Kishi Ganku, tiger and dragon fusuma

Two recent developments constitute a bellwether in the tentatively thawing but still wary Sino-Indian relations. First, notwithstanding the criticism heaped upon the structural processes involved, the publication of the Indian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) annual report provided critical perspective on the Indian government’s security stance toward China from one of the few consistent sources of information on Indian defense policy. Second, reports of India’s imminent acceptance of an invitation to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security entity dominated by Russia and China, has generated significant ripples in the region’s delicate geopolitical structures; reverberations will be felt globally as well. Analyzing these developments necessitates an examination of the historical trajectory taken by Sino-Indian relations along with the regional strategic landscape, which is currently in a state of flux.

India’s MoD reports began in the early 2000s in an era of the country’s military history dominated by nuclear weapons tests. When the Indian government cited the threat of China as justification for going nuclear in 1999, these early reports were, comparatively speaking, quite blunt in their articulation of the country’s apprehensions toward its northern neighbor. India has openly expressed concern over China’s rapid military modernization as well as the sobering fact that every major Indian city is within the range of Chinese missiles.

Much has changed for Sino-Indian relations since then, however. In less than 15 years, trade between the two nations has flourished from its sub $ 2 billion levels and is now set to breach the $100 billion mark. In light of the creation of the BRICS bank, China’s invitation to India to join the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade group and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a casual observer could reasonably interpret these events as precursors to a closer Sino-Indian political alignment as well.

However, historical tensions still alive today are a roadblock to such a political thaw. India and China’s unresolved Himalayan border dispute—over which a brief war was fought in 1962 that resulted in a crushing defeat for India—persists as an albatross in relations between the two. The existence of a very real security dilemma between the only long-term continental powers capable of balancing each other out both colors their interactions with each other and exerts significant influence over the security of the region as a whole.

India’s displeasure over the close defense relationship between China and Pakistan, a nation openly hostile toward India, was a refrain present in MoD reports well into the most recent decade. In the past few years, however, the MoD has abstained from making much of this issue even as it has expressed a desire for a cooperative relationship wherein each side respects the other’s concerns while also promoting mutual interests in growth and development. Last year’s MoD affirmed that India remains conscious and wary of the implications of a Chinese military presence in the both immediate neighborhood and wider region. This year, however, it also confirmed that it is taking necessary measures to develop the requisite capabilities to counter any potential threat to its security as well. This heightened level of caution comes largely in response to China’s accelerated logistical buildup and development of a communications infrastructure that permits it to rapidly deploy large militarized formations in Tibet, which served historically as a buffer-zone between India and China before the latter occupied the territory in 1951. More importantly, India has for some time now recognized the fact that its security is tied to that of its regional surroundings. This year’s MoD asserted plainly that a stable “international environment” is a “critical” criterion for creating a climate conducive to India’s national development.

Rory Medcalf and Ashley Townshend of the Lowy Institute for International Policy have described the dynamic that has developed between the two nations as “competitive coexistence” . The competition element in this dynamic is visible all the way from the South Asia region to competition in Africa over business and resources. The Indo-Pacific oceanic system is a third theater, as evidenced by India’s obsession with the Chinese string of pearls and China’s concerns over India’s increasing presence in the South China Sea.

However, passing off the statement “India believes that there is adequate space for both countries to rise peacefully and coexist in harmony,” which appeared for the first time ever in the China section of this year’s MoD report, as mere lip-service would not be entirely fair to India’s newly elected political leadership. Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi of the Hindu national BJP party campaigned to power on a massive mandate to set the Indian economy back on its pre-recession high-growth track. Given the tectonic structural changes occurring in their economies, both India and China have entered a historic moment in which an opportunity to capitalize upon converging interests between the two has presented itself.

It is against this security backdrop that China’s invitation to India to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization must be analyzed. India has previously expressed a desire to be a part of the SCO, and its enhanced interest in joining the organization flows in part from its increased engagement with the Central Asian region as part of its “Connect Central Asia” policy. The development of the SCO from ad hoc measures to provision for border security to its present, more expansive mandate has happened, to quote security experts Henry Plather-Zybark and Andrew Monaghan, “almost by accident.” Russia and the Central Asian nations had never been opposed to India’s entry in the SCO; China has always been the cause of the holdup, which is why the recent invitation to India sends a clear signal that Beijing desires greater engagement with India. While India has never seen the SCO as a military body to counter Western nations, it has expressed a belief that the SCO can and should play a much larger security role in the future. Given that Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia are also due to receive invitations to join the SCO, the alliance between Pakistan and China will do little to ease tensions with India. Nevertheless, joining the SCO would result in a net benefit for India, showing a commitment by the country and other regional actors to support a constructive engagement on conflicting issues in defiance of longstanding intra-organizational concerns. These concerns have centered on whether inviting additional member-states would neuter the organization by making cooperation amongst them impossible to achieve.

As noted by former ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, the timing of this invitation is quite relevant. The United States’ recent relations with China and Russia have been strained at best; India joining the SCO does not bode well for the pro-India lobby in the United States, which had been trying to cultivate it as a strategic ally in the region. While an SCO that lists Iran, Pakistan, and India amongst its members would by no means constitute a NATO of the East, it would effectively block Washington’s ability to dictate terms to Kabul or Islamabad.

India’s decision to join the SCO should not be interpreted by Washington as an attempt to exclude it from the region, however. On balance, such a move would merely conform to India’s policy of equidistance as it projects itself as a non-aligned power in a bid to win concessions from both China and the United States (vaguely similar to the policy it masterfully practiced during the Cold War). India prefers an inclusive security arrangement over an exclusive one, and would correspondingly prefer some U.S. presence in the region over allowing a China-centric Asian security order to emerge. For China, a nation increasingly worried by its perceived encirclement by the United States and its allies, extending SCO membership to India—and not directly opposing its rise—offers China the best chance of ensuring that its neighbor to the south remains neutral.

Ultimately, not exacerbating security tensions with India and granting the country its own strategic space is a more profitable strategy for China than is pursuing confrontation. To ensure the success of this approach, delicate handling will be required to avoid further aggravating mutual suspicions and prevent the historically inflammable border issue from derailing the two nations’ circumstantially aligning interests. Given a continued increase in mutual economic ties and absent a dramatic change in the power equilibrium to China’s east (where its principal security threats lie), there is no reason why the future trajectory of Sino-Indian relations should be anything other than bright.