By Jalaj Tokas

Published On: December 26, 2021 at 15:00 IST


India and China, two emerging global powers, have both committed to fostering peace, stability, and prosperity in the current international situation. Their bilateral relationship has been a focus of international attention and popular interest, since it is thought to have far-reaching implications throughout the world.

After almost 70 years of the Sino-Indian diplomatic partnership, there are a number of cogent issues that both Asian nations must properly address: How can a meaningful collaboration between India and China be cultivated and sustained to promote mutual interests and support their global ambitions? Has their tumultuous relationship gone full circle, or is it at a fresh turning point on a different path? And, perhaps more crucially, will they want to move toward collaboration, competitiveness, conflict, or some combination of these in order to attain their regional and global goals, and to what extent?

For this essential purpose, different dimensions and characteristics must be evaluated, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The following write-up examines the foundations for China-India cooperation and analyses the frictions that exist between the two nations after providing a quick account of recent events. It aims to make its readers understand dynamics, rationales, limitations, problems, and future trajectory of China-India strategic interaction.

How are Bilateral Ties important?

Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since the time of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India has largely pursued a policy of multi-alignment, which entails developing bilateral relations with all of the world’s major powers — Russia, the United States, China, and the European Union.

In our foreign policy, bilateral partnerships have traditionally taken precedence, and the multi-alignment method feeds into that. Each has a role in our foreign policy, we believe. However, it is clear that bilateral interactions have ramifications for others as well. While bilateral partnerships are crucial, we should not give any country veto power over how we should interact with other countries.

Agreements between India and China

More than thirty discussion mechanisms have been formed between India and China at various levels, including bilateral political, economic, cultural, people-to-people, consular, and regional and international problems.

22 rounds of discussions have taken place till date since the Special Representatives (SR) arrangement on the India-China Boundary Question was established in 2003.

  • Economic and Commercial Ties

The phenomenal boom of bilateral trade between India and China since the turn of the century prompted China to become our top goods trading partner by 2008, a position it holds even now. Bilateral commerce between the two nations has grown at an exponential rate since the turn of the century.

The bilateral commerce between the two countries grew by double digits in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, India ranked as China’s 12th largest trading partner. Total bilateral trade fell 2.93 percent year on year to US $ 92.89 billion. India’s exports to China fell 4.55 percent year on year to US $17.97 billion, while its imports from China fell 2.54 percent to US $ 74.92 billion. Due to the impact of COVID this year, global commerce with China decreased by 13.1 percent (USD 60.5 billion) from January to September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. (USD 69.7 billion).[i]

As part of the 1975 Asia-Pacific Trade Pact (APTA), a favorable trade agreement originally known as the Bangkok Agreement, exists between China and India. That was a UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) project, and it was a preferential trade agreement among developing nations.

A fourth round of discussions, encompassing tariff reductions on products, services, investment, trade facilitation, and non-tariff measures, is expected to begin soon. However, no more progress has been made to date.

Furthermore, as late as 2006, a free trade deal between India and China was proposed with the cooperation of the Asian Development Bank.

Since then, numerous attempts have been made to engage India and China in some form of free trade, most notably with the RCEP free trade agreement, which India withdrew from in 2019, while member nations have stated that the door is still open should India change its stance.

The position of Indian local conglomerates and manufacturers, whose control on the Indian market would be endangered by ‘cheap Chinese imports,’ was the rationale for the Indian withdrawal.

  • Cultural Ties

Cultural contacts between India and China extend back many millennia, and there is evidence that conceptual and linguistic exchanges occurred between the Shang-Zhou culture and the ancient Vedic civilization between 1500 and 1000 B.C.

According to an official release, the two nations inked four agreements in 2019 on cultural exchanges, healthcare, sports, and museum management collaboration.

Both nations agreed to develop cultural exchanges in the areas of intangible cultural asset protection, cultural activity organization, and archaeological heritage site management.

The necessity of enhancing collaboration in the field of traditional medicine, where both India and China have a wealth of knowledge gathered over centuries, with the aim of fostering the growth of Traditional Medicine in the healthcare systems of both nations was also emphasized.

