Differences in Perception and Capability of India and China
The increasing gap in military and strategic strength between India and China is of concern to India. (Photo: Shutterstock)
By Rajkumar Singh

Differences in Perception and Capability of India and China

Sep. 23, 2019  |     |  0 comments

The rise of India and China is undoubtedly a major feature of contemporary global politics. The relationship between the two rising Asian powers will not only exert a profound and far-reaching influence over Asian security, but is also seen as a decisive factor in reshaping international order. Currently, the major issues of India-China relations include the nuclear issue, the boundary problem, the Tibet issue, regional competition and cooperation, and their relations in the global context. These are the reasons for the current gap in their friendship, which is repeatedly declared as an objective by both governments yet lacking actualization. As a result, the Sino-Indian relations have been constrained by the asymmetry between their threat perceptions: India tends to be deeply apprehensive of threats from China, while China appears comparatively unconcerned about threats from India. This position has made it difficult for China and India to forge shared knowledge and to set a common agenda around which their expectations could converge.

Role of Image and Perceptions

In general, perceptions and misperceptions of threat become a variable in the strategic policies of states. The end of Cold War and emergence of new powers have tested and stretched the theoretical framework. In the new context, too, international relations theorists have long analyzed threat perception 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 partnership 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.

In the case of India-China relations, misconception have developed over the years and they continued to remain in the forefront due to unresolved issues like the border dispute. Such misconceptions may have grown from “images” formed towards the end of the colonial era, from self-images and convictions of righteousness, from ideology, from wishful thinking, or from errors in communication and mutual understanding in the years immediately preceding the 1962 conflict.

In relations between India and China, all things apart, perceptions and images about each other have remained a dominant factor in determining the nature of their relationship. Neither conflict nor cooperation nor indifference between the two is an inevitable consequence of their geographical location or historical past. Rather, the tone and content of their bilateral relationship at any given time is a product of policies pursued by the two governments within the context of specific international and national environments that could and did change. Thus, in case of India and China, foreign or national security policies are shaped by many determining and variable factors, including objective resources, internal and external pressures, and the priorities and quality of national leadership. Perceptions and images — generally preconceived in leadership and public alike — are found to play an important role:

(1) in affirming (or not) the desirability and feasibility of a policy direction;

(2) in interpreting history and delineating the lessons to be learned from it;

(3) in reinforcing attitudes, and also making it difficult to change attitudes, by diluting attention paid to contradictory signals;

(4) in simplifying complex or inexplicable phenomena by reducing them to something comprehensible within an existing mental framework; and

(5) in consolidating a policy-making elite.

Both India and China, the two of the most populous countries in the world, have been moving up the ladder, militarily, economically, and politically, but each has its own priorities, strategies, successes, and failures. In today’s world, countries themselves are the masters of their own fate and are well on their way to take their rightful place as leading economic powers in the international comity of nations. China is undoubtedly ahead of India in the development success story. The remarkable rise of China in the last three decades has had mixed global reactions.

While many countries have welcomed this rise, some other nations, especially some of China’s neighbors and even the US have viewed it with concern. In the context, both India and China as third world countries share a mirror image perception of each other of encirclement. One prominent example of this perception is Pakistan’s all-weather friendship with China. Many in India believe that a nuclear Pakistan is the creation of China to a large extent; and for China, the existence of a strong and confident Pakistan, able and willing to challenge India confers important strategic advantage by forcing India to spread its armed strengths in two fronts.

Military and Strategic Strength

The increasing gap in military and strategic strength between India and China is of concern to India. In comparison to China, India is far less in a viable nuclear and conventional deterrence. At its present level of strategic strength, India does not have the option of following a hostile and confrontational attitude towards China. Contrast to the relative reasonable understanding of China’s economic growth, India’s perception of China’s military build-up by and large is negative. China’s combination of rising nationalism, its key ideological role in regime stability, and the realpolitik strategic culture has made China’s military power build-up a potent factor for uncertainty, insecurity, and instability in Asia. In these circumstances, the combination of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) size, growing strategic and conventional capabilities, organizational restructuring and adoption of a new strategy of preparing for “high tech limited warfare” are factors that its Asian neighbors have to take seriously.

