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Seminar on India and China: Conflict and Cooperation

Date: Wednesday, 21 April 2010
Time: 2.30pm – 4pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Speaker: Dr David Malone, President, The International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada
Chairperson: Associate Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, RSIS Centre for NTS Studies; and Dr Rajesh Basrur, Senior Fellow, RSIS Centre for NTS Studies


Dr Malone began the seminar by explaining his interest in Indian foreign relations and his experience with India. His forthcoming book, Does the Elephant Dance?, aims to undertake a broad survey of Indian foreign policy, in terms of Sino-Indian bilateral economic relations. However, the seminar focused on the history of the India-China relationship in terms of the commonalities that exist, and then moved on to analyse the asymmetries that have developed between them.


Historical Parallels

Both India and China were once the most important economies in the world. As early as the 1750s, they collectively constituted over half the world’s economic output. However, the subsequent colonisation of India, along with the stagnation of China, resulted in a shrinking of both their respective economic outputs in comparison with the West. In India’s case, its share of global economic output shrank to 2 per cent. As a result of economic mismanagement and poor governance, two large and, on hindsight, preventable famines occurred towards the end of the British Raj. China was also poor and in the midst of civil war. The situation worsened when China went to war against Japan during World War II.

However, the similarities end here. Jawarhalal Nehru, then jailed by the British for nationalist activities, began to regard India as a leading force for decolonisation in the world. He had hopes of forging an alliance with the communists in China to jointly lead Asia. His plans of coming to an agreement with the Chinese on an alliance backfired during the 1955 Bandung Conference. Nehru’s intentions were not reciprocated by the Chinese leadership, which reportedly found his ambitions ‘arrogant’. This was also the time when China and Pakistan formed an alliance, thwarting Nehru’s plans.


Dr Malone stressed that the study of history is essential to the understanding of current Sino-Indian relations. He went on to explain the importance of Tibet to this bilateral relationship.

While some analysts have chosen to portray the Dalai Lama as powerless, a brief historical survey illustrated otherwise. When the then Dalai Lama escaped to India after the 1909 invasion of Tibet by the Manchus, the former was able to marshal forces and support to reconquer Tibet only three years later, illustrating the extent of his power. It was this experience that led India to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama after China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, which subsequently caused a rift in relations between China and India.

After a period of preoccupation with Korea and Vietnam, the Chinese refocused its attention on India and launched a lightning invasion of India in 1962, which was abruptly halted after an American carrier steamed into the Bay of Bengal. Nehru regarded this as a personal defeat of his desire for joint pan-Asian leadership, and he died only two years later.

Tensions persisted well afterwards into the 1990s. After India’s underground nuclear test in 1998, China supported American efforts to impose sanctions on India, while a letter leaked by the Indian government to the Americans indicated that the reason for the test was to safeguard the country’s security against China and not Pakistan. Further, when Pakistan launched an ill-advised incursion into the Kargils in 1999, China opted to remain neutral in the conflict. It also came down lightly on Pakistan in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai bombings, advising it to respond sensibly to India’s charge that Pakistanis were responsible for the bombings.

Cross-cutting Issues

Despite the recent diplomatic rifts between India and China, economic ties between them are growing both in strength and importance. At present, China is India’s top trading partner, albeit in China’s favour. The headstart the Chinese had in reforming and developing their agricultural sector allowed the economy to diversify into infrastructure development and manufacturing. India chose instead to focus on financial reforms, and eventually diversified into high technology and the service sector.

Asymmetry exists even at this level however, as the disparity in growth rates between China and India is allowing the former to pull away further each year. The growing economic gap has worried Indian analysts who question if the bilateral economic relationship is as important to China as it is to India. The gap is exacerbated by the lack of cross-investment flows, particularly for Indian firms in China. However, Dr Malone noted that this relationship could mature once cross-investment flows increase.

India’s military spending only constitutes two to three per cent of the country’s GDP, suggesting that military concerns are not paramount for India at this moment. Some voices in the Indian military have reportedly raised the alarm over China’s increased military spending, However, the Indian belief in the ‘string-of-pearls’ theory of strategic encirclement by Chinese bases constitutes what Dr Malone called ‘a strategic parlour game’, or an idea based on abstractions rather than facts. Initially conceptualised by Americans, the ‘string-of-pearls’ theory may ironically have its origins in Robert Kaplan’s description of the ‘strategic encirclement’ that China fears. In Dr Malone’s opinion, neither view should be totally dismissed, but both countries have a long way to go economically before they can threaten one another on the naval front, and military rivalry is not the primary concern for strategists from both nations.

Both countries have competed in the diplomatic sphere as well. While Chinese links with Southeast Asia are relatively well developed, India put forward a ‘Look East’ policy that lay moribund for several years. At the turn of the century, it began to seriously develop these links, especially with Singapore. However, opportunities for growth remain untapped in the form of free-trade agreements between India and China, which will become important especially for the former in time.

In the international arena, India and China have taken different paths. While China was fortunate enough to inherit a seat on the United Nations Security Council, India had to take advantage of whatever forums it had a voice in. Both countries, however, have been practising multilateral diplomacy with India fronting the Chinese position at the World Trade Organization and China representing India at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. It was noted that while both countries claim to exercise greater cooperation in multilateral diplomacy, China has made announcements without consulting India.

Both countries are also involved in multilateral forums that do not involve the West. These include groupings such as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa), BASIC+Mexico (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) between China, Central Asia, and Russia. Activity has been particularly pronounced for IBSA, where economic ties are growing, and BASIC, which was the group that President Obama cut a deal with in Copenhagen.

Dr Malone concluded by putting forward the question of why the Indo-Chinese relationship was important and if it was possible for ‘two tigers’ to ‘share a mountain’. He noted that China’s and India’s relative momentum in terms of economic growth has been unparalleled in recent history, and will probably continue. As for the sharing of power, he made a cautiously optimistic assessment, stressing that it was possible for a positive bilateral relationship to develop, but only if India and China successfully navigated the potential minefield that the Dalai Lama’s eventual death and succession could create. However, as both countries appear to be committed to a bilateral relationship, their relations could improve as ties grow.


In the first round of questions, one participant commented on Nehru’s deep knowledge of world politics, and of the increasing incidence of provocations by the Chinese against India, such as the implied Chinese annexation of Jammu and Kashmir by the issuance of ‘special visas’ to China for residents of that territory, and a renewal of a claim to Amritsar. Given this environment, India’s defensive militarily awareness is perfectly rational in a possibly anarchic international system.

However, it was acknowledged that China was not alone in sabre-rattling. India itself provoked China when it let the Dalai Lama visit Taiwan. Some members of Parliament had also made provocative statements about China in debates. However, the prime ministers of both countries later met and agreed to de-escalate the tension between their countries after these incidents, so the perceived security threat arising from these incidents could have been exaggerated.

Another participant enquired about possible areas of cooperation between India and China in the area of non-traditional security and of the possibilities of Sino-Indian cooperation on Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It was noted that both countries could cooperate to stem terrorism. However, possibilities for cooperation in terms of climate change negotiations or oil exploration and development remain far off. This was attributed to the fact that Chinese diplomacy is more statist in nature than Indian diplomacy.

Yet another participant asked whether the growth of China and India could be exaggerated, considering that great income inequalities still exist in both countries. It was noted that while China is already recognised as a major player in diplomatic circles, India still has some way to go before it can achieve this. However, this does not prevent world powers from being interested in the affairs of both states. In the case of India, financial liberalisation enabled American corporations to invest in the country, leading members of the second Bush administration to consider converting India from a nuclear pariah into a ‘normal’ nuclear state. The deal that was eventually pursued was advantageous to India, though this has not yet transformed India into a superpower in the minds of its people.

It was acknowledged that India’s economic power and military spending are still small compared to China’s, and that while current formal dialogue between China’s and India’s leadership is more stable, it has yet to deepen. One area where India’s diplomacy is particularly successful is in its good relations with virtually all the states of the Middle East.

Finally, a question was raised on how India benefited from its stance on the issue of Tibet. It was argued that Tibet is culturally important to India given its shared religious heritage, even if Buddhism is now a minority religion in India. India also has no territorial interests in Tibet. These are two points that China must learn to accept.


David M. Malone is a career foreign service officer and an occasional scholar. He currently holds the position as the President of Canada’s International Development Research Centre. In his long career as a foreign service officer, he has served inside Canada with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and also Canada’s Policy, International Organizations and Global Issues Bureaus. He was an ambassador to India and non-resident ambassador to Nepal and Bhutan. His earlier foreign assignments have taken him to Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan.  He was also an ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations. One of the key issues he worked on was peacekeeping.

He is a graduate of l'Université de Montréal, of the American University in Cairo, and of Harvard and Oxford Universities. 

His career as a scholar has led him to become the President of the International Peace Academy New York from 1998 to 2004. He was a visiting scholar to a number of academic institutions such as the Brookings Institution, the University of Toronto, Columbia University and l'Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. He was also an adjunct professor to Columbia University's Graduate School of International and Public Affairs, the University of Toronto, the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University (Ottawa) and the New York University School of Law. 

He has published extensively on peace and security issues in a variety of journals.  His books include Decision Making in the UN Security Council: The Case of Haiti (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and, with Mats Berdal (eds.), Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000).  Two further volumes were published in 2002, Unilateralism and US Foreign Policy (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, co edited with Yuen Foong Khong) and From Reaction to Conflict Prevention: Opportunities for the UN System (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, co edited with Fen Osler Hampson). In 2004, he published The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Lynne Rienner). His widely-reviewed book The International Struggle for Iraq: Politics in the UN Security Council, 1980-2005, was published in 2006 by Oxford University Press. In 2007, he published, with Markus Bouillon and Ben Rowswell, Iraq: Preventing a New Generation of Conflict (Lynne Rienner). In early 2008, he published The Law and Practice of the United Nations with Simon Chesterman and Thomas M. Franck (Oxford University Press).  He is presently working on Can the Elephant Dance? A Survey of Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy, due out in 2011 from Oxford University Press.

Posted on: 21/4/2010 2:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Other NTS Issues

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