India-China: Global Survival Dilemmas Cannot Sidestep Bilateral Security Concerns

26 Mar, 2020    ·   5667

Kamal Madishetty argues that bypassing the security dilemma and pinning expectations of mutual trust elsewhere is more inconsequential an approach than others, in response to Dr Siwei Liu’s article

Dr Siwei Liu’s recent IPCS article, A China-India Partnership Beyond the Security Dilemma, suggests that one way forward to manage the bilateral relationship is to juxtapose the bilateral security dilemma with the global survival dilemma. Dr Liu proposes that the two countries seize the perceived opportunity presented by global challenges such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to step up bilateral cooperation. She argues that such an approach, which promises mutual gains as opposed to zero-sum games, can help bridge the bilateral trust deficit and also reduce acrimony in other aspects of the relationship. This article will critically examine Dr Liu’s key hypotheses as well as their underlying assumptions from an Indian perspective.

Indeed, India and China have a complex relationship that is characterised by cooperation, competition, and, conflict—sometimes all at the same time. The two countries share strong trade ties, albeit the trade deficit being heavily tilted in China’s favour. Over the past decade or so, burgeoning ties between businesses, and to a much lesser extent, people, have strengthened the overall economic relationship. Simultaneously, however, security concerns have heightened over the years with some of China’s foreign policy initiatives exacerbating the already existing divergences between the two countries. The unresolved boundary dispute between the two sides, too, continues to be an impediment to building stronger ties.

In this backdrop, finding new avenues for cooperation is certainly a valuable proposition—at the outset. The two most populous countries in the world face a number of common challenges that are also global in nature, from environmental degradation to terrorism to issues of health. Moreover, as two ancient civilisations, India and China also share a close cultural bond that is only beginning to be rediscovered and nurtured. International issues as well as cultural ties, therefore, offer opportunities for cooperation that are outside the security prism. However, there are two key concerns with Dr Liu’s proposal, which suggests cooperation on global ‘survival’ challenges—such as the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak—as a means to transform the overall bilateral relationship.

First, current experience does not offer any meaningful template for better trust management. India and China are already engaged in notable cooperation on certain global issues, but this has done little in terms of alleviating the distrust in the security domain. Both countries have found themselves taking a similar stance on climate change action and related issues on international fora, but of course the security dilemma persists. Second are issues of a lack of Chinese transparency and information-sharing, which can have severe negative repercussions for cooperation of any kind. A case-in-point is the COVID-19 crisis. While now recognised as a pandemic with global health implications, its origins point to serious questions about China’s shortcomings in transparently and responsibly making the necessary information available, and in good time. In such a scenario, there is little scope for significant cooperation between India and China until the latter takes steps to issue a concrete acknowledgement as well as assurances to the international community.

The most feasible way, therefore, to improve bilateral ties is to continue making sincere efforts towards addressing the core issues of divergence—and these lie primarily in the security sphere. Rather than hoping that cooperation on global survival challenges will lead to progress on the security front, both countries must instead try to find low-hanging fruits associated with the latter in order to build trust. For instance, China’s decision to lift its objection to designate Masood Azhar—chief of the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)—as a ‘global terrorist’ at the UN is a step in the right direction. China’s diplomatic support to Pakistan at international platforms on matters related to terrorism has for long been not only a thorn in ties between the Indian and Chinese governments, but also a major source of resentment towards China among ordinary Indians. An enlightened Chinese approach to terrorism, an issue that also poses a threat to its own security, can go a long way in building mutual trust.

From New Delhi’s point of view, another low-hanging fruit would be India’s long-pending entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China has taken an unfavourable stance towards India’s application for membership. China’s opposition to India’s entry into the 48-member grouping that governs global civilian nuclear commerce has been an avoidable eyesore in bilateral ties for almost four years now. Further, China could also address other areas of serious concern such as maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, and transparency regarding its activities in India’s immediate neighbourhood, in order to boost genuine confidence.

One could argue that when it comes to India-China cooperation, issues that pertain to security often tend to be non-starters at the negotiating table. However, avoiding the security domain and pinning expectations elsewhere to build mutual trust is an approach that is far more inconsequential. While cooperation on global challenges can and must continue, both sides must continue to make patient effort to manage divergences on the security front. Therefore, a constant pursuit to identify low-hanging fruits and find a modus vivendi on the core security issues is desirable to effectively manage the bilateral relationship.


Kamal Madishetty is a Researcher with the China Research Programme at IPCS.