The Source of India’s rivalry With China

 Historically Tibet served as a geographical buffer zone between India and China. In 1959 China occupied Tibet and this was the beginning of tensions between India and China over their borders, which resulted in the Sino Indian War in 1962. India gave a substantial effort in building a good relationship with China. The Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was the main creator of India’s foreign policy towards China. According to Chellaney, this policy failed to serve the interests of India. Chellaney stated that as confrontation between India and China was inevitable, India should have supported the Tibetan Independence movement and India should have created allies with the United States and Japan. Furthermore, Chellaney suggested that the Chinese aggression towards India would only grow unless India took a strong and assertive position towards China.

 Tibet is the ultimate source of India’s rivalry with China in contemporary world politics. Tibet was an independent nation until 1959 and served as buffer zone between India and China. Before 1959, there was no conflict between India and China. India was under the Moughul Empire in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries and it was the most powerful empire in Asia. At the same time, the Ming empire in China was the great maritime empire in Asia. These two empires did not clash because they were not sharing any borders. Later in the eighteenth century, British India realised that the independent sovereign state of Tibet was crucial for India’s security. In order to secure Tibet, British India created a treaty known as the Shimla convention, signed on October 1914. This treaty demarcated the borders between Tibet and India. The Tibetan representatives and the British representative, Sir Harry McMahon signed the treaty and the Tibetan government respected this convention and accepted the McMahon line as Tibet’s true border with India. However, in 1959 Tibet lost its independence with the Chinese invasion. The Chinese did not recognise the Shimla treaty because it was signed by Tibetan representatives and British India. This border dispute was the beginning of tensions between India and China.

Chellaney describes the flawed Indian foreign policy in regards to Tibet. In the 1950s, soon after the Chinese communist party won the Chinese civil war, China occupied Tibet. The Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru established diplomatic relations with China when the Chinese communist party declared victory after the Chinese civil war in 1949. In order to maintain India’s relationship with Communist China, India sacrificed its relationship with Tibet. Nehru did not make an effort to preserve Tibetan independence but instead Nehru made a substantial effort to create good relations with China. India was among the first nations who recognised the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China.[1] The United States informally requested India to take China’s position on the UN Security Council but Nehru rejected this and he replied that China was a great country and it deserved to be a part of the UN Security Council. This shows that Nehru was over cautious in India’s relationship with China.[2]  Nehru was committed to building good relationship with China. In 1950s, there was slogan as ‘Hindi – Chini Bye Bye’, which means India and China are brothers.[3] Nehru believed that India and China could establish a genuine friendship and live side by side without confrontation. However, this didn’t last long and China launched war against India in 1962 and left some 3270 Indian soldiers dead. Nehru was extremely disappointed as this was just over eight years after China and India signed the Penchsheel Agreement. At this point, India realised that ‘Hindi Chini Bye Bye’ was over and India was deeply humiliated.

Chellaney states that the Indian foreign policy towards China was based on the Penchsheel Agreement, and is PM Nehru’s ideological vision, but on a practical level it failed to serve the interests of India. The Penchsheel Agreement states that Tibet is part of the Peoples Republic Of China. This is the current Indian policy regarding Tibet. Indian politicians and the public know that Tibet was independent nation and China illegally occupied Tibet in 1959 and that an independent Tibet is crucial for India’s peace and security. But the Tibetan issue is unable to be raised because Nehru was the most influential politician in India and he initiated India’s foreign policy on China. In the post Nehru era, the Indian politicians unable to challenge Nehru’s policy toward Tibet, which states Tibet is part of China.

Water resources and border security are the main sources of conflict between India and neighbouring China. The major Asian rivers flow from Tibet, including the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, and these are the major sources of fresh water for India. Chellaney stated that fresh water would become a key issue between India and China. China has built a dam project along the Brahmaputra and they are playing to build more dams along the Brahmaputra[4], which will significantly reduce the flow of Brahmaputra. This will impact the Indian agriculture industry and affect millions of people who are living downstream. This is a similar pattern to what is happening along the Ganges. Due to the increase in the Chinese migration of people into Tibet and the rapid industrialisation of Tibet there has rapid effects of climate change seen and a reduction in the amount of snow and flow of fresh water from Tibet. (Reference) Therefore conflict over water resources is another main issue between India and China.

Since China invaded Tibet, China and India have developed distrust of each other. China has established major military bases in Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). China has built five fully operational air bases, several helipads, and an extensive rail network, and thirty thousand miles of roads. These give the Chinese the ability to rapidly deploy a vast number of soldiers in short period. China has not only military presence in Tibet, but is also building up its nuclear arsenal. In addition, the People Libration Army consider Tibet as a strategic location against India. China has been developing multiple routes to reach India though rail links with Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and Bangladesh. China is aggressively engaging with these countries and is trying to contain India. Similarly, India has built military bases in the Himalaya regions. India has injected $100 billion into the Indian military modernisation program, which includes the construction of several strategic roads and the expansion of rail networks, helipads and airfields.[5] This program has been designed to secure the Sino India border regions. India believes that China is an immediate security threat to India. Therefore, in order to find astrategic balance between India and China, Tibet must be returned to an independent sovereign state in order to provide a geographical buffer between the two nations.

The confrontation between India and China is inevitable as long as they share border. The conventional dispute between India and China has been border issue but now the water is becoming a primary issue. This would lead serious confrontation between two nations in the future. Therefore, securing Tibet is ultimate source to creating long term secure India.


Chellaney, Brahma, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan, pp. 153-166 and 186-214.

Chellaney, Brahma, Stagecraft and Stagecraft, The Battle for Water, no date. September 2, 2013).

Malik, Mohan, China and India Today: Diplomats Jostle, Militaries Prepare, World Affairs, 2012. (accessed September 2, 2013).

[1] Chellaney, The Rise of China, India and Japan, 159.

[2] Ibid, 161.

[3] Ibid,163.

[4] Chellaney, The Battle for Water.

[5] Malik, China and India Today: Diplomats Jostle, Militaries Prepare.


About Himalayansun

I am passionate about human rights.
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