Any objective assessment of developments in the South China Sea over the last few years cannot but conclude that Beijing is successfully expanding and achieving its goals, the ultimate being complete mastery over this body of water. Please note that we can no longer talk about “dispute” since this word fails to capture the essence of the conflict. There is also no point in demanding a “clarification” of Beijing’s objectives in a wishful attempt at integrating China into the post-war liberal order. Third, and most crucially, given that China is deploying a combined force made up of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy), a number of Coastguard-like agencies, and a maritime militia, military to military contacts involving only the former are not only useless, they are counterproductive. By engaging the PLAN, in a bid to build trust and work toward agreements, such as the much touted Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, maritime democracies are dangerously ignoring China’s playbook. The PLAN does not operate in isolation. Instead, it follows a carefully orchestrated script featuring an internal division of labour, the coastguard agencies, and the maritime militia. Each has its role, and in some situations and missions they act separately, while in others they work as a team. Broadly speaking, most of the “dirty work” is carried out either by militia-crewed (or at least coordinated) “civilian ships” or by their coastguard counterparts, with the PLAN free to play the “good guy” role in a discreet second line.
This division of labour extends to diplomacy and military to military contacts: PLAN officers meet foreign counterparts, coast guard personnel keep a much lower international profile, and the maritime militias remain a domestic affair. This means that the objectives of these contacts are impossible from the start. What is the point of in engaging only the PLAN when it is just one part of the Chinese forces expanding in the South China Sea? How can we dream of integrating the PRC’s naval and maritime forces into some semblance of an international liberal order when the vast majority of their forces do not even take part in the exchanges and activities designed to bring this about?
One of the eternal principles of war is the need to seize the initiative. For too long maritime nations in the South China Sea have simply been reacting to Chinese moves, playing into Beijing’s script. The solution is not to complain more loudly every time Beijing expands, or to rearm at the conventional level only, the solution involves seizing the initiative, playing by different rules (not China’s), and forcing the PRC to react for once. This has already happened in some instances, most notably the Philippines’ lawsuit under UNCLOS, but must now become the norm, not the exception.
In accordance with this need to seize the initiative, the following changes are necessary in military to military contacts and negotiations:
A) Maritime nations must refuse to take part in any negotiations where China’s Coastguard agencies and maritime militias are not represented. Dealings must take place only with delegations made up of the full range of institutions involved in territorial aggression in the South China Sea.
B) In order to make the above possible (and prevent Beijing from claiming that they are only sending PLAN personnel because they are just meeting naval officers), maritime nations must also include all equivalent agencies in their own delegations.
C) Third, when a maritime democracy does not have a maritime militia, it must be created. This can be accomplished, for example, by resorting to reserve personnel, maritime industries, and yacht owners associations.
Maritime democracies may also need to adopt measures to grow their fishing and merchant fleets in order to acquire the necessary dual-use assets to wage the non-lethal confrontation seen in the seas near China.
Adopting an integrated approach to military to military contacts with China may require some cultural and institutional changes. It may be understandable for a naval officer to prefer the company of a fellow officer from another country to that of a fisherman. Equally understandable may be an officer’s somewhat detached view of clashes among fishing boats, or landings by civilian “activists,” but the nature of the mixed warfare being waged by China means that superior conventional naval forces cannot simply wait for war to break out in order to defeat the enemy in a conventional battle. A war may be lost while waiting for it to break out. In theory, Chinese expansion could be checked by drawing a line in the sand and employing conventional force if necessary. However, this is politically unrealistic, given that not even economic sanctions have been discussed in Washington and pacific rim capitals. If the United States and her partners are not even ready to make China pay an economic price for aggression, can they be expected to go to war? The answer cannot be any other than a clear and loud no, and the Chinese are fully aware of it. Hence their “salami slicing” strategy.
If we rule out appeasement and surrender, then the only alternative left is to fight. Not to fight the war we would like, a war that is simply not on the menu, but the existing war being waged, and the one, we must regrettably say, which is being lost to date. In this war, the enemy is not simply using conventional forces, but a mixture of naval, non-naval state, and dual-use private assets. It is this complex reality that must be engaged with in attempts at confidence building and agreements negotiations. If it is not just PLAN officers working to conquer the South China Sea, what is the point in just talking to them? Shouldn’t we also be talking to their coast guard and militia counterparts?
