Few now dispute that the magnificent rise of China and India has fundamentally transformed the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century. In the United States, their emergence has prompted interest in the two Asian giants, home to more than a third of the world's population, with a focus on how their geopolitical influence will affect the United States. The Washington foreign policy community has framed China as a challenge and a competitor, while India is increasingly portrayed as an opportunity and an ally. Yet while the heightened focus on Sino-US and Indo-US relations is welcome, few US analysts have bothered to examine the third, and perhaps most volatile, leg of this equation: the Sino-Indian relationship.
History is littered with examples of rising powers upending the status quo and challenging the established order. Strategic thinkers in the United States have mulled the potential of conflict with China since the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. However, it is at least as likely that if superpower conflict does emerge in the 21st century, it will be between China and India. This scenario is by no means guaranteed, and perhaps not even probable. Formal relations are cordial. However, unlike the United States and China, the two do not have the luxury of a vast ocean to separate them. Rather, they share a long and, more importantly, contested border and a close proximity that can magnify grievances, encourage friction, and perpetuate a zero-sum mentality. It is therefore incumbent upon the United States to seek a greater understanding of Sino-Indian relations, particularly of the issues that divide them and the historical context that underpins their interactions.
A Relationship that Starts with War
A convenient starting point for analyzing contemporary Sino-Indian relations is their birth as modern nations only two years apart: India, when it gained independence from Britain in 1947, and Communist China, when Mao Zedong and his Red Guards declared victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949. Drawn together by anti-imperialist sentiment and Asian fraternity, the two nations enjoyed something of a Golden Age throughout their first decade as independent countries, a period often characterized by a popular phrase of the time: "Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai," or "Indians and Chinese are brothers." In 1954, the two signed the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence," or Panchsheel, which codified the principles of mutual non-aggression and non-interference.
However, the era of Sino-Indian harmony would last only a few short years. China's invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950 had already made more than a few Indians uncomfortable, but at the time, India's leaders quieted voices of protest in the interest of bilateral comity. However, when the Dalai Lama led a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, India was intimately drawn into what China considered an internal conflict. With his rebellion crushed, the Dalai Lama and his beleaguered followers fled into northern India seeking safe haven, and New Delhi, to the great frustration of Beijing, granted it.
Adding fuel to the fire, as the Dalai Lama episode was unfolding, both India and China began a dangerous game of brinksmanship along their poorly demarcated 2,100 mile-long border. In 1958, India discovered that Chinese workers had built a strategically placed road through territory claimed by both sides along India's northwestern border with China. The precise border in Aksai Chin, as this 15,000 square mile portion of desolate Tibetan plateau is called, had become a matter of contention between British-ruled India and China since the late 1914 century. In India's northeast, there was a major controversy as well. There, India claimed its border with China extended to the McMahon line, a boundary drawn by India's British overlords in 1914, whereas China laid claim to 32,000 square miles of territory south of that line, which the Chinese refer to as South Tibet. The British rulers of India had reached agreement on the McMahon line with the leadership of Tibet (which was autonomous at the time) at a conference in Simla in 1914. China, which stormed out of the Simla talks, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the McMahon line and insisted Tibet lacked the authority to redraw its boundaries.
Particularly after India discovered the Chinese road in Aksai Chin, both countries began sending patrols and establishing border posts deeper and deeper into the barren edges of the disputed territory. Historians have placed particular blame upon Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who underestimated China's willingness to use force--and failed to heed the warnings of his military advisors--when he implemented an assertive "Forward Policy" with India's border posts. But while India's policy may have aggravated the situation, it was China that, after a year of minor skirmishes, launched a coordinated offensive on both the eastern and western fronts on October 20, 1962. India fast earned the sympathy and support of the international community (including, ironically, both the United States and Soviet Union); however, it was dealt a humiliating military defeat in a war that lasted just one month, the sting of which lingers to this day.
The result of that short war was that China quickly seized Aksai Chin, which today remains under its administration. However, in the northeast, after advancing several miles into Indian territory, China instituted a unilateral ceasefire on November 20 and recalled its troops behind the McMahon line. The resulting status quo--with China in control of Aksai Chin and India in control of all of the territory up to the McMahon line (roughly contiguous with the present day state of Arunachal Pradesh)--has held to this day.
The Border, Round Two
Fast forward 35 years, and developments along those same sections of the disputed border have partially soured Sino-Indian relations again. This was not supposed to be the case. Sino-Indian relations did continue to deteriorate throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Though officially a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), India was drawn firmly into the Soviet bloc during this period, particularly after the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1971. At the same time, Beijing, now estranged from its Communist comrades in Moscow, deepened its ties to the United States and began supplying military and nuclear technology to India's archrival, Pakistan.
