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
This is a rivalry born 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
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 born 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
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.