This broad approach to military to military contacts is the only realistic approach to the current situation in the South China Sea (and the wider Indo Pacific). If actually resulting in agreements, they will be more likely to be respected, given that they will have been negotiated by the whole range of actors involved. If unsuccessful, then naval and maritime personnel from the nations of these contested waters will have gained a much better understanding of their foes. This will not only give them a clearer picture of the opposition, but will also help them make the necessary but often difficult and even painful cultural transition from leaders used to thinking in terms of conventional sea power to officers equally at ease when facing a trawler or a submarine, a missile fired in anger or a ramming fishing boat. Successful riverine operations in South Vietnamare a good example of a similar cultural and organizational change brought about by the need to fight a dual war, and the resulting transformation is a reminder that this is indeed possible.
Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work, which includes “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact”, Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College, 23 December 2013, available at http://www.usnwc.edu/Publications/Working-Papers/Documents/WP1-Calvo.aspx, can be found here.
We received a strong and quality response to our Call for Articles requesting publications on India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific. Our authors were diverse in background and experience. Their analysis highlighted competition between India and China in the maritime domain, various foreign policy initiatives of the Modi administration, and India’s aspiration to assume greater influence and responsibility on the international stage. We thank our authors for their excellent contributions.
Below is a list of the articles that featured during the topic week, with relevant excerpts outlining the main thrust of each publication’s analysis.
“Implicit competition in what has been dubbed “a new great game for influence in the Indo-Pacific” between these two rising powers is the order of the day in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the West Pacific, and the South Pacific.”
“Even though it is popular for its crystalline waters and sun bathed beaches, recently Maldives has been appearing on the minds and finds of security strategists. So why have strategists shifted their gaze to this tiny tourist destination all of a sudden? Two reasons: India and China.”
“Not only have the mountain passes and peaks of the Himalayas become zones for potential conflict, where in the past they served as natural buffers, but the shared space of the Indo-Pacific also links the interests and security concerns of present day India and China.”
“While India’s ascendance to great power status will take time, owing to domestic constraints, how India positions itself in the Indo-Pacific balance of power and rises as a ‘net security provider’ will contribute significantly to its security and status.”
“The Modi government’s strongly maritime oriented foreign policy launched in 2014 has proven somewhat rewarding, particularly in helping the Indian Navy transcend its image of a force that punches below its weight. The politico-strategic recalibration by India in its Asia-Pacific policy has sought to retool its mid-1990s Look East policy with more purpose.”
“The analysis will show that Sino-Indian relations reflect a peculiar kind of stability: although their relationship will continue to be marked by distrust and intermittent disputes, the risk of escalation to war remains unlikely. In general, Sino-Indian relations are influenced by four factors: (1) their history of enmity; (2) strategic competition; (3) nuclear relations; and (4) trade.”
“The Prime Minister’s firm declaration of national intent for India to be a net security-provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond, means the various connotations of maritime security (defined as freedom from threats emanating ‘in’, ‘from’, or ‘through’ the medium of the sea can no longer be denied centrality in any serious consideration of India’s national security.”
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Reach the CIMSEC editorial team at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Sino-Indian relations have become increasingly complex in the last few years. Though bilateral trade and cooperation has been growing, relations have been increasingly strained by mutual suspicion and intermittent disputes. Given the huge influence the two Asian giants have over the global strategic environment, a key question that arises will be whether they can maintain a stable relationship amidst their growing distrust.
This paper will analyse their relationship through the perspectives of the three major international relations (IR) theories of realism, liberalism, and constructivism and will be split into two parts. The first will describe the main factors that influence bilateral relations. The second will analyse these factors using the three main IR theories as mentioned. The analysis will show that Sino-Indian relations reflect a peculiar kind of stability: although their relationship will continue to be marked by distrust and intermittent disputes, the risk of escalation to war remains unlikely. In general, Sino-Indian relations are influenced by four factors: (1) their history of enmity; (2) strategic competition; (3) nuclear relations; and (4) trade.
History of Enmity
China and India share a number of similarities. Both take pride in their historical past as ancient civilizations and aspire to great power status. Both have nuclear weapons, fast growing economies, and are currently rising powers. Despite their many similarities, their geographical proximity to each other has inevitably created friction.