However, with the exception of a few minor border skirmishes, by the 1980s the two neighboring countries were enjoying a broad thaw in relations, initiating a series of border negotiations in 1981 that have spanned the past three decades and well over a dozen rounds. A major breakthrough in 1988 saw Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visit Beijing, and in the 1990s high-level exchanges occurred with regularity. Consulates were reopened, cultural exchanges initiated, and trade at the border encouraged.
In fact, as late as 2005, the two seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough on the border issue. That year, China had dropped its longstanding challenge to Indian sovereignty over the tiny Himalayan enclave of Sikkim, which officially became an Indian state in 1975. The concession was part of a quid pro quo, for New Delhi had recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in 2003. Also in 2005, India and China outlined "guiding principles and political parameters" for a final settlement of the border dispute.
There were further reasons to be optimistic. Beginning in the 1990s, China began making encouraging moves--including substantial concessions--to resolve land border disputes with its other neighbors. Final border resolutions were concluded with Kyrgyzstan (1996), Kazakhstan (1998), Russia (2008), Vietnam (2008), and, most recently, Tajikistan (2011).
Yet the direction of Sino-Indian relations took a turn for the worse in 2006-ironically the "India-China friendship year"--with the disputed border taking center stage. On November 14, on the eve of a four-day visit to New Delhi by Chinese President Hu Jintao, China's Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, inflammatorily revived China's claim to the territory south of the McMahon line. Although China's External Affairs Ministry played down the remarks of the ambassador, who was recalled the following year, the episode marked the beginning of a period of escalating tensions.
India, for its part, had announced just a few months earlier that it intended to upgrade its infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh (AP) by building seven "strategic roads." The announcement was a reversal of a longstanding strategy which sought to ensure a lack of infrastructure along the Indian side of its border with China. By this counterintuitive logic, roads and bridges would only serve to facilitate the advance of an invading army. However, it left India utterly incapable of moving troops and supplies into defensive positions. This deficiency was exacerbated by China's feverish development of infrastructure on its own side of the border. In a reflection of this deficit, in January 2010, the Hindustan Times reported that the Chinese forces could cover 250 miles a day along the border, while Indian forces could move at only half that speed. Meanwhile, India has only one actionable airfield positioned near the border in Assam, whereby China has five airfields in Tibet and Chinese warplanes can reach New Delhi within 20 minutes from their forward base in Demchok.
From 2006 onward, points of friction along the border continued to grow. Indian officials and media outlets began reporting on frequent incursions by Chinese patrols across the border in the eastern and western sectors. Brahma Chellaney, a prominent Indian strategic affairs analyst, noted in 2009 that cross-border "forays" by Chinese troops had doubled from 2006 to 2008, from 140 to 270 annually. In May of 2007, an Indian Administrative Service officer from Arunachal Pradesh was denied a visa to China on the grounds that it was already a part of China. Beijing began implementing a policy of stapling visas to separate pieces of paper for citizens of Arunachal Pradesh (AP), while denying visas altogether for AP officials (in 2009, China began implementing the same policy for Kashmir, which in diplomatic terms equates to a challenge of Indian sovereignty over those territories). All the while, China was raising angry protests every time a high-ranking Indian official or the Dalai Lama visited or announced plans to visit Arunachal Pradesh.
India Buckles Down
In September 2007, it was India's turn to raise the stakes. New Delhi announced that it would base squadrons of its most potent fighter aircraft, the Sukhoi-30MKI, in Tezpur, Assam, which is neighbor to Arunachal Pradesh. A year later, India made public plans to raise two new mountain divisions trained in high altitude combat to be sent to the northeast, bringing its total troop strength in the region to over 100,000. And in 2009, Indian officials announced they would upgrade airfields and install special mountain and lightweight radars in the northwest, near Aksai Chin.
The military plans reflected a fundamental and still-evolving shift in strategic thinking in New Delhi about the potential threat China poses and the flaws of India's own national security strategy. This change was most visibly demonstrated in New Delhi's announcement of a change in its strategic defense doctrine in December 2009. Indian strategic planning had always centered on potential conflicts with Pakistan, with which it had fought three major wars and a lower intensity conflict since independence. However, in 2009, India announced that it was revising its Pakistan-centric "Cold Start" doctrine in favor of a "Two-Front War" doctrine, by which both Pakistan and China would receive equal attention. According to Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor, there is now a proportionate focus given to the western and northeastern fronts. Indeed, in recent years Indian government officials and, to a greater degree, military officers, have become more candid about their concerns over their eastern neighbor. In 2009, Indian Air Force Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major bluntly admitted that China is an entirely different "ball-game" compared to Pakistan, with China undoubtedly posing the greater threat.