From the beginning, the sense of China’s threat perception has been occupying the Indian strategic horizon, starting with PLA’s entry into Tibet in 1950, through the Sino-Indian border war in 1962, Chinese nuclear test in 1964, and the strategic ties with Pakistan since 1965, right up to India’s nuclear test in 1998. Indian negative perceptions of China’s military buildup were obvious, especially during the event of India’s nuclear test. Since then, perceptions have become more positive as a result of the recent changes in Chinese Asian diplomacy, improved Sino-Indian relations and its greater sensitivity to some of Asia’s concerns.

The Chinese public as well as the academia believe that compared to China, India has deeper integration with the outside world. China does not enjoy the same stature as India at the international level due to many historical and political reasons.

Indian analysts view seriously China’s long-term and deepening military relations, nuclear and missile cooperation in particular, with Pakistan, the principal rival of India. They took notice of China’s adjustment of its South Asian Policy in recent years, characteristic of which is its dealing with India and Pakistan separately. An Indian analyst said, “While India hopes to surround Pakistan, its immediate adversary and to contain China’s long term security threat, China and Pakistan are pursuing similar aims of strategically squeezing Delhi”. China’s apparent neutral position in the Kargil conflict, continuing endeavor to improve its internal export control regulation and active participation in international non-proliferation regime made them apprehensive of China’s words and deeds. India is also anxious about China’s deepening and close defense relations with India’s immediate neighbors. China’s supplying of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, military ties with Bangladesh and Myanmar, and building of the deep-water Gwadar Port in Baluchistan gave a clear indication of China’s military ties in the region around India. Not to mention the fact that the bulk of China’s arms exports are to the region.

India’s regional strategic concern extends from the Persian Gulf in the west to Straits of Malacca in the east and from the Central Asian Republics in the north to near the equator in the south. In a nutshell, both India and China are likely to see peaceful ties, but in the medium to longer run, a rising China as the most powerful state in Indian’s neighborhood will affect India’s national interests politically, militarily and economically.

Economic Development

In the economic sphere, India has much to learn from China. Cooperation with China is the need of the hour to achieve India’s objective of broad-based development. In the journey towards prosperity in the 21st century, China should be looked upon as India’s partner and both countries should work together to make transition from a unipolar to a multipolar as smooth as possible.

India must understand China better and cooperate with it in international forums. China on its part should accept the importance of India in tackling international issues of common interests. China knows it well that it would take decades to seriously compete with the US for global hegemony, thus it has focused its strategic energies on Asia. Its foreign policy is aimed at enhancing its economic and military prowess to achieve regional hegemony in Asia. China’s recent emphasis on projecting its rise as peaceful is aimed at allying the concerns of its neighbors, lest they try to counterbalance its growing influence.

China’s readiness to negotiate with other regional states and to be an economically responsible power is also a signal to other states that there are greater benefits in allying with China rather than opposing its rise in any manner. In addition, while declaring that it will be focusing on internal socioeconomic development for the next few decades, China has actively pursued policies to prevent the rise of other regional powers, or at least to limit their development relative to itself. Especially in case of India, this manifests itself in its cultivation of Pakistan as a close ally. From supplying nuclear and missile technology to building its military infrastructure, China has done all it can to help Pakistan be an effective counterweight to India.

Other Considerations

The general understanding of India in China is dominated by its backwardness, poverty, underdeveloped infrastructure and scarce supply of daily commodities. Further, the basic principles of the democratic system, independence of foreign policy, India’s diplomatic relations with the international community and especially with the major powers like United States, domestic affairs and comprehensive developments are noted among the general Chinese public positively. As to the perception of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, the Chinese public as well as the academia believe that compared to China, India has deeper integration with the outside world. China does not enjoy the same stature as India at the international level due to many historical and political reasons. At the diplomatic level, India is perceived as a tough player and negotiator. However, India lags behind China in the pace of economic development.

In particular, China has been heavily influenced by the articles of chief correspondents of the People’s Daily in India. They project India in a pessimistic light and see no future for the country in the global arena. The general belief is that China has left India far behind in terms of economic and social development and it will take India decades to catch up with it. As a result, when they talk about India, they are concerned about how its system has been mired by various social problems such as caste, dowry, female infanticide, untouchability, social injustice, poverty, and the feudal justice system. In their view, caste and religion are so deep rooted in the Indian social system that instead of pushing for reforms, each political party has turned these into vote banks.