Amidst talk of "BRIC" countries and the "Asian Century," the past decade has seen an unprecedented level of Western interest in the affairs of China and India. Despite the obvious differences between the two countries--China's economy is almost three times as large, for instance--they are typically regarded as the greatest economic and political threat to Western dominance in the decades to come. In this context, scarcely a month goes by without a new book by a Western academic or journalist analyzing the growth trajectory and future prospects of the Asian powers. While China, deservingly, receives a majority of this attention, India is not far behind.
It is thus surprising, and unfortunate, that so little of this burgeoning China-India literature deals with the relationship between the two countries. After all, the potential rivalry between China and India could be the defining international issue of our times. justifiably dubbed "the contest of the century" by The Economist in 2010, this remarkably complex relationship is often poorly understood, sometimes even within the two countries. This article will focus on bilateral diplomatic ties, rather than the wider theme of the geopolitical contest of superpowers; the latter involves much more pure speculation, and cannot be viewed in purely regional terms. I will outline the history of the relationship from the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 to the present day, discuss the most problematic areas of the relationship, and examine its potential trajectory in the short-term future.
A History of (Non) Violence?
It has been widely noted by political scientists that the coexistence of India and China in the international state system is highly unusual in that they both aspire to superpower status and share a border. Fifty years ago, this border was both cams Belli and battleground between the two countries. Today, it remains the source of multiple disputes. Yet the Sino-Indian border, like the wider relationship between the two countries, can just as easily be characterized as being relatively peaceful. This has been the view of many in the diplomatic community on both sides. Speaking in the 1990s, AK Damodaran, an Indian Foreign Service officer and China expert, argued that "the fact that this troubled border between the two countries had only three incidents in thirty years suggests that this is one of the quieter borders in the world." Two decades later, the border remains remarkably quiet, given that the underlying disputes remain unresolved.
While the cultural ties between China and India go back over two millennia, independent India and the People's Republic of China were born within three years of each other in the late 1940s. India was one of the earliest nations to recognize the PRC, rather than the Taiwan-based Republic of China, as a sovereign state. In the midst of the Korean War, Indian diplomats at the United Nations proposed UN membership for the PRC as a necessary part of any ceasefire. While the popular Hindi slogan of "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai" (Indo-Chinese friendship) contained an element of exaggeration, relations during the early and mid-1950s were broadly congenial. Yet while Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai, his Chinese counterpart, were publicly committed to this project--as symbolized by the 1954 Panchseel Agreement, which effectively symbolized Indian acceptance of Chinese control of Tibet--it was soon undermined by three distinct disputes.
India's border with China its longest with any neighbor--was complicated both by China's acquisition of Tibet and by the fact that the agreements governing the border line had been drawn up by officials of the British Empire. The border between India and Tibet, the McMahon line, had never formally been recognized by China, which now coveted Aksai Chin, a portion of eastern Ladakh in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, as a means to link Tibet and Xinjiang by road. …