TSG IntelBrief: India-China Relations: Complexities Abound
April 18, 2012

India-China Relations: Complexities Abound

 

Bottom Line Up Front:

• India’s increasingly high geopolitical profile owes much to China, its sometime friend and rival. China’s longer-standing and more rapid rise in power has made India an attractive prospective partner for any country seeking a hedge or counterbalance.

• China’s rise has pushed the United States to the center of India’s decision making radar. The key balancing act for New Delhi is to make use of its relations with the United States to effectively hedge against Chinese power while not falling into the U.S. orbit, especially if Washington’s own relations with Beijing become too confrontational.

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As of mid-April 2012, India and China account for one-third of the world’s population, and the late-20th century awakening of these two giants has huge implications for the course of 21st century politics. New Delhi’s strategic horizons now span from the Persian Gulf in the west to beyond the Straits of Malacca in the east. Given Beijing’s own aspirations and acute sensitivities about energy supplies moving across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the nature of this relationship—and the role of the United States in the equation—could set the tenor for all major power interactions in coming decades.

The sense of rivalry is acute among Indians always eager to compare their country to China on a scorecard measuring wealth and social development. Now China is taking more notice. Attention was gained by India’s strong economic growth during the past decade, and its attendant military benefits . But what really sharpened Beijing’s eye was President G.W. Bush’s 2005 initiative to all but recognize India as a legitimate nuclear weapons state. The U.S-India “civil nuclear cooperation agreement” remains the crown jewel of New Delhi’s “strategic partnership” with Washington, and it’s a geopolitical tilt that no security planner in Beijing can disregard.

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Strong Arguments For Cooperation

India and China have much to gain by working in tandem, especially as both governments want to concentrate on domestic problems and maintain peaceful peripheries. Top Indian and Chinese leaders declared 2012 a “year of Sino-Indian friendship” marked by the launch of several new bilateral dialogues. Trade is booming; China recently overtook the United States to become India’s largest trade partner. The two governments have generated complimentary positions on the “”global development agenda”” that includes multilateral trade and climate change negotiations. These positions usually pit them against the United States (and other developed economies) and so hark back to the “developing world unity” idea that gave birth to the nonaligned movement of the Cold War. There have even been unprecedented (though small-scale) joint military exercises. In the realm of security cooperation, no issue-area has more short-term promise than anti-piracy. The Indian navy has quietly established plans with China (and Japan) to consult and even coordinate on anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden.

More broadly, there’s recognition in both capitals that issues such as energy and food security are best approached as non-zero-sum games. Interests are largely congruent in these areas, and a mutual focus on internal development and poverty alleviation seems to require pacific relations.

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Strong Compulsions Toward Competition

Along with areas ripe for cooperation, India and China must deal with the problems of troubled past that continue to be manifest in the present. The premier structural obstacle is the world’s largest border dispute: A brief, but bloody 1962 war left Indians feeling betrayed as well as beaten. It also left China in control of large swaths of Indian territory. India decries China’s “occupation” of 15,000 square miles in Kashmir (Aksai Chin), while China lays claim to 35,000 square miles of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

The sometimes vitriolic Indian media regularly report on Chinese military incursions across the “Line of Actual Control” (LOAC). These platoon-level “transgressions” averaged two per day during 2010 and 2011. The countries long ago established regular border consultations; the 15th “Special Representatives” session was held in January, when both parties seemed intent on proceeding with calm. Still, this now 30-year-old consultation has yet to shift to a settlement phase. India simultaneously plans to deploy new “mountain strike corps” along the LOAC. China goes on with infrastructure projects and missile deployments.

For New Delhi, the competitive geopolitical edge has for decades been sharpened by China’s support for Pakistan in an alliance that Indian security planners see as flat-out encirclement by China. This has meant vital materials for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs (not to mention a steady flow of conventional weaponry), and Beijing’s diplomatic backing of Islamabad’s claims to Kashmir.

The scope of the India-China rivalry has expanded to the realm of Asian power balances. Anticipation of increasing competition is widespread, and the maritime aspect is key. China may seek to reduce India’s geographic advantages in the IOR with a “string of pearls”: major new Chinese-financed ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Burma. Yet there is no good evidence that China’s navy is engaged in these projects. Indeed, the facilities appear to be just what Beijing says they are: conventional ports that can connect inland China with the Indian Ocean as a future hedge against closure of the Malacca Straits.

A landmark development came in July 2011, when an Indian navy vessel ventured into the South China Sea. Off the Vietnamese coast, the INS Airavat was confronted by an unidentified Chinese radio caller who claimed to be from the Chinese navy and warned that the vessel was entering Chinese waters. The Airavat held course and “confrontation” ended there. Yet the incident provided an unprecedented sign of Indian resolve to be militarily present east of the Malacca Straits. New Delhi’s subsequent agreement with Hanoi allowing Indian energy exploration in Vietnamese waters rattled Beijing. Chinese officials have warned India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) that its explorations in the South China Sea represent a violation of Chinese sovereignty. 

Further problems abound. Beijing has long been unhappy with New Delhi for providing refuge to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan exiles. China even “demanded” that the Indian government prevent the Tibetan spiritual leader from speaking at an international conference in New Delhi in November. Indian officials refused, yet they have been willing to clamp down on Tibetan pro-democracy rallies on Indian territory, most recently jailing hundreds of activists in the lead-up to March’s BRICS summit.

Perhaps more insidious over the long term is competition over water resources. China, with thousands of major dams and plans for many more, is increasingly viewed as a regional “hydro-hegemon” that may seek to use water as a political weapon to be wielded against its co-riparian neighbors. Conflict over water is likely to become more prevalent, especially if China seeks to divert the flow of the Brahmaputra, a major river that feeds the eastern Indian state of Assam from its origin Tibet.

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Forecast:

Near-Term:

• Despite signs that Indian leaders are more willing to push back against Chinese pressures, there’s little reason to believe they will choose any “alignment” with Washington in this regard. New Delhi’s China policy will continue to rely on a combination of improved military preparedness, diplomatic resolve, and a search for mutual benefits when possible.

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Long-Term:

• Both countries are dependent on the sea lanes that carry energy supplies to feed their booming economies. A game of encirclement and counter-encirclement, balancing and hedging, is underway, but this game has far-reaching implications: If Asia is to be a stable, prosperous driver of development in the 21st century, India and China must avoid open conflict.

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