Sunday, November 7, 2010

China and India: Is Conflict Inevitable?

China and India had a surprisingly rich history of interaction in the latter half of the twentieth century. They fought a brief border war in 1962 that, luckily, did not escalate into something much larger. They have been continuously contesting ownership of border areas in the Himalayan region, with possible armed skirmishes as late as 1987. India’s incorporation of the contested region called Arunachal Pradesh, and its claim that China was occupying some of its territory in Kashmir have angered China. China’s claim to Tibet has aroused similar feelings in India. The fact that China habitually sides with Pakistan in any dispute with India does not help matters. Nepal and Myanmar (Burma) are unstable states in which both countries have competing interests, providing opportunities for future dispute. A summary of this history can be found here.

A couple of recent articles have addressed the possibility of Sino-Indian conflict. The London Times refers to Asia slipping into a cold-war mode. The occasion for this particular article was India’s reopening of a World War Two base.
“....India is preparing to reopen the base to station surveillance aircraft, helicopters, and possibly ships, to monitor Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean. Under a deal signed in August, India is also installing radar across the Maldives, linked to its coastal command.”

“Both countries publicly deny that the move is aimed at Beijing, but privately admit that it is a direct response to China’s construction of a giant port at Hambantota in nearby Sri Lanka.”

“The plan is also being seen as the latest move in a low-level, but escalating struggle for economic and military supremacy between Asia’s two emerging giants. This week the flashpoint is their disputed Himalayan border, as China protests over the Dalai Lama’s visit to a northeastern Indian state that it claims. But they are also competing over naval control of the Indian Ocean, resources and markets in Africa, strategic footholds in Asia — and are even in a race for the Moon.”

“India feels particularly threatened by China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy, building ports in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan that could be used by its navy. Beijing is concerned that a nuclear deal finalised last year between India and the US, was designed as a counterbalance to China. The deal not only lifted a ban on India buying US nuclear supplies, it also opened the door for India to take part in joint military exercises and buy billions of dollars of US weaponry.”

“’It doesn’t have the same proportions as the Cold War,’ said Alexander Neill, head of the Asia programme at the Royal United Services Institute, a research centre. ‘But there is potential for this to spiral out of control. Allies of both countries need to think carefully about the consequences of this rivalry’.”
Even more ominous is this comment from Evan A. Feigenbaum in India’s Rise, America’s Interest, published in “Foreign Affairs.”
“China is particularly important because it has begun to replace Pakistan at the center of Indian defense planning. Although China considers India a third-tier security priority at best -- far behind internal insecurity and challenges in the East Asian littoral -- India views China as a first-tier priority. Developments in Chinese-Indian relations are central to India's internal debate about the reliability of its strategic deterrent and whether to test nuclear weapons again.”

“This is one important reason why arms control is another potential source of tension between Washington and New Delhi. The Obama administration is preparing to renew U.S. efforts to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. If China does so, too, India will be pressured to follow suit. But many Indians argue that the country cannot sign the CTBT in light of its nuclear competition with China; several Indian nuclear scientists have even sought to prod the government into conducting new nuclear tests by raising questions about whether India's 1998 tests really succeeded. For now, India is unlikely to conduct new tests. But it is equally unlikely to sign the CTBT or similar treaties, even if the Obama administration pressures it to do so.”
Most ominous of all is a book published by Jonathan Holslag titled China and India: Prospects for Peace. This title would imply that the opposite of peace is occurring right now. There is an interview with the author in Time magazine, where he indicates inevitable and intense competition on coupled economic and military matters.
“Yes, we see now that both sides' economic aspirations are leading to more competition, especially in Asia, and this is slowly spilling over in a negative way into the realm of high politics of security and diplomacy.”

“India still has to start the industrialization of its society — a process that China began well before. Inevitably, there will be a fierce contest for raw materials, mainly in Asia. We see this already happening in Burma, in parts of Central Asia, Africa and elsewhere. This is only going to become fiercer. It's also a myth that somehow the two economies, with their different strengths, will be able to complement each other in the long term. India has to turn to manufacturing and China is not going to give up suddenly its own industries. They're too important for the country's stability.”

“Yes, you can clearly see that Beijing officials are increasingly worried about India's ambitions. If you look at the writings of Chinese experts, they refer to Indian military posturing in the Indian Ocean and also to military partnerships India is developing with several countries in Southeast Asia and East Africa. In the public realm, Chinese Netizens' views of India are very negative. You get the sense the Chinese never seemed to expect India to climb up to the ranks of the great powers. Now, as India attempts to make that leap, the Chinese are very worried of its impact on China's primacy in Asia.”

When asked how a war between India and China might break out he conjectured the following.
“It wouldn't first be open war. China and India are building up their interests in conflict-prone and unstable states on their borders like Nepal and Burma — important sources of natural resources. If something goes wrong in these countries — if the politics implode — you could see the emergence of proxy wars in Asia. Distrust between India and China will grow and so too security concerns in a number of arenas. It's an important scenario that strategic planners in both Beijing and Delhi are looking at.”
It is hard to foresee a nuclear conflict. However, the idea that India would even consider resuming nuclear testing has to be deeply troubling. Such an eventuality would echo resoundingly through world politics. The issue of more concern arises from the economic competition. China’s attempt to raise itself out of poverty and transform itself into a modern state has caused great economic and environmental disruption. And it still has a long way to go. India will have to go through the same process. It is not clear that the world has enough resources to handle both of these giants following the same path to industrialization. Clearly there will have to be intense competition between the two.

China and India together represent about 40% of the earth’s population. If they are mad at each other, the world had better take note.

Sometimes the world is just too darned interesting. Stay tuned.


  1. A very insightful posting. I read them all and appreciate the work you are doing to educate us in a complex and shrinking world. If not an overly trite observation, I am reminded of the British diplomat, who in 1856, said of China, "Beware the sleeping giant, when it awakes". Thanks Rich.

  2. Thanks for the kind--and encouraging--words.


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