Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 00:24 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 00:24 | SYDNEY

The cool peace between China and India

28 July 2011 13:22

Shashank Joshi is a PhD candidate at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. This post is part of the New Voices series.

Over the past twenty years, India has become reacquainted with greater Asia. The story is well-known; it runs from the twin crises of 1991 (a balance of payments crisis and the Soviet collapse), to the 'Look East' policy of engaging ASEAN and East Asian states and a flourishing of economic, political, and eventually, military ties with the small and medium pivot states of the region.

Over roughly the same period, Delhi and Beijing also began to repair ties that had been deeply frayed by the 1962 war. Between 1988 and 2003, they agreed to a series of confidence-building measures, and undertook round after round of border talks.

The difference between these two sets of relationships (with greater Asia and China) is that the latter began to unravel from 2005. China became undeniably more vocal in its claim for the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. India took widely publicised countermeasures, such as raising new mountain divisions and redeploying Sukhoi Su-30MKI squadrons to the northeast. Indian claims of border transgressions began to multiply.

India resisted the Bush-era efforts to be pulled into an overtly anti-Chinese balancing coalition. But, over the past five years, India's civil and military officials have begun to privately speak of a long-term threat more serious even than that perceived in 1998, when India's defense minister famously called China 'enemy number one'.

Naturally, this is of great importance for wider Asian dynamics.

In the first place, the structural drivers of India's engagement policy remain as relevant as ever. In his account of Singaporean statecraft, the country's former foreign and deputy prime minister S Jayakumar observes that 'it was in our interest to encourage a new balance of power by involving India in the region's affairs'. The sudden renewal of South China Sea tensions, and deepening perceptions of Chinese aggression, have sharpened the impulse for Asia's anxious middle powers to draw into the region India's rapidly expanding navy, particularly as the US begins a period of likely military retrenchment.

India, in turn, is conscious of rising (if often exaggerated) Chinese influence around its maritime and land periphery, along with India's own dependence on waterways (by 2025, India and China will become the third and second largest oil importers respectively). This, alongside concerns of status, is what drives its aspirations for a three-carrier, blue-water navy.

There is a near-zero chance that the border dispute will be resolved over the next several years, and the introduction of China's own carrier will spur on India's advocates of naval expansion and modernisation. If sparks keep flying in the South China Sea, and China continues to needle India in Kashmir and the northeast, 'congagement' will continue to veer towards containment.

But for all these concerns, there are several restraining factors that distinguish Sino-Indian competition from previous eras of rising power tension. First, both the Chinese regime and India's governments, unlike earlier rising powers, have placed an overwhelming priority on economic growth rather than international status. That, of course, is liable to change if the CCP loses its grip on Chinese nationalism.

Second, their foreign policies are non-ideological and non-proselytising, nor are their respective domestic models a threat to the other — quite unlike the character of US-Soviet or Indo-Pakistani competition. Third, the border dispute is militarily stable because of the extraordinary defensive advantage created by mountainous territory and improving firepower on each side. A skirmish is possible, but — unlike in the maritime domain — seamless escalation is constrained, and there is little advantage for an attacker.

Fourth, residual scepticism of the US in India runs deep. India's interest is in hedging, not outright balancing. In the longer-term, that will lead it to proceed with great caution in using naval assets east of Singapore.

In other words, the relationship is likely to veer towards what Mao called 'armed coexistence' rather than full-blown antagonism. Not quite what Jawaharlal Nehru had in mind when, after his 1953 trip to China, he told a public meeting that 'I am the Prime Minister of India, for which the Chinese people cherish in their hearts the greatest of love, and with which they want to maintain the friendliest of relations'.

Exploiting that cool peace for their own ends will be one of the preeminent strategic challenges for the rest of Asia in the next decades. 

Photo by Flickr user horrigans.