Indeed, China and India share a long history of enmity. Between them, they have an ongoing territorial dispute that stretches over 4,057 kilometers. This dispute produced a war in 1962, followed by crises in 1967 and 1986. Throughout the decades, despite repeated attempts to come to an agreement, the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) remains highly disputed.
China’s occupation of Tibet since 1950 has been another contentious issue. India’s strategic interests in Tibet as a buffer state led it to support Tibetan rebels fighting Chinese rule in the mid-1950s. The Indian government also allowed the Dalai Lama to form the Tibetan government-in-exile in India to conduct “anti-China activities”. For China, India’s continued support to the Dalai Lama is seen as a sustained attempt to undermine Chinese control over Tibet.
Growing disagreements with India eventually pushed China to align itself more closely with Pakistan. It was believed that the two-front threat to India from Pakistan and China would distract India from intervening in Tibet. China has supported Pakistan militarily, first with conventional arms and later with nuclear and missile technology. India’s animosity with Pakistan has produced four wars (1948, 1965, 1971, 1999), repeated border skirmishes, terrorist attacks in India, continued tensions over Kashmir and a wider strategic competition for influence in South Asia. The fact that China continued to support to Pakistan even after a warming of Sino-Indian ties simply perpetuated New Delhi’s distrust of Beijing.
Both sides have attempted to repair their relationship with various confidence-building measures (CBMs) like reciprocal state visits, signing of various bilateral agreements, joint military exercises, and strengthening of bilateral trade. However, these CBMs have been undermined by intermittent crises which flare up over the historical disputes including occasional border skirmishes and incursions into each other’s territory, the stapling or outright denial of visas to those from the disputed states of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh by Chinese immigration, visits by the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, and even alleged Chinese diversion of rivers flowing into India.
While India and China have previously cooperated on issues like climate change and trade, international forums have gradually become a competitive arena for the two, where they have attempted to marginalize or deny access to each other. For instance, in 2008, China tried to oppose the Indo-US deal that would allow the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to trade nuclear materials with India. Similar ‘Chinese’ roadblocks have been encountered by India at the East Asia Summit (EAS), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Asian Development Bank (ADB), etc. Where India has greater influence, it has similarly tried to restrict Chinese access or influence, such as at the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong Ganges Cooperation (MGC) forums.
Their competition has also expanded into the maritime sphere. In recent years, China has become increasingly dependent on maritime trade with 82% of its oil imports transiting the Indian Ocean (IO) and the Malacca Straits. Protection of its sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in the IO has become a driving force behind China’s plans for a ‘blue water’ navy with greater power projection capabilities. The Chinese navy has also increased its naval activity in the IO with increased port calls at Karachi, Colombo, Chittagong and anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Most worryingly, China has been increasing its political and economic relations with India’s neighbours, raising concerns about a “string of pearls” of potential bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
This conflicts with India’s aspiration towards strategic leadership in the IO. It sees Chinese presence as an incursion into its strategic backyard and perhaps an attempt at “strategic encirclement”. India has responded in two ways. Firstly, its military has been improving its power projection capabilities with plans to acquire new aircraft carriers, naval aircraft, and upgrades to its missile capabilities. Secondly, India has been building strategic and economic partnerships with states in the Western Pacific like Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and most importantly, forging a global partnership with the United States (US). Such agreements have increased India’s presence in East Asia, leading some in Beijing to see this as an attempt to weaken China’s influence in the region and make a ‘counter-encirclement’ attempt. This competitive behaviour in both the international and maritime sphere has led to increased friction and distrust in their relationship.
Such friction has been tempered by a level of restraint on both sides. Despite the many strategic agreements with each other’s neighbours, none of these involve any actual military alliances that may draw them into wider disputes. Both have also resisted deploying a significant naval presence in each other’s strategic sphere, with China limiting its major deployments in the IO to anti-piracy operations, and India avoiding the establishment of a permanent naval presence in the Western Pacific.
The nuclear capabilities of both sides demonstrate the existence of mutual hedging strategies. China’s Dongfeng (DF) 31 missiles have the range to hit all parts of India but little of US territory. The basing of medium-range missile systems in Tibet is clearly targeted at India. India in turn, has begun development of an Anti-Missile Defence (AMD) system and longer range missiles such as the Agni-III, which has been called “China-specific”.