  • Educational Ties

In 2006, China and India signed the Education Exchange Program (EEP), a framework agreement for educational collaboration between the two nations. Government scholarships are granted to students in recognized institutes of higher learning in each other’s countries under this agreement.

India’s Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) is offering 25 scholarships for learning Hindi. Further, Chinese students are given scholarships to study Hindi at the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan (KHS) in Agra every year. Six Chinese students have been chosen to study in Agra for the academic year 2020-21.

  • Security Ties

In 2018, India and China inked their first-ever security cooperation pact, which intends to expand and consolidate support in counterterrorism, organized crime, narcotics control, trafficking, and information exchange, signaling new beginnings for the two nations.

During the discussion, the two sides addressed counter-terrorism cooperation and applauded improved security collaboration between the two nations.

  • Border Agreements

The answer to major issues can be found in earlier border-dispute resolution agreements. Previous agreements were partially, if not entirely, effective in preventing military clashes along the boundary.

Based on their prior interactions, the countries can devise new strategies. To comprehend the historical border management, it is necessary to review the earlier LAC agreements, which are summarized below:

  • Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas- 7th September 1993
  • Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas- 29th November 1996
  • Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China- 23rd June 2003
  • Protocol between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas- 11th April 2005
  • Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question- 11th April 2005
  • India-China Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs- 17th January 2012
  • Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Border Defence Cooperation- 23rd October 2013

Both China and India have pledged to contribute to bilateral and global collaboration as two fast-growing economies and developing giants. Over the previous decade, strong economic and commercial ties have been an important aspect of the bilateral relationship. Although the supportive impacts of economic engagement on a credible partnership are still to be confirmed, yet the economic momentum still continues.

Both sides have been forced to investigate military, security, and non-traditional security cooperation as a result of increased political participation and pragmatic strategic calculation. The growing military-to-military connection is crucial for fostering strategic mutual trust and establishing reciprocal accommodation.

The Genesis and Evolution of Political Relations

From the beginning, the relationship between India and China in the postwar Asian environment was intended to have far-reaching global implications. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), formed in 1949, and India, which gained independence in 1947, met on an equal footing as two freshly rising Asian republics.

India became the first non-socialist bloc country to form diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China on April 1, 1950. In October 1954, Prime Minister Nehru paid a visit to China. While the 1962 border battle between India and China was a significant setback to relations, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit in 1988 marked the start of a period of progress in bilateral relations.

During 1993, under the leadership of PM Narasimha Rao, an Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the India-China Border Areas was signed, reflecting the growing solidity and stability in bilateral relationship.

The results of the recent high-level visits have had a transformative effect on our connections. Following Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003, the two countries signed a Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation and agreed to designate Special Representatives (SRs) to look into the political framework of a border resolution. 

The two nations created a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit in April 2005 and finalized an agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles, which indicated the successful end of the first phase of the SR Talks.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to India in 2014, a total of 16 agreements in various areas were inked.

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China where Prime Minister Modi and Premier Li spoke during the inaugural session of the First State/Provincial Leaders’ Forum in Beijing, in addition to meeting with Chinese leaders. On the government-to-government front, 24 agreements were signed, along with 26 MoUs on the business-to-business side, and two joint declarations, one of which was on climate change. Indian Prime Minister also announced that Chinese people seeking to visit India will be able to apply for an e-visa.

The progress of bilateral connections accelerated in the year 2018. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi met for the first time in Wuhan in April 2018 to share insights on broad topics of bilateral and global significance, as well as to expound on their respective national development ideas and objectives. The two leaders decided to further up efforts to build on existing convergences through established procedures in order to give the partnership the widest possible foundation. The conversation aided in the formation of a shared vision for India-China ties in the future, based on mutual respect for each other’s developmental goals and the cautious handling of disputes with mutual sensitivity.

The Second Informal Summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, held in Chennai in 2019, reviewed the direction of the bilateral relationship in a positive light and discussed ways to further strengthen India-China bilateral interaction in order to portray both countries’ growing roles on the world stage. It also acknowledged that India and China were important contributors in maintaining world stability, and that both sides should appropriately handle their disagreements rather than allowing them to escalate into conflicts.

