China, India can’t grow without conflict: Jonathan Holslag

(This interview with Jonathan Holslag, research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies and author of China and India: Prospects for Peace, was published in DNA edition dated May 8, 2010.)

Jonathan Holslag. (Picture courtesy: Griet Dekoninck)

Liberal international relations theorists claim that commerce brings about peace because countries that trade together have more incentives to cooperate and avoid conflict. But China and India may be exceptions to that rule, reasons Belgian security analyst and research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies Jonathan Holslag. In an interview to Venky Vembu, the author of China and India: Prospects for Peace explains why the concept of ‘Chindia’ is a myth and why for all their growing economic interdependence, China and India won’t grow without conflict. Excerpts:

Why can’t China and India get along?

Three assumptions underlie the positive expectations of China-India relations. First, that their economic aspirations will lead to a mutually beneficial economic cooperation based on a Ricardian division of labour: China as a manufacturing power, India as a services economy. Second, it’s assumed that growing bilateral trade will alter perceptions of each other. And third, it’s believed that interdependence mitigates the traditional security atmosphere.

All three assumptions are flawed. First, the Ricardian formula is infirm. If India is to find jobs for its millions, it will have to hasten its industrialisation directed at exports, which will pit it against China’s manufacturing strengths. Simultaneously, China is making strides in areas where India is strong, like IT and commercial services..

Second, despite both countries’ efforts to get closer, there’s been no positive evolution in terms of public perceptions of each other; in fact, they’ve gotten worse. Although bilateral trade has grown, it’s distorted: India exports only raw materials, whereas China exports manufactured goods. That imbalance is unsustainable. And Indian companies want barriers against Chinese ‘dumping’.

Third, there’s been no progress on the border issue or in the military posturing. Efforts to demilitarise the border zone have in recent years given way to a remilitarisation.

In short, despite the levels of interaction, there’s been no fundamental improvement in the China-India relationship. These are two rapidly developing countries with domestic expectations often outpacing the governments’ ability to fulfil them. This will create uncertainty and frictions.

Do you mean they’ll go to war?

At this level, it’s not outright war. It’s not even at the stage of fierce trade disputes. But it all depends on how both the countries manage their economic ambitions.

If the border dispute is resolved, will it overcome the distrust?


I don’t think the border issue will be settled anytime soon. Even if it is, it won’t remove all the other layers of competition.


Is the concept of ‘Chindia’ dead?


My book was originally titled ‘The Myth of Chindia’. It refutes the notion of Chindia, for the reason that the economic division of labour – based on perceptions of complementarity – will not materialise, and there will be more competition between them at a time when a lot of their export markets are saturated.

Can’t the two build on the cooperation they showed at the Copenhagen climate change summit?

There’s a lot of convergence between India and China on matters of international governance; within the UN framework, they work together on a number of issues. But these joint interests are not strong or important enough to neutralise their bilateral security dilemmas and frictions.

Can’t they overcome the mutual distrust, as happened in 1988 after Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, and in 2003 after A.B. Vajpayee’s visit?

There are domestic political limitations in both countries. Both governments face growing tensions at home and will have less scope to make concessions abroad. Nationalism will be an important tool to step up domestic legitimacy, and this can cramp the space to develop bilateral relations. Take the border issue: whenever an Indian government takes an initiative to break the deadlock, it will face fire at home. In China too, pragmatists are facing pressure from nationalist hardliners to stand strong on international disputes.

There’s another factor that will shape China-India relations: US role in the region. Stability in Asia will depend greatly on how the US balances the security interests of the different regional powers. Too much cooperation with India – or too much ‘pragmatism’ vis-a-vis China – will cause disquiet with the other.

Isn’t China’s support for Pakistan, which is openly hostile to India, also an irritant?

Certainly. As long as China persists with that, India will have difficulty in accepting China as a potential strategic partner. Two factors play a role in China’s policy towards Pakistan. First, being uncertain of India’s long-term intentions as a regional power, China supports Pakistan politically, economically and militarily. But China also wants to reap economic gains in Pakistan. For China, building nuclear power plants in Pakistan is as much about commerce as it is about strategic balancing.

Is China muscling into India’s sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean?

China is developing relations with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Mauritius, but I don’t believe it can draw them into its orbit, however much aid or diplomatic and political support it may give them. These smaller states are more likely to hedge between different regional powers, and between China and India. In that sense, China is not building an exclusive sphere of influence, but it does imply that for India, it will be less easy to protect its own influence in its neighbourhood. India should not worry about China becoming too dominant in South Asia, but it should worry that India itself will not be able to become the leading power in this region.

Is the lack of depth in people-to-people interactions a factor in the strains?

Track 2 dialogues can help create mutual understanding, but they can’t fundamentally alter distrust in bilateral relations. The architecture of informal dialogue between China and India has in fact intensified. Indian think-tanks interact with Chinese counterparts; so also universities. But there are fundamental differences in interests and ambitions. Public diplomacy is no cure for distrust and friction in diplomatic relations.


With some other countries too, China has gone on a charm offensive, but if that isn’t backed up with initiatives to tackle awkward issues at the official level, it could face a serious backlash.


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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One Response to China, India can’t grow without conflict: Jonathan Holslag

  1. Pingback: Wen a neighbour comes calling… | It's only words…

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