While such hedging strategies could potentially drive rapid armament leading to instability, this likelihood is tempered by ‘escalation-resistant’ policies of both sides. Both adhere to minimalist nuclear doctrines, preferring relatively small numbers of weapons and platforms. While China maintains a numerically larger and more sophisticated arsenal, India has not shown any interest in closing this gap. This acceptance of ‘unequal’ capabilities reduces the possibility of an escalatory nuclear arms race. Moreover, despite the intermittent friction in their relationship, none of their disputes have ever had a nuclear element to them.
Bilateral economic trade has been growing the last few decades. From a mere US$ 133.5 million in 1988, total trade reached nearly US$ 70 billion in 2014. However, two asymmetries exist within this relationship. Firstly, bilateral trade is less important to Beijing than to New Delhi. Charts 1 and 2 show that while China is India’s top trading partner, their trading volume is only a fraction of the total trade China has with others like the US, South Korea and Japan. Secondly, their bilateral trade has been heavily skewed in China’s favour. Almost 90% of India’s exports to China are low-cost raw materials and iron ore. In contrast, imports from China consist mostly of higher-value finished goods. The result as shown in Chart 3 is a growing trade deficit for India which has become a source of disagreement between the two. India has been pressuring China to import more products in the areas of pharmaceuticals, agricultural produce, energy, etc, and in turn has set high tariffs to protect Indian industries.
Chart 1: India’s Foreign Trade in USD Millions (2014)
Chart 2: China’s Foreign Trade in USD Millions (2014)
Chart 3: India’s Trade with China in USD Millions (2010-2014)
Characteristics of all three IR theories are reflected in Sino-Indian relations. Realism in general assumes that there is no central power governing the international system. States therefore prioritise self-interest over collective interest and have to accumulate power in order to survive. Such thinking drives states to attain a favourable balance of power and compete for influence. Balancing can consist of internal balancing – building up one’s own power, or external balancing – accumulating power through external relations. Liberalism focuses more on cooperation between states. States that are mutually dependent incur greater political costs in conflicts, and thus choose to pursue peaceful relations. This includes commercial interdependence for trading nations and strategic interdependence for states with nuclear weapons. Participation in international organizations is also believed to promote cooperation, leading to peace. Lastly, constructivism stresses the importance of identities, perceptions, and norms in determining how decisions are made.
For constructivists, the early disputes that marred Sino-Indian relations created a perception of mistrust and hostility. This perception was kept alive and reinforced by the periodical crises arising out of their many unresolved disputes. This situation is further exacerbated by their inescapable geographical proximity and near simultaneous emergence as rising powers. Combining elements of realism and constructivism, it can be argued that competition and friction between the two Asian giants will be inevitable since their common aspiration for great power status would force them to compete for influence, resources, and markets within the same strategic neighbourhood.
This does not mean that war is inevitable. For liberalists, the awesome power of nuclear weapons serves as a major restraint to conflict. Indeed, while crises and even limited conflict has occasionally flared up between past nuclear rivals like US-Soviet Union, India-Pakistan, and China-Soviet Union, caution and restraint was always shown when the danger of escalation loomed. This stability is strengthened when we consider the escalation-resistant nuclear policies of the Sino-Indian nuclear dynamic.
This however, has not prevented their strategic competition which has led to mutual balancing strategies seen in international forums and in the maritime sphere. Both India and China have balanced internally by strengthening their military, and also externally by building relations with each other’s neighbours. Again, their behaviour reveals a convergence of realism and constructivism. Firstly, India has shown greater willingness to work with the US – the preeminent superpower – in order to balance China – whom it perceives as the greater threat. This behaviour demonstrates Stephen Walt’s balance of threat thinking, as opposed to balance of power. Secondly, both India and China’s mutually balancing behaviour is driven by the fear of each other’s growing power and their own need to accumulate power for security. This creates an action/reaction dynamic known as a security dilemma which is potentially destabilizing as it creates a negative spiral of increasing tensions and perception of insecurity on both sides.
The security dilemma however, is tempered by policies which seem somewhat inconsistent with realist balancing strategies. First, restraint has been shown in the military-strategic sphere. Both sides have been careful to moderate their actions and avoid getting into strategic agreements that may get them involved in major disputes with each other. Second, is their growing economic interdependence. Such engagement is extremely rare between balancing rivals as it usually leads to dependence of the weaker power upon the stronger. Yet, India has embraced economic trade with China. Thirdly, although they see each other as rivals, their participation in CBMs reveal a genuine interest in strengthening ties.