The two leaders also attended numerous international meetings in each other’s nations. PM Modi visited China three times: in 2016 for the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, in 2017 for the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, and in 2018 for the SCO Summit in Qingdao. In 2016, President Xi paid a visit to India to attend the BRICS Summit in Goa.

Apart from the Second Informal Summit in Chennai, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi also met in the SCO Leaders’ Summit in Bishkek in 2019, which was their first meeting since Prime Minister Modi’s re-election, as well as the 14th G-20 Summit in Osaka in 2019 and the 11th BRICS Summit in Brasilia in 2019.

How have we fared?

Foreign policy cannot be rigid or constant in any administration. Every country is expanding or contracting, not only in terms of economic capabilities but also in terms of relative power in relation to other countries, and foreign policy is a fluid process in which adjustments are made on a regular basis.

We faced challenges in the early years following independence, particularly in connection to China, because of our lack of diplomatic expertise, which stemmed from our status as a British colony with no direct diplomatic relations with other countries.

However, we did not establish a wider foreign policy framework for consultation right after independence. In other words, there were no other mechanisms outside of the government, such as research organizations, think tanks, or even greater coordination between various government agencies, that could have fed into the foreign policy procedures, and as a result, we suffered some hardships in our initial relationship with China.

Subsequently, some of these lacunae, or rather a large number of these lacunae, were addressed. Of course, I am not suggesting that the situation is perfect; there is always scope for improvement, but we have undoubtedly learned valuable lessons from our dealings with the Chinese side, which we intend to continue in the future.

Challenges Ahead

While rising interactions between China and India promise a stable bilateral relationship and a peaceful rise together on the global arena, they confront some daunting strategic hurdles.

A prolonged boundary dispute, differing projections of geopolitical interest, security alliances with other powers and regional actors, particularly with Pakistan and the United States, and China’s reaction to India’s ambition to join the UNSC and join the global nuclear community are among the strategic differences.

Some substantial efforts must be made by both sides to bring the Sino-Indian relationship ahead and make it more credible:

  • To seek a quick resolution to the border dispute and avoid the ongoing impasse from eroding trust in the ability to find a mutually acceptable solution.
  • South Asian, Central Asian, ASEAN, and Indian Ocean regional agendas must be reconciled.
  • To encourage confidence-building measures and eliminate misconceptions and mis-readings of each other’s strategic intents, as well as to imagine each other’s primary interests and strategic vulnerabilities.
  • To strengthen the stabilizing influence of strong trade and economic ties in maintaining strong bilateral ties. 
  • To provide substance to the already established framework of the Sino-Indian strategic relationship.


Sino-Indian ties have grown in importance and have had far-reaching effects. The dynamic bilateral relationship may be attributed to their shifting strategies as well as the ever-changing global political and economic climate. On the political front, high-level cooperation becomes critical in strengthening Sino-Indian relations. The political resolve to enhance relations aids in the beginning of a large process of establishing confidence and trust in numerous sectors and at various levels.

New Delhi and Beijing, both have other priorities and should avoid becoming embroiled in a confrontation. China is currently embroiled in issues with a number of countries on its periphery, not just limited to India. And India wants to become a prosperous, modern, and peaceful country, which is something that battling with China distracts from and frustrates.

New Delhi will need to adopt a comprehensive strategy that targets an increasingly aggressive and nationalist China, not only on the border but across political and economic concerns as well, to avoid being derailed. Both nations will have to prepare for a combination of engagement and strong competition for the foreseeable future. Thus, both Beijing and New Delhi must make enormous efforts to deliver real outcomes in order to advance the Sino-Indian relationship ahead and make it more credible.


Jalaj Tokas is a second Year Law student pursuing B.A.LLB from University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU, New Delhi. He is a life-long learner is self driven towards his ambitions. He strongly believes that expectations are premeditated disappointments and strives not just to be successful but more importantly to be of value.

Edited by: Aashima Kakkar, Associate Editor, Law Insider


[i] Government of India, “India-China Bilateral Relations” Ministry of External Affairs, 2020 (last visited on December 22, 2021).

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