Just as the Indian subcontinental plate has a tendency to constantly rub and push against the Eurasian tectonic plate, causing friction and volatility in the entire Himalayan mountain range, India’s bilateral relationship with China is also a subtle, unseen, but ongoing and deeply felt collision, the affects of which have left a convoluted lineage. Tensions between the two powers have come to influence everything from their military and security decisionmaking to their economic and diplomatic maneuvering, with implications for wary neighbors and faraway allies alike. The relationship is complicated by layers of rivalry, mistrust, and occasional cooperation, not to mention actual geographical disputes.
Distant neighbors buffered by Tibet and the Himalayas for millennia, China and India became next-door neighbors with contested frontiers and disputed histories in 1950, following the occupation of Tibet by Mao’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the rest of the world started taking note of China’s rise during the last decade of the twentieth century, India has been warily watching China’s rise ever since a territorial dispute erupted in a brief but full-scale war in 1962, followed by skirmishes in 1967 and 1987.
Several rounds of talks held since 1981 have failed to resolve the disputed claims. During his last visit to India, in 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao dashed any hopes of early border settlement, stating that it would take a very long time to settle the boundary issue—a situation that in many ways works to Beijing’s advantage. An unsettled border provides China the strategic leverage to keep India uncertain about its intentions, and nervous about its capabilities, while exposing India’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and encouraging New Delhi’s “good behavior” on issues of vital concern. Besides, as the ongoing unrest and growing incidents of self-immolations by Buddhist monks in Tibet show, Beijing has not yet succeeded in pacifying and Sinicizing Tibet, as it has Inner Mongolia. The net result is that the 2,520-mile Sino-Indian frontier, one of the longest inter-state boundaries in the world, remains China’s only undefined land border. It is also becoming heavily militarized, as tensions rise over China’s aggressive patrolling on the line of actual control (LAC) and its military drills, using live ammunition, for a potential air and land campaign to capture high-altitude mountain passes in Tibet.
Over the last decade, the Chinese have put in place a sophisticated military infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) adjoining India: five fully operational air bases, several helipads, an extensive rail network, and thirty thousand miles of roads—giving them the ability to rapidly deploy thirty divisions (fifteen thousand soldiers each) along the border, a three-to-one advantage over India. China has not only increased its military presence in Tibet but is also ramping up its nuclear arsenal. In addition, the PLA’s strategic options against India are set to multiply as Chinese land and rail links with Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and Bangladesh improve.
Developments on the disputed Himalayan borders are central to India’s internal debate about the credibility of its strategic deterrent and whether to test nuclear weapons again. Being the weaker power, India is far more concerned about the overall military balance tilting to its disadvantage. India sees China everywhere because of Beijing’s “hexiao gongda” policy in South Asia: “uniting with the small”—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, and Sri Lanka—“to counter the big”—India. When combined with Chinese nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan and building of port facilities around India’s periphery, and a dramatic increase in the PLA’s incursions and transgressions across the LAC, the official Indian perception of China has undergone a dramatic shift since 2006, with China now being widely seen as posing a major security threat in the short to medium term rather than over the long term. The Indian military, long preoccupied with war-fighting scenarios against Pakistan, has consequently turned its attention to the China border, and unveiled a massive force modernization program, to cost $100 billion over the next decade, that includes the construction of several strategic roads and the expansion of rail networks, helipads, and airfields all along the LAC. Other measures range from raising a new mountain strike corps and doubling force levels in the eastern sector by one hundred thousand troops to the deployment of Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft, spy drones, helicopters, and ballistic and cruise missile squadrons to defend its northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, territory three times the size of Taiwan that the Chinese invaded in 1962 and now claim sovereignty over as “Southern Tibet.”
Propelled by incidents related to border disputes, Chinese opposition to the US-India nuclear energy deal, India’s angst over the growing trade deficit due to perceived Chinese unfair trade practices, potential Chinese plans to dam the Brahmaputra River, and the “war talk” in the official Chinese media in the 2007 to 2009 period (reminding India not to forget “the lessons of 1962”), mutual distrust between the Indian and Chinese peoples is growing. Clearly, China’s extraordinary economic performance over the last three decades has changed the dynamics of the relationship. China and India had similar average incomes in the late 1970s, but thirty years later they find themselves at completely different stages of development. China’s economic reforms—launched in 1978, nearly thirteen years before India’s in 1991—changed their subsequent growth trajectories by putting China far ahead of India in all socioeconomic indices. Both China’s gross domestic product and military expenditure are now three times the size of India’s; recent surveys conducted by Pew Global Research show a growth in popular distrust, with just twenty-five percent of Indians holding a favorable view of China in 2011, down from thirty-four percent in 2010 and fifty-seven percent in 2005. Likewise, just twenty-seven percent of Chinese hold a favorable view of India in 2011, down from thirty-two percent in 2010, with studies of Internet content showing a large degree of “hostility and contempt for India.”