The doctrinal shift has taken tangible form in India's 10-year, US$100 billion military modernization program. New Delhi has a massive tender pending for 126 Medium Multi-Role Aircraft and a long-term, US$10 billion contract with Russia to develop and field at least 300 fifth generation fighters. It recently bought over a dozen C-17s and C-130J heavy lift aircraft and is working intensively on indigenous missile technology, upgrading its Brahmos cruise missiles, and extending the range of its Agni-class ballistic missiles, the newest versions of which can allegedly reach deep into China.
Most importantly, though, India is investing heavily in naval capabilities designed to project force--and protect its interests--in the Indian Ocean. It is currently building two indigenous aircraft carriers (to be completed in 2015 and 2020) to complement the refitted carrier it recently bought from Russia for US$2.3 billion, the Admiral Gorshkov, and the aging Soviet era carrier it currently operates. New Delhi is also upgrading its present-day fleet of 16 submarines by constructing six French-designed Scorpene subs and building three indigenous, nuclear-powered, ballistic missile submarines, in addition to the nuclear-powered Kilo-class submarine it leased from Russia last year. Finally, last year India commissioned the first of what will be eventually be a fleet of 10 stealth frigates and has now completed three in an eventual fleet of seven Kolkata-class stealth destroyers.
The New Arena
India is focusing heavily on naval capabilities because friction in the Sino-Indian relationship is not restricted to their disputed border. Indeed, the most contentious arena for China and India may not be their land border at all, but the Indian Ocean. A growing number of strategic commentators, not least Robert Kaplan in his new book on the Indian Ocean region, Monsoon, have acknowledged the nearly limitless strategic significance of the ocean, home to the globe's principal oil shipping lanes. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of the global traffic of petroleum products traverses the Indian Ocean, so there are few countries on earth for whom the Indian Ocean does not have some significance.
Over the past decade or so, China has made a concerted effort to boost its profile in the Indian Ocean region, a policy designed to compensate for what Beijing sees as perhaps its greatest strategic weakness: the security of its energy imports. 85 percent of the oil bound for China will pass through the Indian Ocean over the next decade, including through one of the "main navigational choke points of world commerce," the Strait of Malacca. China has always feared that this narrow, 500-mile stretch of water between Indonesia and Malaysia could be used by a potential adversary to choke off its energy supply and starve its economy into submission--and China's leaders have watched closely as India boosts its military profile in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Union Territories of India that sit near the mouth of the Strait of Malacca.
China has attempted to address this strategic liability and raise its profile in the Indian Ocean with its now famous "string of pearls,"
an elaborate network of investments in port facilities, listening posts, and infrastructure projects along the Indian Ocean rim in countries like Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The strategy serves a dual purpose. Most obviously, it gives China a more vibrant presence in the Indian Ocean from which to monitor developments and ship movements. It is also likely to earn Chinese civilian and military ships privileged access at various port facilities--access that would be critical in any conflict in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, however, the string of pearls is designed to provide China with alternative, overland energy access routes that can bypass the naval chokepoints--hence the construction of deep water ports, gas pipelines, and inland infrastructure projects, such as roads and rail links in South and Central Asia.
Needless to say, for India, the historic overlord of the Indian Ocean littoral region, China's growing profile is seen as an encroachment on its "strategic space." China indeed has been currying favor in capitals traditionally within India's geopolitical orbit. In Nepal, China has cultivated ties to the major parties, particularly the ascendant Maoists. In Sri Lanka, China stepped in as a patron and supplier of arms when India cut off military supplies to the government in Colombo over human rights abuses during its war with the Tamil Tigers. In Burma, China has won energy contracts and investment opportunities by warmly embracing the repressive military junta, while India, struggling with the moral dilemma of engaging an odious regime, has lost influence. In whichever direction India looks, it appears China's influence is on the rise.
China and India's primary disputes may be on land and at sea, but their parrying stretches beyond geographic boundaries, into cyberspace, the media, and international diplomacy. In 2010, an investigation by Canadian researchers found that a Chinese "Shadow Network" had breached Indian embassies around the world, stolen sensitive information on major Indian missile and armament systems, and penetrated the Dalai Lama's organization. The chairman of India's Cyber Law and IT Act Committee, Pavan Duggal, recently warned that China had raised a cyber army of roughly 300,000 people whose only job is to intrude upon the secured networks of other states. In the international arena, the two have sparred at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), where China tried to block a US$2.9 billion loan to India that would have funded a flood management project in Arunachal Pradesh, and at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where China nearly torpedoed the US-India nuclear deal in 2008. China remains the only veto-wielding member of the Security Council not to endorse India's bid for a permanent seat on the Council. Further irritants include Chinese plans to build dams on Himalayan rivers that flow downstream into India and an announcement in 2010 that China would build two new nuclear reactors in Pakistan (in violation of nuclear nonproliferation commitments).
