China, India and the Confrontation Neither Side Wants

By Phillip Orchard


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is flying to Wuhan for a weekend of soul searching with Chinese President Xi Jinping along the banks of the Yangtze. The last-minute trip is Modi’s second of three to China scheduled to take place within the span of a year. It’s also just the latest bit of high-level outreach from New Delhi to Beijing, which makes sense: Neither leader has a shortage of grievances to air with the other – and both have ample interest in preventing tit-for-tat confrontation from putting the two emerging powers on a collision course.

Over the past year, Indian and Chinese jostling for position in South Asia has picked up considerably. In July and August, Chinese and Indian forces engaged in a standoff over the disputed Doklam border region in the high Himalayas. Since then, China has continued cozying up to pro-Beijing governments in South Asian countries firmly within India’s traditional sphere of influence, from Sri Lanka to Nepal to the Maldives. China’s tool of choice in its effort has been its sprawling One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative, with Beijing winning the rights to build strategically located deep-water ports, among other projects, throughout India’s periphery.

India sees this as an excuse for China to encircle it with de facto Chinese naval bases. (In India’s view, its fears were validated this week when China’s defense minister told his Pakistani counterpart that Beijing was ready to provide security for OBOR projects such as Pakistan’s Gwadar port.) In response, New Delhi has been sounding the alarm that participating countries risk becoming overly indebted to the Chinese, poking holes in Beijing’s narrative that OBOR is a force for the common good. India has been similarly busy in China’s backyard, deepening defense and economic cooperation with states that pose strategic problems to Beijing, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. Most alarming to Beijing, India has joined Japan, Australia and the U.S. in taking early steps toward reviving “the Quad,” an alliance aimed at managing Chinese assertiveness and economic coercion in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Yet, over the past three months, India has also been moving to defuse tension. New Delhi has dispatched a series of high-level officials to Beijing. It canceled a pro-Tibet conference headlined by the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. It quietly backed down after China threatened to take action to prevent India from intervening in a political crisis in the Maldives. Most notably, on April 26, it announced that it would not invite Australia to take part in major trilateral naval exercises with the U.S. and Japan in June, a setback for the Quad.

All this speaks to the uneasy trajectory of Sino-Indian relations. Realistically, neither country has much interest in duking it out for supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, as illustrated by the sense of urgency with which India has been seeking to head off a major confrontation, underlying forces are pushing the two sides into a self-perpetuating cycle of zero-sum competition anyway. And the deeper China and India sink into this spiral, the harder it will be for either side to pull out.

Unlikely Rivals
It’s a matter of course that two rising border rivals – both just beginning to get a taste for power projection – would increasingly bump up against each other as they attempt to carve out protective buffers and lock in their newfound gains. But historically, and for the most part still today, neither China nor India poses a major threat to the other’s homeland.

There is literally a huge barrier to war between the two countries. To move a substantial force between China and India, one option would be to cross the forbidding Himalayas. If, say, India were to effectively occupy Tibet, or China were to occupy Nepal, this would certainly pose a problem. But the logistics of warfare at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) is exceedingly difficult, meaning both could feel reasonably secure with these regions existing as buffers, perhaps host to occasional shows of machismo that fall far short of risking all-out war. The other option is to sail more than 3,000 nautical miles through the turbulent waters flanking the Malay Peninsula and the Bay of Bengal. Attacking China this way is a non-starter for India. For China, it’s true that the pace of the People’s Liberation Army Navy modernization has been extraordinary, as illustrated by this week’s launch of sea trials for China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier. But China’s buildup is primarily intended to dominate its littoral waters and secure access through the first island chain, and it’s a long way from developing the combined air-sea battle capabilities needed to really challenge India from the sea.