Their relationship thus reveals an almost paradoxical policy of limited engagement and restrained balancing. What could be the motivation behind such behaviour? Noted political scientist Avery Goldstein provides a clue. He argues that China’s overwhelming imperative since the late 1990s has been to strengthen its economic and military strength while avoiding any external conflict. This “strategy of transition” which is expected to last another thirty to forty years, inevitably raises questions about China’s intentions once this transformation is complete.
It is this uncertainty over China’s long-term intentions which has forced India into this two-pronged strategy of engagement and balancing. In the long run, India engages its neighbour both economically and politically to improve ties and hope a friendly China emerges. Simultaneously, India also strengthens its military, preparing itself for the worst case scenario (i.e. internalbalancing). It also strengthens ties with China’s neighbours for the purpose of externalbalancing and to gain access to larger regional trade organizations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
China’s behaviour mirrors India’s. It pursues engagement since a stable regional environment facilitates the build up of its national strength. China also balances India through internal and external balancing while avoiding overly confrontational behaviour. But while India views bilateral trade through liberalist lenses, China sees it with a realist tinge. Indeed, there have been accusations that China’s trade policies have been designed to weaken her competitors and rivals, which may account for India’s large trade deficit vis-à-vis China.
As the analysis has shown, strands of realism, liberalism, and constructivism are inseparably interwoven into Sino-Indian relations. The central motivation for both state’s behaviour is however, fundamentally realist, undergirded by liberalist and constructivist thinking. The ultimate goal for both sides is the accumulation of power. Trade, international cooperation ,and friendly relations are encouraged since it facilitates this power accumulation. For India, such engagement also increases the chances that a friendly China emerges. In parallel, both states seek to expand their influence into each other’s backyard, as a means to accumulate more power and at the same time, undermine their potential future competitor. But this is done in a cautious manner to avoid destabilising relations which would hinder power acquisition.
What does this mean for Sino-Indian relations? With both sides focused on accumulating power and avoiding open conflict, one would expect their relationship to be broadly stable. However, the mutual distrust emanating from unresolved historical disputes coupled with their ongoing competition for overlapping spheres of influence makes it inevitable that intermittent crises will occur. These recurring crises will make complete rapprochement difficult, if not impossible.
Yet, these crises are unlikely to result in escalation for two reasons. Firstly, both India and China have demonstrated great discipline in moderating their military-strategic behaviour. Secondly, the mere presence of nuclear weapons encourages even greater caution and serves to minimise the risk of war. The result is thus, a long-run stability punctuated by occasional disputes and crises. While resolution of their rivalry remains improbable, escalation to war is similarly unlikely. In the long-run, the stability of their relationship will depend on how well both states can manage their competitive strategies and resolve their disputes, which in turn will limit the frequency of crises. There is no doubt however, that nuclear weapons will continue to serve as major limiting factor to war even in the future.
Byron Chong is currently pursuing his Masters in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. A passion for history and international politics drew him to this field of study after his first degree in engineering. His current research interests lie in the strategic and security affairs of the Asia Pacific region.
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The notion that China and India have fought only one war with each other in their civilizations’ long histories has sometimes been used to preface or bookend conversations about Sino-Indian strategic rivalry. It would seem that this narrative would require a sort of continuous geopolitics, the consistent orientation of collective interests and power and their relationship with geography. In fact, the geopolitical facts of the past do not fully link up with the realities of the 21st century. Not only have the mountain passes and peaks of the Himalayas become zones for potential conflict, where in the past they served as natural buffers, but the shared space of the Indo-Pacific also links the interests and security concerns of present day India and China.
Despite the potential for friction, a perspective that is overly obsessed with the potential for strategic rivalry between India and China can obscure where their interests meet. It also fails to fully contend with the very real and powerful aspects of economic and political globalization, as well as Asian perspectives on how the current iteration of the global system should change in order to accommodate the rise of its most accomplished and promising states. This may be why security narratives that hone in on the potential for direct strategic rivalry in the Sino-Indian relationship are so often thwarted by rebuttals which simply point to India and China’s regional and international cooperation on infrastructure projects, trade, and in multi-lateral forums. In order to more fully understand potential or actual strategic rivalry dynamics between China and India, it may be necessary to widen one’s view to the regional and super-regional periphery, to India and China’s potential partners in the maritime realm. The maritime domain provides the most room for realistic maneuver between the two countries in that it eschews an overt continental buildup along their contested border while taking advantage of the Indo-Pacific’s political and economic complexity.
