India and China won’t be true friends anytime soon, but the two nations can still cooperate effectively. So said the longtime Indian diplomat Nirupama Rao when she gave the annual George Ball Lecture at SIPA on October 15.
Rao, a former foreign secretary who also served as ambassador to the United States, China, and Sri Lanka, is the current George W. Ball Adjunct Professor at SIPA. In remarks entitled “Dreamcatching: Can India and China be Friends?,” she reviewed the intermittently contentious, always evolving relationship between the world’s two most populous nations.
Rao traced the contours of the India-China relationship back several decades, observing that the nations actually enjoyed warm relations in the 1940s, when both were emerging on the international stage. But the connection frayed in subsequent years, and a bloody border war ensued in 1962. Since then, the countries have followed a bumpy path to stronger diplomatic and economic ties. But longstanding border disputes and other disagreements remain.
Today, says Rao, just as much of the world is coping with an ascendant China, its neighbor to the southwest is also reevaluating a relationship that is “complex, contested, and competitive.” While the countries are physically close, Rao explained, “nearness of geography cannot bridge our geopolitical differences.”
Indeed, she observed, China’s ambitions clash fundamentally with those of India, the largest democracy in the world.
To India, China’s actions in Pakistan and the South China Sea are particularly fraught. At the same time, India’s open society and dedication to a rules-based international order is a threat to China.
“China’s record in the region has not met the test of these requirements of transparency and conformity” with international norms, Rao said.
Looking forward, Rao said that India must become a stronger counterbalance in the region.
“India needs to leverage its differences with China more effectively,” she said. “India’s strength as a billions-strong democracy and open society give it the luster in areas where China cannot be a competitor. India makes a powerful statement.”
Among key strategies for India, said Rao, is to strengthen its relationship with the United States. The nation must also be extremely nimble in pursuing trade on Indo-Pacific waterways, defend its coastline strategically, and accelerate the Act East Policy, which would create stronger ties with neighbors in southeast Asia.
As neighbors, Rao underscored, neither China nor India can turn its back on the relationship. China is India’s largest trading partner. There is a robust student exchange. As members of the BRICS bloc of emerging economies, both are involved in building the New Development Bank.
Yet these and other ties are not enough to establish a genuinely warm bond between the nations, Rao said. Regarding the question of friendship between China and India, she concluded:
“My answer is a very qualified no, I’m afraid.”
— Claire Teitelman MPA ’19
Watch the complete event: