Ananth Krishnan first moved to China in 2008 as a journalist and spent a decade in the country, before moving back to India. In his new book, India’s China Challenge, Krishnan says that he at first resolved not to write an expansive tome on the country. But “the longer I was back in India, the more my resolve began to weaken. The China that I encountered in conversations with people, in newspapers and on television was in many ways, unrecognisable from the nation I had experienced.”

The result is a book that, rather than trying to compare India and China (or include dragons on the cover), tells the story of how the country arrived at this particular moment in the Xi Jinping era – and what that might mean for New Delhi. spoke to Krishnan about this summer’s tensions on the disputed border between the two countries, how trade has not led to closer connections and why he set out to convey a sense of the plurality of voices that are present in China.

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Are India and China going to war?
You know, the very fact that I can’t give you an answer with full certainty, saying that we are not going to war, is something that I never thought I would have to say in the year 2020. Honestly, I know a lot of people have been saying that they expected the current crisis. I didn’t. I thought that after Doklam [when Indian and Chinese troops had a two-month border face-off in 2017], as I mentioned in the book, I thought that that was as bad as things would get.

And I thought that what we saw in the two years after Doklam was an effort by both sides to try and fix some of these problems in the relationship. So the fact that you’re asking me, are we going to war, and I can’t with certainty say no shows you how bad the situation on the boundary is. I have no doubt that it’s the biggest challenge we are facing since 1962. And I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of it.

Did the time around the Doklam crisis, when you were there, feel so volatile? Because right now it feels like it could escalate at any moment.
The funny thing is, with Doklam – I was in Beijing – there was a lot more sound and fury from China than we’re seeing today. At that time, there were literally threats of war. There were commentaries from the PLA Daily and the People’s Daily, which have been very silent about the current crisis. And those are the two most authoritative Communist Party media organs. So it’s quite strange that there was a lot more on them then than now.

But I will say that the current crisis is of a far greater magnitude, because it’s not one spark, as it was, in the case of Doklam. But it is something that is over multiple areas along the stretch of the Line of Actual Control and Ladakh. And the fact that unlike in Doklam, this is something that has gone to the very fundamentals of the four border agreements that India and China have put a lot of faith in since 1993. And now it seems that many of the core founding principles of the border agreements are being disregarded, which is something that leaves me very concerned. Not just about this current crisis, but about where the relationship goes from here.

And where actually the boundary question goes from here as well. I think that since 1988 both sides have agreed on this principle – that they shelve the boundary issue and focus on other areas of the relationship. But I think that after the summer of 2020, the big change is that the boundary is back, front and centre in this relationship, and that really is not a good thing.

India's China Challenge, by Ananth Krishnan.

You include a section in the book making the case that not only should the boundary be settled, but that India should make a bigger pitch for it. How has your thinking on this changed?
It is something that I had believed in for a long time, even as many crises have come and gone. And I still think that settling the boundary...I don’t think this summer’s events have changed my fundamental belief that unless the boundary question is settled, it’s not going to be possible to insulate the relationship from it, which is the argument that I make.

And I think that this summer’s events have only underscored that, that it was something of an illusion to think that you can keep such a very difficult fundamental question in a small little compartment and work on other areas.

And I think that, especially as the relationship has evolved – we’re looking at closer investment relations, a different kind of trading relationship – I think the fact that you have a very unresolved security dilemma at the heart of the relationship is something that can’t be kept away. The point that I make is that the biggest obstacle to the boundary being resolved is this Chinese view that the boundary can be leveraged to some extent and settling it is giving something away to India that they can’t use later.

I think that that’s a very deep ingrained sentiment in the Chinese thinking, which is one big obstacle to settlement. Their view is, for example, if you look at the India-China-US triangle, India may say that, okay, we want better relations with China and that can be a case to settle the boundary. The Chinese thinking is, we are giving away something concrete to the Indians, that they can then go back on, that you have no way of holding them to. So why should we give away this leverage that we have?

That’s a very deep, ingrained thing in China. The second big difference, I think, is on how India and China see the boundary question. The Indian view is that settling the boundary should be a prerequisite to better relations. But the Chinese view is, the boundary can only be settled if we are in a better place in the relationship. So I think those are very fundamentally contradictory views in how both sides look at the boundary.