The potential for strategic maritime competition generally lies in maintaining the ability to carry out sea control / sea denial missions and the maintenance of a nuclear second strike capability. India and China bothconsider sea control to be a crucial element of their national security. China’s colonial experience and its wars with the Japanese Empire both highlighted the importance of a capable navy. India’s recent experiences with seaborne terrorism and its memory of American carrier diplomacy in its 1971 war with Pakistan have also served a similar purpose. Outside of their continental and near seas interests, both countries’ economies rely on the safe passage of goods and energy. India’s overseas tradecontributes to 90 percent of its foreign trade by volume and around 70-77 percent of its trade value. 80 percent of India’s demand for oil is met by imports from overseas. Similarly, China’s economy relies heavily on imported energy, with over 85 percent of its oil demand met by overseas imports, two-thirds of which pass through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Straits of Malacca. 90 percent of China’s trade volume and 65 percent of its foreign trade value come via the sea, much of which also passes through the IOR. For growing Asian economies with the means to project power, these figures have justified the expansion of naval capabilities and greater operational distances.
At the same time, India and China’s simultaneous pursuit of a more robust maritime presence has spooked each country in turn. As a more confident Chinese maritime strategy has driven an expansion of sorts into the IOR, some Indian analysts have become increasingly alarmed by the so-called “string of pearls” and/or Maritime Silk Road initiative, both of which may serve to further entrench Chinese interests in the IOR. While Chinese submarines had been sighted before in the IOR, many Indian defense experts were particularly worried by the appearance of a Chinese submarine at the Sri Lankan Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) in 2014, which is a transit point for 48 percent of shipping bound for India. India has replied in turn by reemphasizing its desire to bolster its naval capabilities through indigenously produced, modern craft and through its own economic and geopolitical maneuvering. India is preparing to relax its cabotage laws in order to decrease its reliance on shipping from ports like the CICT. It is also working towards the construction of deep water ports of its own near major international shipping lanes. India has also expanded its cooperation with Japan and Vietnam. Japan and India plan to“deepen” their “bi-lateral defense relationship” and work together on infrastructure projects on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, northwest of the Strait of Malacca. India‘s growing cooperation with Vietnam has included a line of credit from India to Vietnam for Ocean Patrol Vessels, an Indian commitment to the training of 500 Vietnamese submariners, Indian support for Vietnam’s possible access to the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, and plans for the Indian construction of a satellite tracking station in Vietnam.
The expansion of the Sino-Indian action-reaction cycles to their respective strategic peripheries may be illustrative of what Chietigj Bajpaee refers to as a “nested security dilemma.” While there are certainly dangers to broadening the points of potential conflict between two powers, India and China’s moves to shore up their own economic and physical security through approaching potential partners in the region has also afforded the two powers a certain level of flexibility when it comes to strategic competition; providing opportunities for balancing each other with potential strategic competitors in an effort to sap the other’s efforts at expanding their operational and strategic reach while maintaining the productive aspects of their bi-lateral relationship. The most important relationships to India and China in this regard may be with the United States and Pakistan respectively.
The PRC’s relationship with Pakistan goes back to shortly after the emergence of both nations. Pakistan has served as a crucial element of China’s effort to reduce India’s threat of revanchism. Pakistan also helped partially balance India’s close relationship with the Soviet Union during the Sino-Soviet split, and served as the diplomatic bridge to the United States, producing perhaps the most pivotal re-alignment of the Cold War. Today, Pakistan serves as a potential corridor for China’s efforts to circumvent its “Malacca dilemma.” It also looks as if Pakistan’s maritime capabilities will become increasingly important for augmenting China’s strategic interests in South Asia and the IOR. Last year’s agreement between China and Pakistan for eight Type 41 Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines, the largest of China’s arms deals to date, provides the means for Pakistan to complicate not only India’s ability to operate in Pakistan’s littorals, but may serve as the genesis of Pakistan’s future submarine-based nuclear deterrent.
