With the world focused on the war in Ukraine, China has been busy engaging in diplomacy with neighboring countries, especially in South Asia. During the last 10 days of March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nepal; attended the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; and hosted a series of international conferences on Afghanistan.
Wang’s trip to India is particularly noteworthy. Memories of bloodshed in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, where Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in mid-2020, killing dozens, are still fresh. Given this, the high-profile visit by Wang inevitably leads many to wonder: Does China have ulterior motives in engaging with India, or are China-India relations, once believed broken beyond repair, getting a new lease on life?
The answer may be a bit of both.
China has two primary motives for engaging with India now. The most immediate is the Ukraine situation and a shared pro-Russia neutrality between Beijing and New Delhi. Both China and India abstained from the March 2 UN General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia to immediately end its military operation in Ukraine. The abstentions are deeply rooted in both countries’ relationship with Moscow.
Indeed, China’s “no limits” cooperation with Russia, a term coined during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Beijing in February, has prompted international outcry over China’s acquiescence, or even tacit support, of Russian aggression. The core of China’s ties to Russia are energy, market access, and a desire “to withstand sanctions and contest American global leadership,” according to Daniel Russel of the Asia Society.
Similarly, India is dependent on Russian arms, and its silence on Russian behavior has also been met with tremendous pressure, especially from the United States. President Joe Biden’s administration has tried to bolster India’s strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region through mechanisms such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan and the US.
The Chinese have clearly identified an opportunity to bridge the Sino-India divide – not just to repair relations but also to build a common position against Western demands that both countries take more assertive actions on Russia. Beijing has gone so far as to suggest that Washington’s “bullying behavior” has brought India and China closer by creating the change needed for the “re-warming of ties between the two countries.”
The second factor in China’s outreach to India is Afghanistan. Since the withdrawal of US troops last August, China’s influence in the country has grown, as have its economic and security interests. In recent weeks, China has played host to three meetings about Afghanistan’s future.
But while India also has significant stakes in Afghanistan’s development, it has not been included in any of these Chinese-led gatherings. Pakistan – one of India’s top security concerns – participated in all three.
If China’s leaders hope to use Russia’s war in Ukraine as a pretext to renew friendship with India, they must engage New Delhi on issues of mutual interest, like Afghanistan.
That said, it’s not clear that China’s olive branch to India will be accepted. India has not moved on from the humiliation and antagonism of the border clashes in 2020, when China made advances into the disputed Himalayan region (and killed 20 Indian soldiers in the process). While Beijing argues that border disputes should not derail bilateral ties, for many Indians, ending China’s border aggression is a precondition for the re-normalization of relations.
China’s calculation is more expedient than emotional; it views the war in Ukraine as an exploitable moment to revamp ties with India. But even if India-US relations suffer a temporary setback due to New Delhi’s acquiescence to Russia, it will not remove or alleviate China’s status as a top national-security threat for India.
Moreover, India’s desire to maintain ties to both Washington and Moscow is at least partially aimed at checking China’s regional ambition and aggressive behavior.
In this sense, Beijing’s hope to exploit Delhi’s strategic ambiguity is misplaced. China might view it as necessary to try, but the impact will be limited because of the asymmetry of the Chinese and Indian national-security threat perceptions.
After all, China’s biggest threat is the US, and India’s biggest threats are China and Pakistan. Even if India juggles between its alignment with the US and Russia, that by no means translates into a desire to align with or rely on China.
Wang’s first trip to India since the 2020 border clash carries important significance. At a minimum, it shows that China is eager to rally support for its position on Russia in the Ukraine war and is consequently willing to reach out to unlikely partners such as India.
But one must wonder whether such outreach reflects Chinese wishful thinking or even naïveté. Beijing doesn’t seem to have come to terms with the fundamental damage the border clashes have done to India’s trust of China and its confidence in their bilateral relations.
That damage will take years, if not decades, to repair. So while the war in Ukraine might provide China with an opening for re-engaging with India, Beijing’s diplomatic overtures will likely fall on deaf ears.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Yun Sun is director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.