Few now dispute that the magnificent rise of China and India has fundamentally transformed the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century. In the United States, their emergence has prompted interest in the two Asian giants, home to more than a third of the world's population, with a focus on how their geopolitical influence will affect the United States. The Washington foreign policy community has framed China as a challenge and a competitor, while India is increasingly portrayed as an opportunity and an ally. Yet while the heightened focus on Sino-US and Indo-US relations is welcome, few US analysts have bothered to examine the third, and perhaps most volatile, leg of this equation: the Sino-Indian relationship.
History is littered with examples of rising powers upending the status quo and challenging the established order. Strategic thinkers in the United States have mulled the potential of conflict with China since the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. However, it is at least as likely that if superpower conflict does emerge in the 21st century, it will be between China and India. This scenario is by no means guaranteed, and perhaps not even probable. Formal relations are cordial. However, unlike the United States and China, the two do not have the luxury of a vast ocean to separate them. Rather, they share a long and, more importantly, contested border and a close proximity that can magnify grievances, encourage friction, and perpetuate a zero-sum mentality. It is therefore incumbent upon the United States to seek a greater understanding of Sino-Indian relations, particularly of the issues that divide them and the historical context that underpins their interactions.
A Relationship that Starts with War
A convenient starting point for analyzing contemporary Sino-Indian relations is their birth as modern nations only two years apart: India, when it gained independence from Britain in 1947, and Communist China, when Mao Zedong and his Red Guards declared victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949. Drawn together by anti-imperialist sentiment and Asian fraternity, the two nations enjoyed something of a Golden Age throughout their first decade as independent countries, a period often characterized by a popular phrase of the time: "Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai," or "Indians and Chinese are brothers." In 1954, the two signed the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence," or Panchsheel, which codified the principles of mutual non-aggression and non-interference.
However, the era of Sino-Indian harmony would last only a few short years. China's invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950 had already made more than a few Indians uncomfortable, but at the time, India's leaders quieted voices of protest in the interest of bilateral comity. However, when the Dalai Lama led a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, India was intimately drawn into what China considered an internal conflict. With his rebellion crushed, the Dalai Lama and his beleaguered followers fled into northern India seeking safe haven, and New Delhi, to the great frustration of Beijing, granted it.
Adding fuel to the fire, as the Dalai Lama episode was unfolding, both India and China began a dangerous game of brinksmanship along their poorly demarcated 2,100 mile-long border. In 1958, India discovered that Chinese workers had built a strategically placed road through territory claimed by both sides along India's northwestern border with China. The precise border in Aksai Chin, as this 15,000 square mile portion of desolate Tibetan plateau is called, had become a matter of contention between British-ruled India and China since the late 1914 century. In India's northeast, there was a major controversy as well. There, India claimed its border with China extended to the McMahon line, a boundary drawn by India's British overlords in 1914, whereas China laid claim to 32,000 square miles of territory south of that line, which the Chinese refer to as South Tibet. …