US-India détente has been slow coming and cyclical in nature but the end of the Cold War moved things along. As China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea began to rile the United States, India’s position as a core partner in the US’s “Asia-Pacific Rebalance” has been highlighted by high level visits from the United States and grand pronouncements regarding the potential of US-Indian partnership. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s efforts seem to have yielded an agreement “in principle” on the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. The US ambassador to India has also publicly expressed the desire, on the part of the US, to supply India with American aircraft and defense technology, highlighting that there “is no other country in the world that we are supporting as an emerging global defense leader” and that “[n]ever [has the US] actively supported the indigenous development of an aircraft carrier program in another country.”
Even though the Chinese relationship with Pakistan appears, at least publicly, less ambivalent than burgeoning US-Indian ties, the Indian relationship with the United States could be extremely important for India as it attempts to build a navy that may cope with the enormous task of controlling the IOR while maintaining its commitment to continental defense. While the US may continue to push for direct Indian participation in meeting China’s increasingly assertive stance in the South China Sea, it is in India’s interest to build its capabilities for affecting influence in its regional seas first, and relieving and supporting the US in the IOR so that it may put pressure on China in the South and East China seas. Also, up until a certain point, this creates the conditions for India’s plausible deniability in China’s security woes with the United States and China’s possible subsequent difficulty in pulling its navy away from its immediate maritime periphery. China, through providing a great deal of military equipment to Pakistan and developing its submarine capabilities, thus attempts to complicate India’s regional maritime security calculations in such a way that it works to obstruct its larger regional and international goals.
While one can observe patterns, the true nature of these developing strategic maritime relationships never appears totally clear. While China professes itself as an “all-weather friend” to Pakistan, it has also been cautiousabout looking too close to its number one arms customer and India’s main rival. The United States, on the other hand, driven by the imperatives of its Global War on Terror and its legacy of defense cooperation with Islamabad, continues to sell military equipment and platforms to Pakistan. Of course, the US-China relations is more often defined by their mutual interest than by where they clash. Finally, India and China maintain meaningful and productive contacts. With regards to security issues, Beijing and New Delhi have institutionalized a “Maritime Affairs Dialogue”, are working towards a military hotline, and meet in multi-lateral forums with other major powers, such as Russia, to present unified visions on regional and global issues.
This lack of solid commitment to overt balancing does not reflect a level of uncertainty about each country’s respective national interests in regards to the strategic orientation of the other. It is in China and India’s best interests to not concretely and directly align themselves with Pakistan and the United States due to the fact that the actions of their allies could reduce their strategic flexibility. China has long been concerned with internal unrest in Pakistan and with how Pakistan’s issues with terror have affected both Chinese citizens in Pakistan and bled over into its own restive regions. Pakistan’s tense relationship with India also adds a level of unpredictability to the strategic situation in South Asia, a cauldron that China would do well to avoid if it wants to protect its maritime and continental assets. India’s approach to its growing relationship with the United States also exhibits some anxieties about becoming involved in the growing clashes between Beijing and Washington. As one of India’s leading intellectuals said in his analysis of the Modi boom in US-Indian relations, “Do we really think we will challenge the Chinese [in the South China Sea] with the Americans, when all that the Chinese have to do is take a little walk across our vast borders to make us feel vulnerable?”
While an ostensibly positive bilateral relationship seems to define Sino-Indian relations for now, undercurrents of competition remain and appear to have the potential to proliferate. Both their respective strategic maritime orientations and the nature of their relations with regional and international powers may lead to a point where the curtain on Sino-Indian strategic machinations is raised. The illusory aspects of a diplomatic relationship built on political theatre serve as poor mechanisms for deescalating real conflicts which may seriously threaten both of their interests. At the same time, overt strategic competition could fuel naval arms racing between the two powers in a way that could be wasteful, make clashes even more likely, and further complicate the delicate diplomatic architecture of a highly dynamic Asia. Only a cautious and healthy mutual respect for each other’s power potential and the possible disastrous outcomes of unchecked strategic competition may add some degree of certainty to Asian diplomacy in the 21st century. Simultaneously, unclear policies masquerading as caution could lead to uncertainty that shapes miscalculation in times of conflict. Currently, trends in Sino-Indian relations appear to be quite positive. Although, derivations from the strategic status quo in the Indo-Pacific can force recalculations.
Ryan Kuhns is a Research Associate atPAXsims and holds an MA from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His research interests include defense economics, strategy, and the social/political organization of war. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone.
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