India has a China problem. In this first of three essays we wish to summarise why this is so, and in the two subsequent ones we examine the decadal trends that will influence how this problem might play out and end with a set of recommendations for what India can do to minimise adverse outcomes.
The first of the three sources of India’s China problem is the outcome of the last three decades of systematically higher economic growth in China. By any useful metric, China has pulled ahead from rough parity around 1980 and perhaps as late as 1990. Today, China’s GDP is four times that of India’s, and the ratio is still increasing. This suggests that for the next two decades, India will be up against a neighbour with a substantial advantage in material resources. China also has greater financial strength accruing from its deeper involvement in the international trading system. Finally, China has made greater investments in military power, both conventional and unconventional. China has sought to counter the United States and has thus necessarily gained capabilities vis-a-vis India. All of these make China a formidable antagonist for India on current projections.
The second source of India’s China problem is that this relative growth in Chinese national power is significant not only locally but also globally. Chinese power has been growing relative to the other major actors in the international system, most importantly the US, and “business-as-usual” projections imply that China’s GDP, measured directly in dollar terms, could equal that of the US by 2030, perhaps sooner. While China might still lag in the global technology race, GDP parity does imply that Chinese freedom of action will not be as constrained by the power of the US acting on its own as it is today. Indeed, even in narrow military terms, projecting power across the Pacific to the close proximity of a rival with rapidly growing resources already poses challenges for the US at a time when domestic budgetary constraints are affecting defence spending.
By itself, a change in the balance of power in the international system doesn’t have to impact India adversely — after all, the last major power transition from Britain to the US helped India achieve independence. However, in the current case, there is little room for optimism. China’s geopolitical interests are fundamentally adversarial to India’s, beginning in India’s own neighbourhood, inclusive of their common, unsettled border, where China launched a surprise attack in 1962. Pakistan, India’s permanent security headache, has long received Chinese support, ensuring that India’s attention is diverted away from its rival in the east, as well as providing China with a friendly route to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Beyond the immediate neighbourhood, Chinese strategic thought and behaviour indicate a drive for Asian hegemony that will constrain India’s freedom of manoeuvre. At the ideological level, China’s default vision is incompatible with India’s, whether on cultural pluralism, as witnessed in the mutual incomprehension over Tibet, or the institutional pluralism of democracy. It seems unwise for India to bet that a Chinese state that seeks a political monopoly and extensive control over its own population will not seek, at the very least, deference abroad whenever its growing power allows a credible attempt. Finally, there is evidence that popular and elite Chinese beliefs about India are unsympathetic and are unlikely to make for an easy relationship.
Our comments above may seem abstract, so it is useful to list developments that India may have to contend with over the next two decades if current trends go unchallenged. These are not predictions but an attempt to identify points of slippage under the growing stresses. In considering these potential slippage points, we ask the reader to imagine an environment in which China has unquestioned military dominance over India and a major voice in the international system, especially in economic and financial matters. In other words, to imagine a future in which Chinese power looks like the power the US commands today.
With that in mind, consider, for one, developments inside Tibet, perhaps following the death of the Dalai Lama, which could lead to decisive Chinese pressure for India to shut down all Tibetan political activity in India and to force the Tibetan government-in-exile into further exile outside India. Tibetan refugees in India would be asked to take Indian citizenship or to leave India, bringing to an end a morally admirable policy that India has stubbornly clung to for over 50 years.
Second, as in 1962, China might also use unrest in Tibet as a pretext to seek a new border settlement on Chinese terms. This time, China might end up controlling Tawang, which Chinese officials currently refer to as part of “south Tibet” (along with the rest of Arunachal Pradesh). Unlike the 1962 war, a future military clash may not be restricted to land warfare at the border — instead, we may see a more dispersed set of strikes with precision weapons that disable Indian capabilities in one fell swoop as well as cyber attacks. China would also be likely to bring to bear financial pressure, using economic warfare levers acquired through high levels of investment and trade.
Third, China’s military build-up, combined with the internal weakness of states around India’s borders and China’s growing interest in Middle East resources and trade routes, could result in an expanded, permanent Chinese military presence outside China, for example, in Pakistan. Similarly, unless India takes steps to match China’s build-up in its traditional maritime sphere of influence, China could soon enjoy a permanent and relatively inexpensive naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
Fourth, if terror attacks against India traced to Pakistan resulted in a future crisis, China would be in a position to pressure India into an unfavourable settlement.
Fifth, just as China seeks to influence neighbouring countries’ relations with Taiwan and the US, in the future we can expect China to try to limit the strategic autonomy of these states, including India’s. This would result in a kind of “Finlandisation” of India, according to which Indian leaders would make regular pilgrimages to Beijing to “co-ordinate” positions on all major international questions even at the cost of Indian national interests.
Finally, consistent with current Chinese proposals on the future of the internet and freedom of speech globally, a chilling of Indian free speech on China would accompany the reduction of India’s strategic autonomy. This discourse control would be accomplished through a combination of diplomatic and economic pressure, as well as technical means involving Chinese cyber intrusion, monitoring and filtering.
Anyone with a long view of the history of the India-China relationship should be struck by a pattern of constant Chinese pressure that is resisted for periods by India but ultimately results in Indian concessions. In the 1950s, India was negotiating the incorporation of Tibet into China. Today, India finds itself (in reality) negotiating the incorporation of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh into India. Thus the line of contestation has moved steadily against India and the default prediction should be that it will move still further. The burden of proof is on those who believe that the growing adverse balance of power will also magically bring this drift to an end.
Our purpose in this piece was to establish that much is truly at stake for India as it deals with China over the next couple of decades and that the current projections are not comforting. In the next piece, we look deeper behind these projections and find grounds for optimism.
Deal is president and CEO of the Long Term Strategy Group, a Washington DC-based defence consultancy. Rosen is Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University and senior counsellor at LTSG. Sondhi is on the faculty at Princeton and directs the India and the World programme at its Centre for International Security Studies