Nor is there much effort to keep these emotions submerged. Reacting to the test launch in mid-April of a long-range Agni-V ballistic missile, dubbed the “China killer” by India’s news media, a Chinese daily wryly noted that “India stands no chance in an overall arms race with China,” because “China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable.” The unequal strategic equation, in particular the Chinese perception of India as a land of irreconcilable socioreligious cleavages with an inherently unstable polity and weak leadership that is easily contained through proxies, aggravates tensions between the two. In 2008, an official reassessment of China’s capabilities and intentions led the Indian military to adopt a “two-front war” doctrine against what is identified as a “collusive threat” posed by two closely aligned nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and China. This doctrine validates the long-held belief of India’s strategic community that China is following a protracted strategy of containing India’s rise.
India is also responding by strengthening its strategic links with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Burma—countries on China’s periphery. In testimony to the US Senate in February, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, noted that “the Indian military is strengthening its forces in preparation to fight a limited conflict along the disputed border, and is working to balance Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean.” That “balance” includes a strategic tilt toward the United States that has also had a damaging effect on Sino-Indian relations.
Although leaders from both countries often repeat the ritualized denials of conflict and emphasize burgeoning trade ties, such platitudes cannot obliterate the trust deficit. Few if any of China’s strategic thinkers seem to hold positive views of India for China’s future, and vice versa. Chinese strategists keep a wary eye on India’s “great power dreams,” its military spending and weapons acquisitions, and the developments in India’s naval and nuclear doctrines. A dominant theme in Chinese commentary in the last decade is that India’s growing strength—backed by the United States—could tip Asia’s balance of power away from Beijing.
Not surprisingly, bilateral relations between Asia’s giants remain, in the words of Zhang Yan, China’s ambassador to India, “very fragile, very easy to be damaged, and very difficult to repair.” Both have massive manpower resources, a scientific and industrial base, and million-plus militaries. For the first time in more than fifty years, both are moving upward simultaneously on their relative power trajectories. As the pivotal power in South Asia, India perceives itself much as China has traditionally perceived itself in relation to East Asia. Both desire a peaceful security environment to focus on economic development and avoid overt rivalry or conflict. Still, the volatile agents of nationalism, history, ambition, strength, and size produce a mysterious chemistry. Neither power is comfortable with the rise of the other. Both seek to envelop neighbors with their national economies. Both are nuclear and space powers with growing ambitions. Both yearn for a multipolar world that will provide them the space for growth and freedom of action. Both vie for leadership positions in global and regional organizations and have attempted to establish a sort of Monroe Doctrine in their respective neighborhoods—without much success.
And both remain suspicious of each other’s long-term agenda and intentions. Each perceives the other as pursuing hegemony and entertaining imperial ambitions. Both are non–status quo powers: China in terms of territory, power, and influence; India in terms of status, power, and influence. Both seek to expand their power and influence in and beyond their regions at each other’s expense. China’s “Malacca paranoia” is matched by India’s “Hormuz dilemma.” If China’s navy is going south to the Indian Ocean, India’s navy is going east to the Pacific Ocean. Both suffer from a siege mentality born out of their elites’ acute consciousness of the divisive tendencies that make their countries’ present political unity so fragile. After all, much of Chinese and Indian history is made up of long periods of internal disunity and turmoil, when centrifugal forces brought down even the most powerful empires. Each has its vulnerabilities—regional conflicts, poverty, and religious divisions for India; the contradiction between a market economy and Leninist politics for China. Both are plagued with domestic linguistic, ethno-religious, and politico-economic fault lines that could be their undoing if not managed properly.
In other words, China and India are locked in a classic security dilemma: one country sees its actions as defensive, but the same actions appear aggressive to the other. Beijing fears that an unrestrained Indian power—particularly one that is backed by the West and Japan—would not only threaten China’s security along its restive southwestern frontiers (Tibet and Xinjiang) but also obstruct China’s expansion southwards. Faced with exponential growth in China’s power and influence, India feels the need to take counterbalancing measures and launch strategic initiatives to emerge as a great power, but these are perceived as challenging and threatening in China.
China’s use of regional and international organizations to institutionalize its power while either denying India access to these organizations or marginalizing India within them has added a new competitive dynamic to the relationship. In the past decade, India has found itself ranged against China at the UN Security Council, East Asia Summit, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Asian Development Bank. In 2009, China vetoed a development plan for India by the latter in the disputed Arunachal Pradesh, thereby internationalizing a bilateral territorial dispute. In a tit-for-tat response, New Delhi has kept Beijing out of India-led multilateral frameworks such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue, and the Mekong–Ganga Cooperation forums, and rejected China’s request to be included as observer or associate member into the 33-member Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, started by India in 2008.