But having said all that, I think that the point that I make in “The Case For Settling” [a chapter in the book] is we haven’t really had an honest national debate about this. We still look at the boundaries as sacred, even though the fact that any sane, rational person will tell you that the only feasible boundary settlement is going to be along the current status quo, which means India giving up this part of territory that we’ve been told, since we were kids, has always been a part of India. I think it is important for us to actually have a very cold, objective, national conversation on what the costs of settlement are, but also what are the costs of not settling? I think that that’s something that we must really think about.

When it comes to Pakistan, India seems to have a good understanding of the shadow theatre, so you can have a situation where Balakot happens and both sides declare victory, and this can happen in part because Delhi and Islamabad understand each other’s domestic constituencies well. Do the people who are making decisions in Delhi and Beijing – or the people who are briefing them – have as good of an understanding?
That’s a great question, and I think they don’t, I think that’s a great comparison that you made and a very valid one. And I really think that on both sides of the boundary between India and China, we don’t get how the other is thinking, we don’t really get what the driving impulses behind decision-making are. And I think it’s a China problem, actually, because a lot of countries dealing with China have that problem, simply because of the way in which the policy in China is. The fact that, especially when it comes to strategic issues, there isn’t really a very huge diversity of opinion I’d say now in China as in compared to 10 years ago, when I first moved there.

Even during the current crisis, I’ve been struck by the fact that many of the Chinese strategic experts that I speak to, whether off record or on record, to get a sense of what they are thinking – they’ve all been unwilling to speak. And I think it’s part of this change that we’ve seen in China after Xi Jinping took over.

And I think it’s not just an India-centric problem. I think you’ve seen that if you look at Americans or Europeans dealing with China or anyone else, for that matter, getting a sense of what drives their policymaking, what the internal debates…I think with India and Pakistan, a lot of that plays out in the open, besides the fact that you do have a cultural commonality that you don’t have with China, which makes it even more complicated.

Despite all the opening up we’ve seen over the last couple decades in China, I’d say over the last few years after Xi took over it is regressing on this count, which is something that I certainly came away with when I left in 2018.

From the Indian side a lot of it seems like Kremlinology, but for Beijing – trying to figure out, is it Beijing being threatened, is it Article 370, is it a weaker India. How do you see the Indian attempts to figure out what China is thinking?
Honestly, I think that looking at all the Indian commentaries, we spend too much time and energy trying to focus on the intention behind actions, rather than looking at what those actions are, what those outcomes are, and how do we deal with that going forward. I think we expend too much energy focusing on things that we may never know with certainty.

And my rule of thumb is, and I would say this is worthwhile for anyone interested in China, is when you see somebody declaring with certainty what China’s intentions are on a particular action, be very wary in taking that at face value. I think there’s no way of saying with certainty that Article 370 was a primary reason for China to do what it did in Ladakh. But I think perhaps one reason why a lot of Indian commentators have put that forward is because they have their own grievances with Article 370 and the way that it was done. I think there’s a little bit of projection going on here.

So, it’s very possible that Article 370 could be one of many reasons fuelling Chinese insecurities vis a vis India’s actions in Ladakh, whether it was recent upgradation of infrastructure or other things that India is doing. It is very, very possible. [But]…I just think that I always am very careful with not saying with certainty that X, Y, or Z, was the intention behind Chinese action.

At the end of the day, I think that is far less important than looking at the outcomes of those actions and how we deal with that. And the funny thing is that you’ve also seen, even though there’s been so much debate and noise about why China is doing things, I think that has taken primary focus over what they’re doing. And I think that we shouldn’t get distracted by that beyond a certain point.

Ananth Krishnan, author of 'India's China Challenge'.

You’ve mentioned that Beijing has become harder to read over the Xi era. What about from India’s side of things, has Narendra Modi – who was sold as knowing China, having an informal relationship with Xi – shown that New Delhi has a better understanding of Beijing?
If your question is, is there a fundamentally better capacity or capacity building under this government in dealing with China, I would say no. One thing that’s marked this government’s foreign policy, not just China, but even in the neighbourhood or with other countries – a lot of people have pointed to a lack of consistency. Part of it is true with China as well, where you lurch from one crisis to a summit meeting, and is marked by, I think, maybe not the government but the ruling party overselling outcomes.

