India-China Rivalry Best Explained by the Concept of “Security Dilemma”

By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke

India and China, the two biggest populated countries in Asia with different ideologies, culture, and government bodies has constantly engaged in wars, tensions, and conflicts with each other at either Himalayan border or at the Indian Ocean. Many scholars have citied the India-China rivalry as a classic example justified by the concept of security dilemma. First, root cause of rivalry are the characteristics of these two Asian giants. India is predominantly filled with diversified culture and religion while China officially practices state atheism. Secondly, India is ideologically democratic nation while China adopted communism characterised by totalitarian dictatorship. Most importantly these two distinct nations are immediate neighbours to one another.

Now what causes the rise, escalation, of a relation to rivalry? Scholars argue that territorial disputes are major reasons between states to cultivate rivalry. India and China rising in their governance leadership in Asia and rest of the world see each other as antagonists. The rivalry can also happen due to nations commitment to third parties such as signing off a security treaty or alliance thus getting dragged into security dilemma automatically with opposite parties. The above-mentioned factors have played a vital role in shaping the Indo-China rivalry over past decades. Although the territorial disputes started since the independence of these two countries, rivalry started back in 1960s.


Scholars have found out three evident items in India-China relationship over the past seven decades: hard balancing, soft balancing, and limited hard balancing. These strategies are used both by India and Chinese elites constrain and curb the power of an adversary to maintain their relationship within the status quo. Scholars argue that balancing acts within rivalry nations is conditioned on threat basis and not exclusively to increase in material capabilities. Thus, when practically applied India and China suffer from security dilemma problems, especially on areas of military capabilities and territorial disputes.

Whether India-China rivalry to be justified by the aspect of security dilemma can be answered through where these nations can find prospect of stability vs these nations’ unstable environment. Initial days of diplomatic relations between India and China were established through cooperation and shared identities between the two countries. The shared themes revolved under the notion that both nations were once victim of British colonialism later achieving liberation through years of resistance. The newly formed independent China’s government was first recognised by India outside of the Communist Bloc. Nehru, the then Prime Minister of independent India sent out his appreciation regarding the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

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The slogan ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ (Indians and Chinese are brothers) reached its peak during 1955 Bandung Conference. Both the leaders of the newly formed independent developing nations received much respect as emerging countries of the third world. The territorial disputes started to appear when China annexed Tibet in 1950. The same year Nehru was advised by Indian policy makers that China’s ambition will not stop with Tibet but could also arrive to India’s North-eastern region too. Later Nehru denied his security advisors allegations on China’s wicked plans in one of his 1950 parliament speech. Although China was not happy with India’s decision to grant asylum to Dalai Lama, effort was taken from Chinese side to not escalate the tensions into military conflicts.

The Panchsheel agreement signed between India and China to peacefully solve the outstanding irritants shows that territorial disputes are important, but not enough, factors to explain the rise of persisting rivalries. Shared identities can allow countries to mitigate territorial disputes without much escalation. However, post 1962 Sino-Indian war proved that when nations go for deploying balancing strategies for solving immediate crisis such as territorial disputes, it can lead to widening attributes such as hostility and enemy identity rather than shared identities.


India’s refugee status to Dalai Lama and forcing China to follow McMahon line was the turning point in India-China security dilemma. China denied following it by stating that no Beijing officials accepted the 1914 Shimla accord. Furthermore, China opposed the view of McMahon line as part British colonialism while India defended it. China felt offended and betrayed by India due to its support of British sentiment whereas in reality India tried to secure her own borders. Nehru started growing doubts about China’s real ambitions as the Communist nation under Mao Zedong began to send its revolution worldwide. The communist supporters of India took Chinese revolution as an inspiration thereby resulting in growing insurgency in parts of Ladakh and Northeast. Tensions began to escalate at borders where it turned into a military conflict. Still both the countries had a chance to defend escalating the tensions to war, but since balancing strategies were deployed, it resulted in deepening their enmity towards each other.

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All the opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Image credit goes to Google Images. This article was originally published by the author in his book titled ‘Research Papers on Defence and Strategic Studies Vol. 1’.

About the Author

Anirudh Phadke is the founding-editor of The Viyug. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) and a certificate in Terrorism Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He currently works for an International Law Enforcement Organisation based in Singapore. He can be reached out via email at

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Th Viyug (A Strategic & Defence Research Publication) is an digital and print media publication producing cutting edge analytical research papers, opinions, rebuttals and other forms of writings on various disciplines of international affairs.

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