A final dimension is the role of the media in exacerbating Sino-Indian tensions. Chinese leaders at the highest levels have vocally complained--with some justification--about the role India's leading English language dailies have played in sensationalizing every Sino-Indian disagreement and obsessing over the "China threat." Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has raised the issue with Indian leaders. Furthermore, China's ambassador to India this year suggested New Delhi should guide the public toward avoiding a verbal war. India's Foreign Secretary was forced to remind her Chinese counterparts that a free media was part of a "vibrant" and "noisy" democracy.
While China's tightly controlled, state-run media is generally more reserved, at the height of Sino-Indian tensions in 2009, the Communist Party mouthpiece, the Global Times, printed an unusually bellicose article ("India's unwise military moves"), shining a rare light on China's more hawkish views toward India. In response to news that India was moving new troops to its northeastern border, the piece warned that India's moves could only lead toward a rivalry and asked India to consider the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.
In a passage that has since been removed from the article on the Global Times' website, the piece added that China would not make any compromises in its border disputes with India.
The effects of this game of brinksmanship being played by China, and to a lesser degree India, have so far been constrained by prudent and cautious political leaders in both capitals. However, the longer the aura of confrontation perpetuates, the more it generates a momentum of its own. Hawkish comments by officials and newspaper editors are easily dismissed; however, shifts in military doctrines and public opinion are much harder to reverse.
Nevertheless, it is critically important not to overstate the degree of animosity in Sino-Indian relations. The two countries enjoy booming economic ties, including US$60 billion in annual bilateral trade, projected to surge to US$100 billion by 2015. High-level governmental exchanges are frequent, and the official discourse often diplomatic and complimentary. Many on the Indian left, and within its powerful government bureaucracy, see China more as friend than foe. China, as it does with all its neighbors, frequently stresses the need for peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, and non-interference in each others' affairs. Leaders in both capitals have committed to resolving their border disputes through peaceful means and diplomatic negotiations. However, actions speak louder than words, and while the potential for conflict remains low in the short term, many Sino-Indian divisions are widening rather than narrowing.
It is hard not to view the rise in tensions over the past five years as a story of Chinese provocations against India. This perception is buttressed by several factors. One is that China's provocations have been tangible, documentable policies, while Beijing's complaints about India are more abstract. For instance, Beijing clearly harbors animosity toward India for hosting the Dalai Lama, who, it argues rather unconvincingly, is trying to incite unrest in Tibet. Thus, to many Chinese, India is a willing accomplice. China also appears uncomfortable with the budding Indo-US alliance, which Beijing sees as part of a larger design by the United States to encircle it with an anti-China coalition. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the spike in Sino-Indian tensions, beginning in 2006, came shortly after the United States and India signed the landmark US-India nuclear deal and entrenched their strategic alliance. Finally, as China works to curry influence in South Asia, India is itself pursuing a "Look East" policy, signing free trade deals and boosting military cooperation with countries in China's "orbit," like Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea.
Another explanation is that China has simply been more provocative. Of course, provocative need not be illegitimate. China is within its right to pursue greater influence in South Asia and modernize its military, and India is within its rights to be concerned by these moves. But it is hard to view other policies--border incursions, challenges to India's sovereignty over Kashmir, confrontation at international institutions, cyber-attacks--as benign and not specifically designed to provoke India.
So why is China stirring trouble with India at a time when Beijing is at great pains to stress the concept of its "peaceful rise" and settling land border disputes with other neighbors? The unapologetically opaque nature of the Communist regime in Beijng poses formidable challenges to deducing China's intent. However, the most convincing argument yet articulated is that China's hawks--who have grown increasingly synonymous with the People's Liberation Army--want to keep India "bogged down" in domestic problems, focused on Pakistan, and generally distracted as China expands its influence and snaps up resources in South and Central Asia. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh alluded to as much in a private interview with Indian newspapers in 2010. At the time, Singh said that China wanted to keep India at a "low-level equilibrium" and was tempted to use Kashmir to accomplish that end.
If this is indeed Beijing's aim, its efforts are misguided and counterproductive. China's policies have simply heightened concern in New Delhi about China's rise and drawn India's attention away from Pakistan, towards focusing on any Chinese move that carries a hint of aggression. If Beijing has complaints about Indians hyping the "China threat," it has only itself to blame.
JEFF M. SMITH is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. Smith has given breifings at the Pentagon and to the Senate Select Committee on intelligence and guest lectured on national security issues.…