As the world moves into the second decade of the 21st century, a new power rivalry is taking shape between India and China, Asia’s two behemoths in terms of territory, population and richness of civilization.
India’s recent successful launch of a long-range missile able to hit Beijing and Shanghai with nuclear weapons is the latest sign of this development.
This is a rivalry borne completely of high-tech geopolitics, creating a core dichotomy between two powers whose own geographical expansion patterns throughout history have rarely overlapped or interacted with each other. Despite the limited war fought between the two countries on their Himalayan border 50 years ago, this competition has relatively little long-standing historical or ethnic animosity behind it.
The signal geographical fact about Indians and Chinese is that the impassable wall of the Himalayas separates them. Buddhism spread in varying forms from India, via Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to Yunnan in southern China in the third century B.C., but this kind of profound cultural interaction was the exception more than the rule.
Moreover, the dispute over the demarcation of their common frontier in the Himalayan foothills, from Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, while a source of serious tension in its own right, is not especially the cause of the new rivalry. The cause of the new rivalry is the collapse of distance brought about by the advance of military technology.
Indeed, the theoretical arc of operations of Chinese fighter jets at Tibetan airfields includes India. Indian space satellites are able to do surveillance on China. In addition, India is able to send warships into the South China Sea, even as China helps develop state-of-the-art ports in the Indian Ocean. And so, India and China are eyeing each other warily. The whole map of Asia now spreads out in front of defense planners in New Delhi and Beijing, as it becomes apparent that the two nations with the largest populations in the world (even as both are undergoing rapid military buildups) are encroaching upon each other’s spheres of influence — spheres of influence that exist in concrete terms today in a way they did not in an earlier era of technology.
And this is to say nothing of China’s expanding economic reach, which projects Chinese influence throughout the Indian Ocean world, as evinced by Beijing’s port-enhancement projects in Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This, too, makes India nervous.
Because this rivalry is geopolitical — based, that is, on the positions of India and China, with their huge populations, on the map of Eurasia — there is little emotion behind it. In that sense, it is comparable to the Cold War ideological contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, which were not especially geographically proximate and had little emotional baggage dividing them.
The best way to gauge the relatively restrained atmosphere of the India-China rivalry is to compare it to the rivalry between India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan abut one another. India’s highly populated Ganges River Valley is within 480 kilometers (300 miles) of Pakistan’s highly populated Indus River Valley. There is an intimacy to India-Pakistan tensions that simply does not apply to those between India and China. That intimacy is inflamed by a religious element: Pakistan is the modern incarnation of all of the Muslim invasions that have assaulted Hindu northern India throughout history. And then there is the tangled story of the partition of the Asian subcontinent itself to consider — India and Pakistan were both borne in blood together.
Partly because the India-China rivalry carries nothing like this degree of long-standing passion, it serves the interests of the elite policy community in New Delhi very well. A rivalry with China in and of itself raises the stature of India because China is a great power with which India can now be compared. Indian elites hate when India is hyphenated with Pakistan, a poor and semi-chaotic state; they much prefer to be hyphenated with China. Indian elites can be obsessed with China, even as Chinese elites think much less about India. This is normal. In an unequal rivalry, it is the lesser power that always demonstrates the greater degree of obsession. For instance, Greeks have always been more worried about Turks than Turks have been about Greeks.
China’s inherent strength in relation to India is more than just a matter of its greater economic capacity, or its more efficient governmental authority. It is also a matter of its geography. True, ethnic-Han Chinese are virtually surrounded by non-Han minorities — Inner Mongolians, Uighur Turks and Tibetans — in China’s drier uplands. Nevertheless, Beijing has incorporated these minorities into the Chinese state so that internal security is manageable, even as China has in recent years been resolving its frontier disputes with neighboring countries, few of which present a threat to China.
India, on the other hand, is bedeviled by long and insecure borders not only with troubled Pakistan, but also with Nepal and Bangladesh, both of which are weak states that create refugee problems for India. Then there is the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in eastern and central India. The result is that while the Indian navy can contemplate the projection of power in the Indian Ocean — and thus hedge against China — the Indian army is constrained with problems inside the subcontinent itself.
India and China do play a great game of sorts, competing for economic and military influence in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. But these places are generally within the Greater Indian subcontinent, so that China is taking the struggle to India’s backyard.
Just as a crucial test for India remains the future of Afghanistan, a crucial test for China remains the fate of North Korea. Both Afghanistan and North Korea have the capacity to drain energy and resources away from India and China, though here India may have the upper hand because India has no land border with Afghanistan, whereas China has a land border with North Korea. Thus, a chaotic, post-American Afghanistan is less troublesome for India than an unraveling regime in North Korea would be for China, which faces the possibility of millions of refugees streaming into Chinese Manchuria.
Because India’s population will surpass that of China in 2030 or so, even as India’s population will get gray at a slower rate than that of China, India may in relative terms have a brighter future. As inefficient as India’s democratic system is, it does not face a fundamental problem of legitimacy like China’s authoritarian system very well might.
Then there is Tibet. Tibet abuts the Indian subcontinent where India and China are at odds over the Himalayan borderlands. The less control China has over Tibet, the more advantageous the geopolitical situation is for India. The Indians provide a refuge for the Tibetan Dalai Lama. Anti-Chinese manifestations in Tibet inconvenience China and are therefore convenient to India. Were China ever to face a serious insurrection in Tibet, India’s shadow zone of influence would grow measurably. Thus, while China is clearly the greater power, there are favorable possibilities for India in this rivalry.
India and the United States are not formal allies. The Indian political establishment, with its nationalistic and leftist characteristics, would never allow for that. Yet, merely because of its location astride the Indian Ocean in the heart of maritime Eurasia, the growth of Indian military and economic power benefits the United States since it acts as a counter-balance to a rising Chinese power; the United States never wants to see a power as dominant in the Eastern Hemisphere as it itself is in the Western Hemisphere. That is the silver lining of the India-China rivalry: India balancing against China, and thus relieving the United States of some of the burden of being the world’s dominant power.