Date Posted: 22-Dec-2009
Jane's Defence Weekly
While China and India both insist they have nothing to gain from a deterioration in their relationship, the world looks on as each country looks to increase its influence and military capability, writes Trefor Moss
It seems an unlikely quirk of history that Asia's two great civilisations lived side by side for thousands of years and yet, for the most part, had relatively little to do with one another. The Himalayas fenced off their worlds, and Tibet - sometimes part of China, sometimes not - acted as a buffer state, keeping the Chinese heartland at arm's length from the Indians across the mountains.
China's conquest of Tibet in the 1950s, which brought the Indians and the Chinese eye to eye for the first time, forced both Beijing and Delhi to abandon their standoffish relations. With China on the march, and Chinese communists eager to demonstrate their superiority over Indian democrats, war broke out along the Himalayan border in 1962. The People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) successful five-month campaign not only left large areas of territory in dispute - an issue that has never been resolved - but also set the pattern of mutual mistrust that endures to this day.
There was never a repeat of the 1962 conflict and the relationship was allowed to fester. China's long-standing support for Pakistan - India's arch rival - fed Indian suspicions; meanwhile, close Indian ties with the Soviet Union, from which China had split decisively in 1961, further reinforced the sense of alienation.
In terms of security, however, both countries developed their own form of tunnel vision, with China focused intently on Taiwan, and India on Pakistan. The Sino-Indian rancour might, therefore, have continued indefinitely as a kind of manageable background noise but for the dramatic economic transformation that both countries have been experiencing over the past decade. As the potential of 1.33 billion Chinese and 1.14 billion Indians was gradually unlocked, both countries' interaction with the world, and with each other, grew. Military expansion and modernisation have been an element of the nations' rapid development. In 2009 China's defence budget grew to USD79.28 billion (1.7 per cent of GDP) and India's climbed to USD37.75 billion (2.37 per cent of GDP), while both Beijing and Delhi sought out new strategic allies in Asia and beyond.
Relations between the two neighbours, however, have not only remained frosty but have by some measures deteriorated, raising the spectre of a repeat of the 1962 war, only this time involving burgeoning superpowers that are now the engine room of the world economy.
A sharpening of the rhetoric in both countries throughout 2009 - and an outpouring of vitriol in both the Chinese and Indian media - has led many observers to ask whether the Sino-Indian relationship is entering dangerous territory.
"Things do seem to have gone downhill over the last several years, but it's not a crisis," says Eric Heginbotham, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. "On the other hand, you can perhaps see some signs or similarities in the dynamics leading up to 1962."
The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader who is reviled in China and to whom the Indian town of Dharamsala has played host for the past 50 years, was at the centre of a diplomatic storm in September when Delhi gave him permission to visit the disputed province of Arunachal Pradesh (claimed by China as Southern Tibet). China angrily denounced the visit and also heavily criticised a campaigning trip to the same region by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the country's recent elections. "That upset India, to hear the Chinese making personal accusations during the [Indian] elections," says Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, senior fellow for South Asia at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "It was the fact that it was not only the academic community but also Chinese Foreign Ministry officials who were shrill over the prime minister's visit."
"That was the real slap in the face: the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh," says Alex Neill, the head of the Asia programme at the Royal United Services Institute, explaining China's aggressive response to events in the disputed zone. "That was a double whammy because with Arunachal Pradesh and the Dalai Lama you have separatism overlapping with territorial integrity: China's two major headaches."
The Indian side has not only been insensitive to some of China's concerns but has also been provocative in some of its own pronouncements, according to Arun Sahgal of India's United Services Institute. "The reaction to [Chinese projects near the border] in India has been one of media hype," he says. "The media has been going ballistic. But what is worrisome is the prime minister's political statements - openly questioning China's political system. I'd prefer to see that handled more maturely."
Acrimony in context
Reading the baleful comments on Chinese and Indian news websites might lead you to believe that war was imminent. "There was an incident this year where the Indian media reported a Chinese internet story that said it would be a good idea to split up India," says Yiyi Lu, research fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. "It caused a real storm in India, even though it's unthinkable that that would have come from the Chinese government." She adds, however, that it is important to put the current acrimony into its proper historical context. "This so-called tension - it isn't actually that recent, even if it has intensified recently. China is also concerned, as well as India - every time you have a hawkish politician in India saying, 'China is a threat,' that makes the Chinese more concerned. Remember that when India tested its first atomic bomb [in the 1990s] you had the Indian defence minister saying that it was in response to the threat from China."
