How India & China see each other

A fascinating analysis of the mutual threat perceptions of the two countries

Updated - May 19, 2016 11:21 am IST

Published - March 24, 2014 10:03 pm IST

Title: IRSA Asymmetrical threat Perceptions in India-China Relations. Author: Tien-sze Fang.

Title: IRSA Asymmetrical threat Perceptions in India-China Relations. Author: Tien-sze Fang.

International relations theories during the Cold War were largely predicated on the global matrix of two super powers setting the context for relations amongst smaller powers. The end of Cold War and emergence of new powers have tested and stretched the theoretical framework. It is still a work in progress and the series of writings related to South Asia, led by Oxford International Relations in South Asia Series, has made a valuable contribution in the field. The book under review is remarkable in Sino-Indian relations being addressed by a Taiwanese diplomat-scholar. Taiwan has a unique relationship with China based on a mix of historical animosity, national identity, economic and power asymmetry and the dominant influence of United States. Unlike the mainstream neo-realism or neo-liberal streams of international relations analysis, this book attempts a constructivist understanding of the relations between India and China. The author, who was based in India, makes a fascinating analysis of the mutual threat perceptions of the two countries. It is interesting that both the stronger and weaker player in the Sino-Indian dyad, see the other as a threat to its interests. The analysis covers the four major dimensions of the two states’ troubled relationship, viz; nuclear issues, Tibet, border problem and regional competition.

Perceptions and misperceptions of threat become a variable in the strategic policies of states. International relations theorists have long analysed threat perceptions as the estimated intent and capabilities of the adversary state. Based on such analysis, not always wise or right, states adopt countermeasures to cope with the perceived threat. These have often taken the form of balancing, through internal strength, either military or economic or both, or external partnerships with allies. Some other states try ‘band wagoning’ by joining another power while some others seek a constructive engagement through Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to reduce the threat. The book puts out the view, not surprisingly, that the weaker of the two will attempt to reduce the asymmetry by improving its capabilities. This is what in fact India is doing militarily albeit slowly and by building a network of cooperative relationship with other states extending from the Asia Pacific to Indian Ocean. As the author argues, this in itself can be a trigger for perceptional misunderstanding.

India’s nuclear weapons capability, is quite clearly not driven by the nuclear powers in the UN Security Council other than China. Pakistan’s nuclear capability, supported and sustained by China, added to New Delhi’s perceptions of asymmetry. India was willing to pay the price of economic and other sanctions in order to become a nuclear weapons state. It was a major measure to change the asymmetry, which allowed New Delhi to approach its bilateral problems with China in a more confident manner. China does not see India as a serious nuclear threat, but the resulting change in India’s stature as a rising power and the resultant improved ties with the US is a new variable in China’s calculus of asymmetry.

Tibet has been a source of continuing friction between China and India. China has not been able to satisfy either the Tibetan population or the global opinion on its intentions in Tibet. It opposes the discourse on autonomy, and has hugely changed the military infrastructure in Tibet. It has little leverage over the role of the Dalai Lama and over international media on its reporting on Tibet. Beijing’s sense of inadequacy clearly creates a perception of threat in China’s party and military leadership. While India is not the cause of this, and has unambiguously stated its position on Tibet being a part of China, the Tibetan question will continue to remain part of China’s sense of asymmetric threat to its national identity. Indian analysts are not unjustified in arguing that the slow pace of boundary negotiations and a continuing series of irritants on the disputed borders have a connection with Beijing’s Tibet conundrum.

South Asia has become an arena for the rivalry between China and India. Hostile relations between India and Pakistan, Beijing’s involvement in it through its military and nuclear assistance to Pakistan, its role in Sri Lanka, China’s actions in Nepal, Myanmar and in Maldives have all added to New Delhi’s threat perceptions from China. China’s approach to the resolution of the boundary issue and its tone and tenor during the stand off on the LAC in Ladakh in 2013, have all combined to create in India the widely held perception of a hostile and inflexible China. China’s economic growth, admirable in itself, when combined with its massive military capabilities and its peremptory demands on Japan, Indonesia and South Korea have led to intensified perceptions of Chinese strategic threats from Washington DC to Canberra. Every Indian defence budget gets compared with China’s. The Vote on Account budget presented in the Indian Parliament in February 2014 evoked the common plaint that it is no match to Beijing’s defence allocations. China on the other hand, sees no major threat from Indian economic and military capabilities. This asymmetry in threat perception is analysed with insight by the author.

New Delhi and Beijing both have a shared interest in a just and stable international system. The two countries both seek a multi-polar world. Nevertheless, China has clearly shown its hand against India, by working against the latter’s entry as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The idea of parallel rise of India and China has been voiced by Indian leaders and supported by the Indian media, including this paper. The co-emergence of the two rising powers has found traction in both countries, albeit with the two states rising at different pace and capacity. There is in reality a considerable gap between the Indian and Chinese aspirations and actions. Each blames the other for working against its interests. Neither side clearly needs or seeks a conflict, although Chinese actions in 2013 raised the ante to disturbing levels. Threat perceptions thus play a meaningful part in managing the relationship that has a complex mix of both conflict and cooperative elements, which this useful book does well to explain.

This article has been corrected for an editing error.

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