Moreover, Beijing and New Delhi’s strategic orientations are in fundamentally different directions, in inherently poor positions to threaten the other’s critical interests farther afield. China’s core strategic problem is the series of maritime chokepoints to its east and south, which an outside naval power could use to sever China’s access to critical sea lines of communication. A powerful Indian navy could conceivably threaten Chinese oil imports from the Middle East or exports to Europe, but the Indian Ocean is vast, and India is a long way from having a navy capable of dominating critical sea lanes even if it had a reason to. India’s core strategic problem is its internal incoherence and the hostile nuclear power on its western border. If it had its way, India would mostly just be left alone to manage its internal fractures and keep Pakistan at bay.

The problem is that as China moves to address its primary strategic concerns to its east, secondary concerns to its southwest are becoming more important, making India, largely unwittingly, more of a potential threat. This is forcing India to respond in ways that further heighten the threat to China, which is forcing China to fix the Indian Ocean more firmly in its sights, which is forcing India to reach out to outside powers like the U.S., and so on. This cycle will only intensify as military developments diminish the significance of the geographic barriers that have largely preserved an uneasy peace.
Necessary Choices
China is finding little choice but to push into South Asia. It needs to find ways to bypass chokepoints in the East and South China seas, so it needs to build deep-water ports, pipelines and rail lines in India’s backyard. It’s under pressure to keep its domestic industries humming and its oligarchs happy to prevent destabilizing power struggles at home, so it needs to bribe, cajole or coerce local governments into awarding Chinese firms the rights to build them. Since it doesn’t have the trillions of dollars needed to fund the entirety of the initiative on its own, it needs to use every tool of state power at its disposal to win projects on the most favorable terms possible. Inevitably, some of these will have to be built in notoriously restive regions – some of which will become more unstable as OBOR projects exacerbate social and environmental tensions – so it needs to push for permission to use its security forces to do what security forces from weaker host states may not be able to do. And to prepare for a potential conflict that blocks its maritime chokepoints, China needs to develop the naval forces to keep its backup outlets open and counter enemy forces coming from the west – and this means it needs to establish bases and logistics facilities abroad to support them.

China has relatively little fear of India’s own military trajectory – a fact underscored regularly, including this week, by derisive commentary in Chinese state media – even if India would have a considerable home-field advantage if a conflict broke out in the Indian Ocean. But an India tightly aligned with the U.S. and its regional allies would rightfully be alarming to Beijing. Such an alliance would help make up for the dramatic shortfall in Indian capabilities, of course, while allowing India to expand its presence dramatically without taking on a long-term project of developing overseas bases and logistics facilities. A string of recent agreements with both the U.S. and France will aid in this regard. More important, it would ease the burden on the U.S. in a potential conflict with China, allowing the Americans to amass forces where needed while trusting partners like India and Australia to provide support from the flanks.

For India, the validity of China’s strategic fears is meaningless, as is the reality that China is currently too weak to project substantial power into the Indian Ocean. Whatever China’s intentions, India feels encircled by a country with a voracious appetite for power – one that happens to be arming New Delhi’s most dangerous rival and intent on building a bluewater navy – putting it at an intolerable long-term risk of a two-front war.

Still, New Delhi is caught between conflicting interests here and struggling somewhat to find its footing. It doesn’t want to push its neighbors into China’s orbit by trying to deny them the Chinese aid and investment their economies may need. But its influence with these states would suffer if it were seen as a pushover, incapable of countering Chinese coercion. Already, China has ample cause to think that if it pushes, India will be the first to back down. New Delhi needs the Quad to pose a credible deterrent and persuade China that its best interest is to rise within the established order. Yet, lately, the U.S. has proved to be something of an aloof and inconsistent security partner, and India can’t build a strategy around an outside power that may not show up in a crisis.

Thus, while neither country wants a fight, India wants it less. This will make India an exceedingly reluctant Quad partner, keen to avoid coordinated actions that make China feel backed into a corner. But it will be a Quad partner nonetheless. China can’t back down without sacrificing its core imperatives, and India’s lack of options in the matter will become increasingly apparent.

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