Resource scarcity has added a maritime dimension to this geopolitical rivalry. As China’s and India’s energy dependence on the Middle East and Africa increases, both are actively seeking to forge closer defense and security ties with resource supplier nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Iran), and to develop appropriate naval capabilities to dominate the sea lanes through which the bulk of their commerce flows. Since seventy-seven percent of China’s oil comes from the Middle East and Africa, Beijing has increased its activities in the Indian Ocean region by investing in littoral states’ economies, building ports and infrastructure, providing weaponry, and acquiring energy resources. Nearly ninety percent of Chinese arms sales go to countries located in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing is investing heavily in developing the Gwadar deep-sea port in Pakistan, and naval bases in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Whether one calls it a “string of pearls” or a series of places at which China’s navy can base or simply be resupplied, that navy is setting up support infrastructure in strategic locations along the same sea lanes of communication that could neutralize India’s geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean region. A recent commentary from the official Xinhua news outlet called for setting up three lines of navy supply bases in the northern Indian Ocean, the western Indian Ocean, and the southern Indian Ocean. It stated: “China needs to establish overseas strategic support stations for adding ship fuel, re-supply of necessities, staff break time, repairs of equipment, and weapons in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, which will be the core support bases in the North Indian Ocean supply line; Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique, which will be the core support bases in the West Indian Ocean supply line; and Seychelles and Madagascar, which will be the core support bases in the South Indian Ocean supply line.”
For its part, New Delhi is pursuing the same strategy as Beijing and creating its own web of relationships with the littoral states, both bilaterally and multilaterally, through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, to ensure that if the military need arises, the necessary support infrastructure and network will be in place. India has also stepped up defense cooperation with Oman and Israel in the west, while upgrading military ties with the Maldives, Madagascar, and Myanmar in the Indian Ocean, and with Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and the United States in the east. In December 2006, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, then India’s naval chief, expanded the conceptual construct of India’s “greater strategic neighborhood” to include potential sources of oil and gas imports located across the globe—from Venezuela to the Sakhalin Islands in Russia. The Indian navy currently has a stronger naval presence on the Indian Ocean than does China. It is strengthening its port infrastructure with new southern ports, which allow greater projection into the ocean. Taking a leaf out of China’s book, the new focus is to develop anti-access and area-denial capabilities that will thwart any Chinese attempt at encirclement or sea-access denial.
In short, maritime competition is intensifying as Indian and Chinese navies show the flag in the Pacific and Indian oceans with greater frequency. This rivalry could spill into the open after a couple of decades, when one Indian aircraft carrier will be deployed in the Pacific Ocean and one Chinese aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean—ostensibly to safeguard their respective trade and energy routes.
In turn, India’s “Look East” policy is a manifestation of its own strategic intent to compete for influence in the wider Asia-Pacific region. Just as China will not concede India’s primacy in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, India seems unwilling to accept Southeast and East Asia as China’s sphere of influence. Just as China’s rise is viewed positively in the South Asian region among the small countries surrounding India with which New Delhi has had difficult relations, India’s rise is viewed in positive-sum terms among China’s neighbors throughout East and Southeast Asia. Over the last two decades, India has sought to enhance its economic and security ties with those Northeast and Southeast Asian nations (Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia) that worry about China more than any other major power. As China’s growing strength creates uneasiness in the region, India’s balancing role is welcome within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to influence China’s behavior in cooperative directions. While the Southeast Asian leaders seek to deter China from utilizing its growing strength for coercive purposes and to maintain regional autonomy, Indian strategic analysts favor an Indian naval presence in the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean to counter Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. On maritime security, Southeast Asians seem more willing to cooperate with India than China, especially in the Strait of Malacca.
A key element of India’s Pacific outreach has been regular naval exercises, port calls, security dialogues, and more than a dozen defense cooperation agreements. India has welcomed Vietnam’s offer of berthing rights in Na Trang Port in the South China Sea, and news reports suggest that India might offer BrahMos cruise missiles and other military hardware at “friendship prices” to Vietnam. The conclusion of free-trade agreements with Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, and the ASEAN, coupled with New Delhi’s participation in multilateral forums such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Plus Eight defense ministers’ meetings, have also reinforced strategic ties. India’s determination to strengthen its strategic partnership with Japan and Vietnam, commitment to pursue joint oil exploration with Hanoi in the South China Sea waters in the face of Chinese opposition, and an emphasis on the freedom of navigation are signs of India maneuvering to be seen as a counterweight to Chinese power in East Asia. New Delhi is also scaling up defense ties with Tokyo, Seoul, and Canberra.