Popular antipathy does not dictate strategic policy but, as Heginbotham observes, the souring public mood points to a worrying trend. "Public opinion has always mattered in India and it matters more and more in China," he explains, "so we should be concerned." The two countries' history, he says, has made "the Indians particularly sensitive to China's perceived slights", with China also notoriously sensitive when it comes to issues of sovereignty. "The Chinese always overreact when they fear that some kind of surprise might unfold against them," suggests Sahgal. "China's sense of insecurity is an issue and this has heightened their response to Indian activities. China's reaction to all this has left us a little bewildered - why have developments in India rattled them so much; do they think that India is upping the ante?"
"For India there is a strong perception of China being a large and powerful neighbour that India fought once and lost: that event had a tremendous psychological impact on the Indians militarily and politically," says Roy-Chaudhury. India's secondary importance for Chinese planners has also been interpreted as a slight in Delhi. "Indian officials have been frustrated because they felt they were always ignored by China," he says. Heginbotham agrees: "India is a second-tier nation for the Chinese," he says.
The fact that neither country has a good understanding of the other has contributed to the tensions. "There's a problem on the Indian side with not enough research being done on China," says Lu. "And to an extent there's the same problem on the Chinese side, although that is changing. The problem is that they just don't know each other's strategies."
The Indians, according to Roy-Chaudhury, are now redoubling their efforts to understand Beijing's thinking. "There is a strong undercurrent, a reality check as to what China is in relation to India," he says. "The [hostile] view in the media is tempered by the political reality - India will do as much as it can to ensure the relationship with China is a stable one. Having said that, there will be competition as well as co-operation."
Confrontational remarks in Chinese and Indian newspapers would not be so serious in themselves if strategic competition between the two rivals were not obviously being played out in certain key areas. Chief among these is the Indian Ocean Region (IOR): the Indian Navy's (IN's) traditional backyard and also the focus of increasing strategic interest for the Chinese.
"The IOR is going to become a bigger area of possible conflict than anywhere else," predicts Sahgal. "In terms of China's energy security and maritime security, they've made up their minds that freedom of the seas is not sufficient to guarantee China's energy needs and to control the SLOCs [sea lines of communication]. China realises that in the event of conflict with India the SLOCs are a potential choke point."
Importantly, India understands that assigning strategic importance to the IOR is "a genuine need for China", Sahgal continues. A large share of China's oil (and other) imports must travel through the Indian Ocean before entering the Malacca Strait and then travelling on to Chinese ports. China's navy is acquiring blue-water capabilities partly in order to secure these assets, rather than to threaten India in any direct way. "China is increasing its oil tanker fleet even though there's a glut of oil tankers internationally," Sahgal explains. "Fifteen per cent [of the global tanker fleet] currently sails under a Chinese flag; soon that will be 40 per cent. They want to add sovereignty to the whole thing."
Indian naval advantage
India can also derive a degree of comfort from the fact that its navy, perhaps more so than its army and air force, still has a capability advantage over China's. "They are confident that in naval terms India still has the edge," says Roy-Chaudhury. India's aircraft carrier programmes may have been fraught with well-publicised difficulties, yet the goal of a three-carrier navy by around 2015 does still seem realistic. While China is proceeding with its own carrier programme, some doubt whether the PLA Navy will actually use this capability in the IOR. "My suspicion is that China will use that carrier to ply the South China Sea and the seas of its east coast," suggests Neill. "Sending it through the Malacca Strait could be antagonistic from India's point of view." Of more relevance to India, he argues, is the PLA Navy's new submarine base in Hainan, which is "a sign of China's growing ability to penetrate the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean".
Certainly, both countries have been courting allies in the IOR as a way of furthering their strategic interests and this competition has seen island nations such as the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives assume newfound importance. Indian Defence Minister AK Antony visited the Maldives in August, with Delhi keen to forestall Chinese military interest in those islands by establishing its own naval base there. An Indian government minister was also in Mauritius in November agreeing to help the Indian Ocean state to improve its coastal security. The IN has also deployed two naval vessels to patrol both Mauritius and the Seychelles, which have been under threat from pirates: an intervention that built on the IN's establishment of a base on nearby Madagascar in 2006.
Meanwhile, China has been advancing its own position in the IOR, most significantly through the construction of a new seaport in the southwest Pakistani town of Gwadar. This, coupled with China's heavy investment in the Karakoram Highway linking it to Pakistan, gives China a land route into the IOR and a way of diverting resources away from the Malacca Strait bottleneck.
