India jointly training Afghan diplomats is regarded as a good example of China-India-Plus cooperation, but such cases are still rare. Several factors affect or hold-up cooperation between the two sides, including asymmetric national interests, different policy priorities, and the efficiency of specific policy implementation bodies. However, the security dilemma is undoubtedly one of the most significant obstacles. The current manifestation of this problem is that each country believes that their own actions are not disruptive. This problem has stalled the resolution of land border disputes, and has begun to have a negative impact on interactions in maritime security, counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, and even non-traditional security fields, like water.

Moreover, the China-India security dilemma also increasingly shows up in non-material forms, such as discourse or ideological competition, exacerbated by media hype. Competing regional connectivity projects make both sides fall into the so-called ‘imagined security dilemma’ which makes it easier to incite negative public opinion and impact bilateral relations.

Solving such a security dilemma is not an easy task, but both countries need to make efforts, including strengthening direct, multi-layered, communications, and reducing mutual misunderstanding. Though summit meetings between the two heads of government have worked well, meetings right at the top do little to alleviate institutional mistrust. Addressing this systemic wariness requires dialogues across disciplines and layers of government and society in both the track one and track two formats.

Clearly, new perspectives are required to manage bilateral relations in the future. One way of doing so may be to juxtapose the bilateral security dilemma with global survival dilemmas. Indeed, while the human world has achieved rapid developments and technological progress, it is also facing many challenges related to human survival, on issues ranging from the environment, ecology, population, infectious diseases, disaster management, and so on. These survival dilemmas, which have profoundly changed international relations, require more international cooperation rather than zero-sum games among stakeholders.

For instance, the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 urgently requires global cooperation. In this era of globalisation and complex interdependency, geographical boundaries provide imperfect solutions to completely halting the spreading of the virus, much like H1N1, Ebola, and SARS. The coronavirus outbreak in fact may have already had an impact on the regular programming of China-India relations. Both countries had together proposed 70 activities, including cultural, religious, and trade promotion events, as well as military exchanges, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bilateral relationship. Some of these events may now need to be postponed or shelved due to uncertainty surrounding the spread of the pandemic. This health crisis may also have some immediate, though more likely temporary, impacts on the two economies and bilateral trade relations.

It is necessary therefore for China and India to move towards formulating a new security lens that emphasises mutual benefit, while still acknowledging the obstacles. This can be the building block for mutual trust at least in some spheres that reduce the level of bilateral acrimony. It is hoped that the trust built in such projects can then permeate to thornier problems in relationship.  


Dr Siwei Liu is Associate Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China.