For example, I think Doklam was oversold as this great standing up to China, when I think that the jury’s still out if you look at China’s current positions on the Doklam plateau vis a vis the status quo that we’ve maintained on a very small specific site. Doklam was oversold. I think the informal summits were oversold as well.

Even if the diplomats were very careful in saying that the informal summits were the means and not an end and that this is just a part of a conversation, I think there were people associated with the government whose talking points made the summits seem far more significant than they were. Which has now led to very valid questions about why this current crisis is happening if Modi and Xi really reached an agreement as was claimed at the time.

I finally don’t think that our capacity to understand China or deal with China has been enhanced in a very great way. And I’ll just give another example: All the moves taken on Chinese apps, for instance, were recently done citing data security and privacy concerns as a reason for taking the actions. But the fact is, I think those of us who have been following China know that the Modi government was in fact courting investment from China, was very happy to have Chinese investment in startups. I saw the number of investor events in Beijing from 2015-2016 onwards, but now, I think they are doing a 180-degree turn because of the boundary crisis, which may be a good reason to do so.

But again, I think it goes back to the fact that there isn’t a long-term strategy in dealing with China, either by this government or previous governments as well.

What about beyond the government. Are we paying attention to China better?
I think that what hasn’t changed is the fact that we tend to pay attention when there’s a crisis, like this year, whether it’s the border crisis, or because of Covid-19. I think that I can speak of the media, given that I’m a part of the media, that we really haven’t bothered much investing in having reporters on the ground in China, which I think is a huge tragedy. Or for example, when sending reporters to China in investing in training them in the language, which is a basic thing that every international publication does. But the Indian media doesn’t do this, they’re quite happy with the journalists relying on English language, Chinese media, and working in a limited way.

At the time of this twin crisis of the pandemic and the boundary, we only had two Indian reporters who are based in China working for Indian media organisations, for PTI and for the Hindustan Times.

That really tells you it’s quite a sad state of affairs, that there should be paying 15-20 journalists on the ground covering the place from there. We are quite happy to be in our studios, having a conversation about what’s happening there without investing any resources in this exercise.

And among the Chinese, is there a mental image of India? You mentioned that talk around Doklam was much louder than this time, is that for a domestic audience?
In terms of Chinese media, obviously, the big difference is the fact that it is, broadly speaking, under Communist Party control, even though there are varying degrees of control. So you have some outlets that are given more leeway than others, which is something that I think often gets lost over here.

For example, Global Times is given slightly more leeway to be more hawkish and threaten countries. And so it’s less authoritative in that sense in representing the government’s or party’s thinking than, say, the People’s Daily. So I for one would take the People’s Daily editorial on India far more seriously. And something the Global Times says, sometimes only in its English language edition, is essentially trolling to get eyeballs from the Indian public.

I think that the biggest difference is that the Chinese public’s consumption of news about India is mediated through party censorship. So a lot of things that they get would be through perhaps an overly nationalistic sense of coverage in China, like the current crisis, or for instance, trying to show India in a bad light, for instance, its inability to contain the Covid pandemic, which is something that’s got a lot of coverage in China over the past few months.

And I think that social media in China, mainly WeChat, and Weibo, are playing an increasingly important role as platforms for people to share to share stories about India, which can be good and bad, good in the sense that there’s more on-the-ground perspectives from Chinese who live in India, which sometimes get a lot of attention, and I think should be welcomed, and bad in the sense that you get lots of the equivalent of WhatsApp University-type coverage that goes viral very fast. And when it shows India in a bad light, the censors are quite happy to let it run.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi exchanges gifts with China's President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu during the second informal summit between the two nations.

What struck me reading the book was the sheer scale of trading between these two countries. China is India’s biggest trading partner, you write of 4 lakh Indians turning up in the business town of Yiwu, and yet those connections have not led to a broader sense of each other.
The trade has been going on since the early 2000s. What I wondered is why this did not create the kind of understanding and links there as it did with China-Japan or China-South Korea. Because when China-Korea and China-Japan trade took off, you also had things like a huge increase in flights, for example. And that led to a huge boost in tourism, of the Chinese going to these two countries, of the Chinese sending their kids to study in these two countries.