"If you really want to go into conspiracy theories," adds Neill, "there's also China's 'String of Pearls' strategy, with China assisting the building of major ports in Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh." The rivalry between Delhi and Beijing over Burma has been particularly fierce. Though a pariah to the West, Burma has become an important prize for its two larger neighbours - and a prize that China appears to be winning. China has given significant amounts of aid to the Burmese military and has also given considerable technical support to the Burmese junta in developing its oil and gas resources. One tangible result of this was that Burma gave China the go-ahead to upgrade military facilities on the Coco Islands in 2008, though India would point out that the Cocos, which lie just north of India's Andaman Islands, have long played host to PLA activity.
While some in India have seen China's String of Pearls strategy as an effort to encircle it, the Chinese have made similar encirclement claims about India's geopolitical activities. As well as improving defence ties with Vietnam in recent years and forming a close defence partnership with Israel, India constitutes one corner of the Quadrilateral Initiative, or the 'Quad', alongside Australia, Japan and the United States. This group, which was formalised in 2007, has been widely interpreted as an attempt to counter the rise of China.
"The US is using India as a hedge against China," says Lu. "It's never just a question of China and India - the role played by other countries is also relevant, especially the United States."
Heginbotham agrees that the US, though understandably keen to advance its ties with India and claim a share of its rapidly expanding procurement budget, must be cautious about how its own involvement in the region affects Sino-Indian relations. "In the US there's a tendency to build up China as India's main military focus," he explains. "But the US should be aware of the unintended consequences of its own actions. Not only are there the dynamics between India and China, but there are the nested security dilemmas between India and Pakistan." When it comes to selling military technology to India, the US must be careful not to transfer systems that could have more application in a future war with Pakistan than in countering the Chinese, he argues.
The role of the US is certainly a complicating factor, with the Indians themselves concerned over Washington's growing ties with Beijing. "From the Indian side the purpose [of US rapprochement] has never been to encircle China - India is very cautious about being seen as a proxy for the US," says Roy-Chaudhury. "China may be very suspicious of the India-US relationship, but equally there is concern in India over the China-US relationship, the so-called G2."
Many commentators also point out that it is hard for India to complain too strongly about PLA Navy activities in the Indian Ocean, so long as the IN continues to operate in the South China Sea. "India's new maritime doctrine [released in mid-2009] is very instructive," observes Roy-Chaudhury. "It says very clearly that India's second tier [of defence] relates to the South China Sea."
As long-term Chinese and Indian strategies unfold gradually in the IOR, the rivalry is perhaps more tangible along the two countries' shared border.
The 1962 war left several areas along what is now known as the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) under dispute. India still observes the McMahon Line - the border established in colonial times by the British between India and Tibet - but China does not consider this line to be legitimate.
Arunachal Pradesh, which is under Indian control but is claimed by China as Southern Tibet, lies at the western end of a 4,000 km border interrupted in long stretches by independent Nepal and Bhutan. At the eastern end of the frontier in what is India's far north, Delhi claims areas of Kashmir, which were ceded to China by its Pakistani allies. Also at the Kashmiri end of the border is the Chinese-controlled region of Aksai Chin, which the Indians claim as part of Ladakh. Several smaller pockets of disputed territory lie further to the south.
Though talks about resolving the dispute have been held repeatedly, no substantial headway has been made. "It is not clear in whose interest it is to solve this," says Roy-Chaudhury. "A few years ago Delhi felt that it was not in its interest to move quickly because it saw its relations with China improving and so thought it would be able to get a better deal later on. Now, it seems to be China that is not really interested in moving forward."
The failure to reach a resolution has meant that there are now frictions as both countries, prospering economically, aim to open up and develop these remote regions. Moreover, much of the investment has so far been military. Over the past couple of years Delhi became increasingly aware that its Himalayan infrastructure seriously lagged behind that of China, which had been building all-weather roads and other military facilities leading up to the disputed zones. "In response there has been sudden military development on the Indian side," says Sahgal, "such as the new headquarters for military operations in the mountains, new weapon systems like helicopters and various infrastructure projects, which have really been appearing in a flurry."
In particular, India approved the raising of two new mountain divisions of 30,000 troops in early 2008, followed by the announcement of road and rail-building projects leading up to Ladakh in early 2009. The Indian Air Force (IAF) also decided to reactivate three defunct air strips near Tibet and to station Sukhoi Su-30MKIs at Tezpur to counter a PLA Air Force perceived in some Indian quarters to be developing at a much faster rate than India's. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal (ACM) P V Naik responded to a Chinese show of military strength in October - when the PLA unveiled a range of new systems at the 2009 National Day parade - by saying he felt India should procure more Su-30s on the grounds that the PLA Air Force was in danger of getting too big for the IAF to handle.
