Tuesday June 2, 2020


May 23, 2013


China and India are the two most populous countries in the world, and are both undergoing rapid periods of development leading to growing economic and political importance. They are also neighbors with a disputed border and deep suspicions towards each other’s military intentions. The two countries share common interests and concerns stemming from their positions as rapidly developing nations, but both historical and newly emerging issues cause tension between the neighbors.

Recent events demonstrated the complex nature of the relationship. Li Keqiang visited India from May 19-21 on his first foreign visit since being named China’s Premier in March. During his stay, he met with both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee. All three spoke highly of the potential for Sino-Indian cooperation, and the importance both regionally and globally of peaceful cooperation between these two rising powers.

However, weeks before Li’s visit, China and India were engaged in a tense border dispute involving soldiers from both sides. Indian officials claimed that Chinese forces had crossed the “Line of Actual Control” into territory controlled by India (but claimed by both countries). The Indian army sent troops to meet the Chinese, and both sides set up camp in the disputed region. The standoff lasted three weeks, until the Chinese and Indian governments agreed to return to the status quo on May 6. While both Indian and Chinese officials have reiterated that the border dispute cannot be allowed to derail the larger relationship, the issue remains volatile.

The incident also revealed the level of mistrust, especially on security issues, between India and China. Besides the border dispute, India is also concerned by China’s growing naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean. Some security experts feel that China is attempting to contain India by setting up a series of naval ports, often referred to a the “string of pearls,” in places such as Bangladesh, Burma, and Pakistan. The general public shares similar concerns. A report by the Lowy Institute of International Policy found that 83% of Indians view China as a security threat. However, the same survey also noted that 63% of Indians would like Sino-Indian relations to strengthen—a sentiment shared by both New Delhi and Beijing.

India and China are making a concerted effort to solidify their relationship. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid visited China in early May, to calm relations after the border dispute and to prepare for Premier Li’s visit to India. Prime Minister Singh is also expected to visit China later this year. At each of these high-level visits, both sides have played up common concerns and areas for cooperation.

Chinese speakers focused especially on China and India’s common identity as rising Asian powers. Li suggested that the two countries have a duty to work together “so that together we can raise the standing of Asia in the world.” Chinese media articles also paint China and India as champions for the developing world. Such arguments also frame China and India as  allies in opposition to the West, which is accused of playing up any disputes between the two developing nations. In a speech, Li also pointed to India and China’s common experiences as victims of Western colonialism. Because of this, Li argued, India could trust China not to pursue military aggression or hegemony. Li’s visit to India, coming in the wake of President Xi Jinping choosing Russia for his first state visit, reveals a new push for cooperation between China and other developing countries, based on a rhetoric of shared past and present struggles.

Li’s visit focused on the easiest area for Sino-Indian cooperation: trade. Both China and India represent huge potential markets for investment, and each country is eager to enjoy the economic benefits offered by the other. Li Keqiang, accompanied by a business delegation, oversaw the signing of trade agreements as China and India seek to expand their bilateral trade to $100 billion per year by 2015.

However, even in the economic realm there are disputes. Some in India are concerned about the size of their trade deficit with China, which totaled $20 billion in 2011. The Chinese government has stated that it takes these concerns seriously. Some of the economic agreements signed during Li’s visit were designed to help decrease the deficit by opening Chinese markets to Indian pharmaceutical and IT companies.  It remains to be seen if such measure will alter the existing trade balance.

The Sino-Indian relationship has its share of historical issues (including the border dispute, China’s friendship with Pakistan, and India’s traditional role as a haven for Tibetan activists) as well as emerging issues, such as the trade deficit and Indian concerns over China’s use of cross-border water resources. Both governments are determined not to let these issues sidetrack their cooperation, especially the growth of trade. The border dispute in late April showed how long-standing issues can erupt unexpectedly. But the incident also revealed how determined both governments are to carry on normal relations despite a crisis. As Sino-Indian relations continue to develop, the path and depth of their cooperation will have a widespread effect on trade and stability in Asia and the world. Should China, India, and the other “BRICS” nations work together to increase their role in global decision making bodies, their relationship could also alter the existing global order.


The Joint Statement on the State Visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India is online in both English and Chinese.

For additional information on Sino-Indian relations and Premier Li’s visit, please view the following sources:

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace“Crux of Asia: China, India, and the Emerging Global Order”

China Daily“Visit to fuel economic cooperation”

The Diplomat“Fresh Off Border Spat, China Woos India”

Financial Times“Li Keqiang seeks to heal China-India rift”

The Hindu“China pledges to fix trade deficit issue with India”

Indian Express“Raised incursion issues with China, but no blame game: Salman Khurshid”

New York Times“Indian and Chinese Premiers Pledge Cooperation on Border Issues”

People’s Daily“China, India have great wisdom to handle sensitive issues”

Reuters“China offers India a ‘handshake across the Himalayas’”

Time“After Fighting Over Mountains, India and China Lock Horns in the Indian Ocean”

Wall Street Journal“Indians Rank China a Threat, Survey Finds”

Xinhua“Commentary: Chinese premier’s India trip to evince Beijing’s unwavering pursuit of better ties”


For Chinese language analysis of Sino-Indian relations and Premier Li’s visit, please view the following sources:

Xinhua 新华“李克强与印度总理辛格共同会见记者”

Xinhua 新华“李克强在印度《印度教徒报》《觉醒日报》发表署名文章”

People’s Daily 人民日报“专家解读李克强放印:中国外交不再着重向西看”

People’s Daily 人民日报 “总理首访:经济贸易主要话题”

People’s Daily 人民日报 “李克强会见印度总统慕克吉时强调 中印关系具有全球战略意义”


Edited and compiled by Shannon Tiezzi