But it didn’t really happen with us. And I think that part of the reason was that this was a very lopsided and one-sided relationship. We didn’t have Indian companies go to China to invest the way that European, even Korean, companies played in China’s economy taking off. For us, it was more about Indians sourcing things from China, and I think about Chinese companies wanting to sell in India, or coming to India to execute projects and then leave.

This is a very superficial and surface-level trade trading relationship. It began to change, I think, when China’s outward investment took off, in the 2013-2016 period. India was really at the top of the list. As part of the huge amount of Chinese money going overseas, because Chinese companies looked at India’s tech sector in one place and saw this huge potential, I think that changed the relationship a little bit to make China more invested in India, more invested in the Indian market.

I did see some positives come out of that, for example, the Indian tech sector has far more awareness of China than it did a while ago. During my time in Beijing I met a lot of people from Indian tech startups who were coming to Beijing, looking for investment and strategic relationships. I think a lot of that is now thrown into uncertainty and doubt, after this summer and the boundary events, as well as what seems to be a big return to the Indian government not wanting to have these kinds of links with China.

Back when things were good, was part of the idea that the problems being solved by Indian and Chinese tech companies similar, and so there was space for connections?
I think the view in China was their market kind of reaching saturation, with Alibaba, Tencent. And Baidu. They defined India as the next big thing to Chinese companies because of the sheer size of the market, because of the fact that it is a very similar market to sell to.

A common thing that I heard from Chinese tech entrepreneurs was that India now was like China 10 years ago. So they really felt that this was a country that was poised for this huge big leap, and that they were in the best position rather than the Facebooks and Googles to make this change because of what China went through with its big population.

They felt that very strongly. And that’s why I think they were investing huge amounts of money over the last few years. And I think we genuinely thought that this was going to be a long-term thing. I honestly think that neither the Indian tech sector nor the Chinese tech sector foresaw the Chinese military moves this summer. I think someone pointed out on Twitter that the PLA is single handedly demolishing the long-term plans of Chinese tech companies in India. May be an exaggeration, but I think that there is a lot of truth to that.

You say several times in the book that it’s folly to predict the future of China. But if you had to peer into your crystal ball, where do you see this trading relationship going?
I think there will be more of India trying to dilute a little bit of its economic ties with China. I think there was the sense that even before the boundary clash happened in April: We amended the rules to tighten possible takeovers from Chinese companies with Indian companies that may be struggling because of the pandemic economy. So we were seeing this trend even before the boundary crisis happened in early May.

One common perception I heard that I tend to agree with is the pandemic seems to be sharpening trends rather than really reversing them. Maybe accelerating trends that would have taken four, five, six years to evolve. I think that as far as India-China relations are concerned, I find it difficult to see us going back to this idea that we can work together and find these areas where we do big things, that are completely insulated from our problems.

I think that entire model, which lasted 30 years, and did a fairly good job for 30 years, is now gone. We’re at a very interesting and uncertain time, where we will be looking to find a new way of engaging China, I don’t think we have found that right balance yet where we are going to be more openly and directly confronting these issues such as the boundary, while at the same time trying to manage other areas of the relationship. I don’t think we have found that answer yet. I think we certainly are at a very interesting time, and the beginning of a new phase in the relationship.

A big part of the utility of the book for me was that it was a non-Western voice telling us about China. I was curious, did you have access to other non-Chinese, non-Western voices? Say African ones, or other Asian ones?
I think there are not so many, and that’s a bad thing. There’s so much interesting journalism and scholarship being done by the Japanese. Some of the sharpest followers of Chinese politics whom I met in Beijing were Japanese journalists. But unfortunately, a lot of their work isn’t accessible to us for linguistic reasons.

But more broadly speaking, I don’t think there is enough being done. For example, African scholarship, which you mentioned, maybe it is our own failing if we don’t pay attention to it. But I’m also pretty sure that something that I heard from African journalists colleagues was they’re in the same boat as us, where they feel that their own country has not invested in trying to come up with their own understanding of the place. They are seeking to get context, as a result of which we’re all pretty much living on the same sources.