"I was surprised by the ACM's statement," admits Roy-Chaudhury. "India has never wanted to get into this bean-counting with China as it will always come out second best. More important was the statement made by former [naval chief] Admiral Sureesh Mehta talking about China: he said the gap is going to widen and he was criticised for that. But what he was really saying was that India needs to use other means - network-centric warfare, leveraging high technology - and that the approach isn't to compare numbers." Sahgal agrees that India needs to concentrate on fielding higher-calibre, not more, forces than the PLA. "India's focus is to enhance those capabilities, including ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], space, long-range missiles and strategic capabilities that will be dissuasive to the Chinese. India has to build up a layer of dissuasive capabilities, of things like special forces and strategic missiles."
"The Chinese want to build access points into those regions linking them with Pakistan, Burma and Arunachal Pradesh," says Neill, who argues that China's infrastructure projects are not necessarily designed to harass India. "It's all linked to land routes to the sea and energy transit. The Chinese also know in terms of forces that they have the advantage there - they look down on India from the Tibetan plateau and so they have the strategic advantage purely because of geography."
However, Neill adds that in most areas "China internally views its own military capability as still being inferior to India's. But it wants to achieve parity with India in the near future. So in some areas China will probably surpass India in the next few years."
Sahgal agrees that "for the next three to four years, the military balance will be more or less the same and there is no concern" about the PLA becoming disproportionately powerful. "But in two areas the military balance will shift significantly. The first is in low-contact warfare: long-range missiles, cyberwarfare, electronic attacks. The second is naval modernisation, with the vulnerability of the east coast of India to disruption."
The first sign of a serious attempt to defuse the rising border tensions came in late November, when India revealed that it had agreed to halt the construction of a new road leading up to the LoAC in Ladakh. The decision was accompanied by conciliatory statements by a junior defence minister, who said that Chinese projects on the far side of the LoAC need not give India cause for alarm.
The inauguration of joint exercises between the two countries in late 2007 was also an important step forward in fostering a more cordial atmosphere. Sahgal points out that the military exchanges have as yet been of limited value. "Military-to-military exercises are arranged by the Chinese Ministry of Defence, not by the [more powerful] Central Military Committee [CMC]," he says. "So there is still the potential for a flare-up as a result of some misperception." However, as a first step the annual exercises are nonetheless significant.
Lu also insists that there is genuine willing on the Chinese side to work towards improving the relationship. "In China there is a sense that all this [acrimony] is unfortunate," she explains. "They see this as a time when the developing countries should show solidarity and work together and try to catch up with the developed countries."
Indeed, the economic arguments are steadily becoming too compelling to allow any kind of military misadventure in the Himalayas. Sino-Indian trade is still in one sense quite modest, counting for just 2 per cent of China's total trade volume and 6 per cent of India's. But China and India's inclusion in the BRIC group of developing countries, and more recently their fusion as Chindia - a new economic superpower - in academic parlance has encouraged Beijing and Delhi to see their countries' prosperity as interlinked. More importantly, the two countries' trade volume increased tenfold over the past seven years, reaching USD51.8 billion in value in 2008, as China became India's largest trading partner for the first time. These figures are set to keep climbing steeply, binding India and China to one another in a way that, many hope, will make conflict unthinkable.
Yet alongside their joint economic interests, China and India have independent, and sometimes conflicting, strategic interests. "India needs to show more strategic muscle," says Sahgal, "and that might start to happen in the middle of the next decade. India's leadership is becoming more hawkish and I'm also worried that we don't know the CMC's thinking. So we should be concerned."
Neill points out that the Indian government has repeatedly shown restraint in recent years over such crises as Mumbai in 2008 and the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999. The Chinese government has also held back from backing its ally Pakistan in its confrontations with India. However, China's growing involvement in the disputed Kashmir region has serious destabilising potential, Neill warns. "The main concern has got to be the game that China's playing in Kashmir - China has quickly become a fourth player in Kashmir and that's of considerable concern."
Both countries insist publicly that they have nothing to gain from a further deterioration in the relationship. The rest of the world must hope that they are saying the same things in private. The ramifications of the 1962 war, fought when China and India were third-world powers, were severe enough. The fallout of a modern Sino-Indian conflict would, for the whole world, be far more damaging.
Trefor Moss is a JDW Correspondent based in London