The US-India partnership is also emerging as an important component of India’s strategy to balance China’s power. India seeks US economic and technological assistance. It helps this relationship that India’s longtime security concerns—China and Pakistan—also now happen to be the United States’ long-term and immediate strategic concerns as well. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have encouraged India’s involvement in a wider Asian security system to balance a rising China and declining Japan. Apparently, US weakness—real or perceived—invites Chinese assertiveness. Since the United States does not wish to see Asia dominated by a single hegemonic power or a coalition of states, India’s economic rise is seen as serving Washington’s long-term interests by ensuring that there be countervailing powers in Asia—China, Japan, and India, with the United States continuing to act as an “engaged offshore power balancer.”
The “India factor” is increasingly entering the ongoing US policy debate over China. Asia-Pacific is now the Indo-Pacific, a term underlining the centrality of India in the new calculus of regional power. The 2010 US Quadrennial Defense Review talked of India’s positive role as a “net security provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” India’s “Look East” policy, which envisions high-level engagement with “China-wary” nations (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia), dovetails with the US policy of establishing closer ties with countries beyond Washington’s traditional treaty partners to maintain US predominance. The US-Indian strategic engagement, coupled with India’s expanding naval and nuclear capabilities and huge economic potential, have made India loom larger on China’s radar screen. An editorial in a Shanghai daily last November lamented the fact that “India will not allow itself to stay quietly between the US and China. It wants to play triangle affairs with the duo, and will do anything it can to maximize its benefit out of it. Therefore, China will find it hard to buy India over.” The Chinese fear that the Indian-American cooperation in defense, high-tech R&D, nuclear, space, and maritime spheres would prolong US hegemony and prevent the establishment of a post-American, Sino-centric hierarchical regional order in Asia. This tightening relationship, and the possibility that what is presently a tilt on India’s part could turn into a full-fledged alignment, is a major reason for recent deterioration in Chinese-Indian relations.
Although these relations remain unstable and competitive, both have sought to reduce tensions. Despite border disputes, denial of market access, and harsh words against the Dalai Lama, leaders in both countries understand the dangers of allowing problems to overwhelm the relationship. Burgeoning economic ties between the world’s two fastest-growing economies have become the most salient aspect of their bilateral relationship. Trade flows have risen rapidly, from a paltry $350 million in 1993 to $70 billion in 2012, and could surpass $100 billion by 2015. Several joint ventures in power generation, consumer goods, steel, chemicals, minerals, mining, transport, infrastructure, info-tech, and telecommunication are in the works. Intensifying trade, commerce, and tourism could eventually raise the stakes for China in its relationship with India. On the positive side, both share common interests in maintaining regional stability (for example, combating Islamist fundamentalists), exploiting economic opportunities, and maintaining access to energy sources, capital, and markets.
Despite ever-increasing trade volumes, however, there is as yet no strategic congruence between China and India. As in the case of Sino-US and Sino-Japanese ties, Sino-Indian competitive tendencies, rooted in geopolitics and nationalism, are unlikely to be easily offset even by growing economic and trade links. In fact, the economic relationship is heavily skewed. The bulk of Indian exports to China consist of iron ore and other raw materials, while India imports mostly manufactured goods from China—a classic example of the dependency model. Most Indians see China as predatory in trade. New Delhi has lodged the largest number of anti-dumping cases against Beijing in the World Trade Organization. India is keener on pursuing mutual economic dependencies with Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asian nations through increased trade, investment, infrastructure development, and aid to bolster economic and political ties across Asia that will counter Chinese power.
Even as a range of economic and transnational issues draw them closer together, the combination of internal issues of stability (Tibet and Kashmir), disputes over territory, competition over resources (oil, gas, and water), overseas markets and bases, external overlapping spheres of influence, rival alliance relationships, and ever-widening geopolitical horizons forestall the chances for a genuine Sino-Indian accommodation. Given the broad range of negative attitudes and perceptions each country has for the other, it is indeed remarkable that China and India have been able to keep diplomatic relations from fraying. How long this situation can last is more and more uncertain as each country is increasingly active in what would once have been seen as the other’s “backyard” and both engage in strategic maneuvers to checkmate each other.
Just as China has become more assertive vis-à-vis the United States, Indian policy toward China is becoming tougher. India’s evolving Asia strategy reflects the desire for an arc of partnerships with China’s key neighbors—in Southeast Asia and further east along the Asia-Pacific rim—and the United States that would help neutralize the continuing Chinese military assistance and activity around its own territory and develop counter-leverages of its own vis-à-vis China to keep Beijing sober.
At this point, the two heavyweights circle each other warily, very much aware that their feints and jabs could turn into a future slugging match.
Mohan Malik is a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu, and author of China and India: Great Power Rivals.