I don’t see that changing. Unfortunately, if you look at India’s own example, you’d think that given the fact that in Asia we have one of the biggest media industries, one of the wealthiest media industries in Asia, the fact that we have done so little in investing in covering the biggest relationship, the most important relationship – whichever way it goes, whether positive or negative – I think, really, it’s a pretty sad indictment of how little we are looking beyond our borders in the kind of journalism that we do. We can only hope this changes.

Aides set up platforms before a group photo with members of U.S. and Chinese trade negotiation delegations at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China February 15, 2019.

Does that make us more susceptible to a Western view of China, which comes with its own biases and interests?
I think it cuts both ways. It makes us more susceptible to, as you say, Western readings of China, but also, it makes us more susceptible to say the kind of interpretations about China that the Chinese government is trying to share at the other end of the spectrum. And I do see both of these competing trends and influences making themselves felt in the way that our academics, journalists look at China. So I think it’s all the more important for us to invest our own resources in trying to come up with understanding the place in a way that’s relevant to us to and our contexts.

I tried to avoid doing an India-China comparison book. I think enough of those books have been done. Because I feel that oftentimes things that apply to a Chinese context just don’t apply to an Indian context, because we have very different political systems, economies, societies, histories, cultures. But at the same time, I think that is from my own example of travelling and living in China, there’s so much that we can learn from specific things that they’ve done and there are some specific things that they’ve done that India shouldn’t repeat. For example, if you look at pollution and climate change, and the mistakes that they’ve made, that we are repeating. So I think that it’s so important for us to look at them with our own eyes. And I can only hope we do this in a better way going forward.

I think the book is great at showing us the plurality of China, compared to what many people believe is a monolithic space. But I wondered whether you worried about leaning too far towards the other side, showing a place full of debate and dissent, which may not be accurate to the mundane reality of China.
That’s a great question. I think it’s always difficult to strike a balance. How do you capture a place with so many different voices? I would only say that my limited takeaway is, even if you don’t see a diversity of opinions being expressed in the Chinese press, because it’s fundamentally different in being under Party control, I don’t think we should assume that the Chinese press is reflective of what people are thinking.

Things that people might tell you in confidence may be very different, but they can’t express their views. So the point that I wanted to make in the book was to say that let’s not assume that everyone speaks in the same voice, as they seem to do. So I think a lot of my writing was reacting to those stereotypes. But it’s a fair point that I think in trying to claim a diversity of voices, are you going too far? It’s a good question. But I would rather err on the side of making the point that there are more views in China than less if that makes sense.

Is there one thing that you see among Indian scholars, media, even fellow experts that you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to China?
I’d say that one pet peeve of mine is, it’s not really a deep misconception, but I wish we would stop paying as much attention to the Global Times as we do every day. It’s understandable, given the fact that there aren’t many English-language sources from China. But the idea that everything that they say is signed off by the top leadership is something I find quite amusing.

When you went over the time you spent there in writing the book, was there something that jumped out to you that you wanted to underline?
I think the question that you asked previously really hit the nail on the head in terms of what I was trying to do, which was trying to ease out the reality of voices that I encountered while I was in China, which made things very unsettling for me in trying to understand the place and trying to come up with easy arguments to explain the changes that I witnessed over the last nine years. What I really hoped to do was try and bring out a flavour of this. In that sense, it was a very personal challenge for me. I met people who were constantly making me question my own assumptions about the place.

Tell us about the newsletter you write.
That’s just a weekly foreign affairs newsletter where we try and put together the best foreign affairs coverage the paper has to offer, which sometimes is scattered across different sections of the paper. The idea is to try to give people a sense of what we’ve covered over the past week, some of the best analysis that we have. Right now, it’s something that is focused mostly on our own coverage of foreign affairs, just trying to make it presentable for people. But hopefully we’ll try and expand it going forward, and then why not sources beyond our own.

What three reading recommendations would you make to people interested in China and beyond?

  • I have to recommend this magazine piece which is some of the best journalism I’ve read all year (and has a China angle too): How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda by Jiayang Fan.
  • The best China podcast out there in my view: The Sinica Podcast.
  • I am currently reading Superpower Showdown by Bob Davis and Wei Lingling, which is a great account of the US-China trade war and how things got to where they are today.