Great Power Confrontation: India and China, 50 Years On

After a series of smashing victories in the border war with India, Chinese troops swept down from the towering Himalayas and were poised at the edge of the fertile plains of Assam, whose jute and tea plantations account for one-fourth of India’s export trade. Then, with Assam lying defenseless before her conquering army, Red China suddenly called a halt to the fighting.

Radio Peking announced that, “on its own initiative,” Red China was ordering a cease-fire on all fronts….

-       Time Magazine Cover, October 1962

Fifty years after India and China had a month-long confrontation that ended in a humiliating defeat for India, the two great powers still continue to have friction over the northeastern border, the subject of 14 fruitless talks between the two nations. The McMahon Line, the initial cause of the disagreement, was demarcated by British officials in 1914 in order to settle the issue of Tibetan suzerainty. As the map below shows, India claims a part of the northern frontier for its Ladakh. In the eastern part, China claims a huge chunk of one of India’s states, Arunachal Pradesh. The dissatisfaction with these boundaries as well as the Chinese refusal to recognize Tibetan sovereignty resulted in a war that has led to one of the most militarized borders in contemporary times.

Source: The Economist

What does this underlying friction mean for Indian security and defense policy? By looking at Indian efforts towards both internal and external balancing, we might be able to gauge whether India visualizes China as a threat or not. In terms of internal balancing, the graph below shows us the steadily increasing value of Indian defense spending. The biggest jumps  have been in the last two years, with an 11% and 17% increase in the defense budget in 2011 and 2012. One of the main targets of these expenditures has been the development of the Agni-V missile. The missile has a range of more than 5,000 km (3,100 miles), potentially bringing targets in China within range. The development of such long-range missiles was clearly carried out with China in mind, as with its previous level of capability, India already possessed the capability to hit Pakistan, its traditional rival. There have also been growing fears in India over the strength of the Chinese navy. The most powerful signal of recent Chinese naval expansion has been the purchase of an aircraft carrier which they have recently begun testing at sea. Because Indian power and trade is reliant on open access to the seas, it is vital that India try and keep up with the Chinese buildup, at least to a certain extent. To that end, India has set out on its own naval expansion program.

Indian military spending. Data from SIPRI.

Interpreting such developments in terms of an offensive posture, however, might be misleading.  In August 2009, India’s former Chief of Naval Staff declared “In military terms, both conventionally and unconventionally, we can neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force…” Pointing out that India’s expenditure on defense has been hovering around a low two-three percent of the GDP in recent years, Mehta said that the strategy to deal with China on the military front would be to introduce modern technology and create a “reliable stand-off deterrent.” Such increasing armaments programs are counter-intuitive from the perspective of deterrence theory, as both India and China already possess nuclear weapons. These efforts then, should not just be interpreted in terms of preparation for explicit military engagement, but rather in terms of containing China’s sphere of influence in the region.

This broader Indian security policy can be understood by looking at efforts involving other nations in military exercises and informal security arrangements. In 2011, India started conducting naval exercises with Japan after a five-year hiatus of not involving any country except the U.S. in such exercises. Indeed, in terms of external balancing, it is not only India who might seek out the U.S., who might very well need India to counter-balance a rising regional hegemon.

Developments in this region do not just have huge implications for India, but for the U.S. as well. Robert Kaplan predicts that the Indian Ocean will replace the Mediterranean as the central arena of global energy flows, container traffic, and politics in this century. Though necessary, systematizing an alliance with India however, will not be the easiest choice for the United States. The Indian government is plagued with uncertainty – this was visible in the stalling that took place in implementing the nuclear deal with the United States. As Narang and Staniland point out, “The combination of tight electoral competition, pervasive patronage, and coalition politics has led to minimal political incentives for ambitious (Indian)politicians to invest in strategic assessment, policy debates, or the other mechanisms of strategic optimization that are supposed to bolster strategic preparation in a democratic polity.” While it is too early to claim that India has gotten to the point of seeing China as an immediate and direct threat to its national interest, it certainly seems that India is hedging its bets, even if it is just in terms of threat preparation via internal balancing.

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One thought on “Great Power Confrontation: India and China, 50 Years On

  1. Pingback: Monday Morning Linkage » Duck of Minerva

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