Sino-Indian ties likely to remain a 'cold peace' in 2021: But keep communication lines open

Although it is unrealistic to have too high expectations for Sino-Indian relations in 2021, it is certain that the two sides would not want to make bilateral relations further worse, writes Siwei Liu for South Asia Monitor

Siwei Liu Feb 01, 2021

The year 2020 was the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and India. But their ties, one of the most important bilateral relations in Asia, experienced the most-severe situation since the new century. 

The Galwan Valley incident has brought China-India relations to hit rock-bottom and the COVID-19 pandemic has also increased its complexity. Although the two sides have been making efforts to de-escalate tension in the border area through military and diplomatic channels, Sino-India relations have not yet deviated from the crisis management model. Moreover, this so-called cold peace state is likely to continue in 2021. 

In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has an unexpected shock to the whole world and a devastating impact on human lives. On the one hand, it allows countries to put more emphasis on non-traditional security issues, such as public health, social security, also and climate change and begins to reassess their current security policies. On the other hand, it also seems to have intensified competition among major powers to a certain extent. The public fear and information asymmetry brought about by the epidemic have also increased distrust among some major powers, including China-India relations. 

Galwan Valley: damage to bilateral ties 

Not only that, the serious clashes between the two sides’ troops at Galwan Valley in June 2020 has caused greater damage to bilateral relations, and its negative impacts far exceed the 2017 Donglang crisis. Both sides seem to have changed their original perceptions and psychological expectations of bilateral relations after the Galwan incident. This can be well reflected from some recent assessments from the two sides’ strategic and academic communities. In addition, it is noteworthy that the top leaders of the two countries have not had a formal bilateral meeting after the border standoff in 2020.   

Indeed, if there is no powerful stimulus to reverse the injured relationship, such as a third round of informal summit between the two top leaders, China-India relations are likely to remain a 'cold peace' in 2021. 

COVID-19 and its impact

Moreover, it is worth mentioning that although many countries including China and India have begun to vaccinate, the complete end of the global epidemic is not a trivial task. Therefore, for a long time in the future, both China and India may still focus on controlling the pandemic and boosting their respective domestic economies. 

In this context, it can be foreseen that the two countries may not have too much energy to invest their diplomatic resources for repairing and improving the bilateral ties. 

Stabilising border situations

Although it is unrealistic to have too high expectations for Sino-Indian relations in 2021, it is certain that the two sides would not want to make bilateral relations further worse. Ensuring the stability of Sino-Indian relations should be the common pursuit of the two countries, and it is also in the interests of both sides. In this regard, in addition to continuing to take specific measures to stabilize the border situation, the two sides should ensure that at least the following aspects are taken seriously.      

First, it is still necessary for the two countries to enhance communication and dialogue through some existing channels, strengthen Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) in various fields, and prevent the security dilemma from entering a serious spiral escalation. At present, the security dilemma between the two countries in the border area has not been effectively alleviated, and this dilemma has spread to more fields, especially the maritime domain, and also spread to many non-traditional security fields, such as cyber -security (digital domain), water resources security field, etc. 

Moreover, the competition between the two countries in the deep sea and outer space may also intensify in the near future. But so far, in addition to CBMs on border issues, the two countries do not have CBMs in many other areas. This is undoubtedly a dangerous thing. Therefore, strengthening new CBMs in related fields is urgent, especially in the maritime domain. 

Second, the two sides should think about how to make more effective use of multilateral platforms to coordinate and negotiate global and regional affairs, and even conduct multilateral cooperation to make their own contributions to regional and global governance. The US’ Indo-Pacific policy after Joe Biden took office as president is still full of uncertainty, and it may inevitably affect China-India relations. 

However, the development of China-India relations is more determined by the two powers themselves, and it is difficult for external factors to play a key role. It is still necessary for the two countries to strengthen their interaction on platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS Summit, and strive to play a greater role in global governance affairs, including the response to climate change.   

Finally, it is very important to resume people-to-people contacts that have been interrupted by the pandemic and border incidents, particularly those in the academic circles and think tanks,  whether these are web-based or face-to-face. 

Of course, if the top leaders of both sides can hold a formal bilateral meeting or start the third informal summit meeting in the future, it will be more effective in repairing bilateral relations. Admittedly as far, it is not easy for both sides to find a suitable occasion and a time window.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China. The views are personal. She can be contacted at

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