India - International Relations
Icy winds from the Himalayas
China and India have been studied systematically, but rarely together, in their bilateral dimension. Constantino Xavier explains why the trans-Himalayan relationship is just crucial for the future of international politics. From Washington, DC.
In September, Delhi’s torrid temperatures usually start their descent and the humidity evaporates, giving over to the freshness of autumn and winter. This year however, icy winds already blow across the Indian capital. They come from the Himalayas.
The recent Chinese offensive in South of Asia, from the military to the economic fronts, forced an unprepared India to recognize the increasing asymmetry in Sino-Indian relations. For those following India’s current strategic debate, the change is clear: suddenly, China became the number one worry.
Shedding past diplomatic euphemisms and shy statements, Indians are now calling the Northern threat by its name. Neither Indian ministers nor generals now make an effort to restrain from publicly designating Beijing as the country’s “main threat”. It’s a permanently growing hostility that suggests an increasing potential for conflict.
China and India have been studied systematically, but rarely together, in their bilateral dimension. Why is the trans-Himalayan relationship one of the most important for the future of international politics? Firstly, because of the mere size of the two giants; both occupy top ranking positions in demographic terms (2.5 billion people, half of the world’s total), economic terms (projected to be the two largest economies by 2050) and military terms (nuclear powers, each with more than a million-strong army).
Secondly, they are also two giants which inhabit the same regional space, with vital needs (sustainability of economic growth, energy resources, regional integration and internal security) and historic narratives (historic civilization-states, nationalism) which are relatively similar, but overlap and are mutually exclusive on various fronts.
Thirdly, there are important lessons to be learnt from the past. Never have two states in the same regional neighborhood emerged simultaneously in peace. China and India have been to war before, share a three thousand kilometers-long border disputed for centuries, and although they are concentrating their efforts in opposite sub-regions (East and South Asia, respectively), in an increasingly integrated Asia they (will have to) coexist in the same Lebensraum.
Fourthly, there is a larger set of other emerging tensions, apart from the mere border question. There is the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile, welcomed by India since 1959. There is the regional neighborhood of India in South Asia, countries that New Delhi always claimed to be its strategic monopoly, inherited from the British Raj, but in which the Chinese are now investing massively in infrastructure and training armies, from Nepal to Sri Lanka.
Fifthly, contrary to what is often argued, the growing synergies, interdependencies and cross-border flows between the two countries are not necessarily an indicator of an increasingly peaceful relationship. With more integration, there will also be a necessarily proliferation of tensions and disagreements, mainly economic ones. Unfortunately, the functionalist premises that guided Europe’s integration, that peaceful island of the 20th century, seem to have little validity in a 21st century Asia marked by a Westphalian spirit.
There is the neighborhood, countries that New Delhi always claimed to be its strategic monopoly, but in which the Chinese are investing massively.
Let us return to the past, to understand what motivates the sudden Indian surprise at China’s Southern power offensive. China’s presence in Indian foreign policy went through four very distinct phases.
A first phase is marked by intense contact and exchanges over several centuries up to the modern era. India and China communicated across the Himalayas, which saw a continuous bilateral flow of dynasties and armies, philosophers, thinkers, priests, artists and businessmen, and with them ideas, techniques, styles and goods – Amartya Sen refers to this period repeatedly in his fascinating The Argumentative Indian. It is this historical proximity that led newly independent post-1947 India to look for a close relationship with China, believing that, together, in a peaceful and fraternal way, they could change international politics and infuse it with a post-colonial idealistic orientation. In this perspective, the idea of an “Asian century” is not that new – Nehru had already proclaimed it in 1947 at the Asian Relations Conference, in New Delhi.
Against this panorama, the short but violent Sino-Indian war of 1962 came as a rude shock to India, or at least that is how current Indian historiography describes it: India was incredulous, traumatized and profoundly wounded by a Chinese aggression which took on humiliating terms, with a fulminating entry followed by a unilateral withdrawal. However, instead of preparing its vengeance, India went in to a resentment and introversion mode – never before had the Himalayan mountain peaks appeared to be so high and impassable as in the following decades, until the 1990´s.
It is during this second period that India learned to forget China. Victimized, traumatized, it withdrew, looking everywhere else but to the Northeast. China became a taboo subject for Indian journalists, diplomats or academics. The Non-Aligned Movement allowed India to keep its strategic autonomy and escape the bipolar logic of the Cold War. And while China itself went through internal convulsions, there were really no great incentives to look beyond the Himalayas.
It would be only from the end of 1980, with the visit of Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing, in 1988 (the first of an Indian statesman since Nehru, in 1954!), that the normalization began. It is in this third period, until 2000, that diplomatic relations were restarted. The Indian mantra for this new meeting was equality –“we are the two Asian giants”, they exclaimed proudly and also somewhat naively in Delhi, ignoring or downplaying China’s obvious superiority on many fronts, including on the multilateral front, with its permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council.
According to this Indian narrative, China and India were going to activate their enormous latent potential and lead the world’s passage into a new multipolar era. The dominant idea was one of bilateral engagement, of contact and collaboration, and that both countries were on the same level, so as to say partners. This made sense up to a certain point, as New Delhi became a declared nuclear power in 1998 and its economic growth rates at times even surpassed the Chinese ones.
And indeed, everything looked very promising and bright for Sino-Indian relations: bilateral trade shot up to US$ 60 billion, with China becoming India’s largest commercial partner in 2008; Chinese companies started investing heavily in India; tourist flows increased exponentially, unprecedented military cooperation with joint exercises, and collaboration in international institutions, where both claimed the leadership of the G80 and developing countries.
The reality shock
It is against this illusion of equality of which the Indians convinced themselves in the 1990s that, after 2004, the spectacular Chinese superiority came as a shocking surprise to most Indians. India suddenly faced a China fuelling a series of diplomatic incidents, military frontier provocations, aggressive external investments, an increasingly asymmetric trade balance and a “strategic encirclement” scenario in South Asia. Adding to this is the perception that the international system is about to enter irrevocably into an era of Sino-American bipolarization, once again marginalizing India from world politics.
India suddenly faced a China fuelling a series of diplomatic incidents, military frontier provocations and a “strategic encirclement” scenario.
India thus rapidly recognized the tremendous cost it was going to pay for the long post-traumatic period, until the 1990s, in which it had persistently ignored China. There was no Indian media correspondent in China, there was hardly any significant scholarly Indian expertise on Chinese language, politics, culture, economy and society (the first generation of Indian Sinologists is still being educated), nor did the diplomats consider Beijing an important or appetizing post – China was an enormous black hole on India’s strategic world map.
Over the last four years there has been some change but generally, the lack of specialized knowledge remains (in the meantime, the Chinese government is preparing its second generation of Indian specialists and there are hundreds of Chinese studying in New Delhi). It is precisely for this reason that the “threatening resurgence” of China on the horizon of the Himalayas has provoked such a passionate debate and strong reactions among Indians.
One example of this largely generalized sensationalism (and alarmism) is how Indians have been reacting to the news of a possible extension of the Chinese railroad from Lhasa, in Tibet, to Kathmandu, in Nepal, less than an hour’s flight from New Delhi. It’s just a rumor, but it punctuates most Indian discussions on China: “here they come!”.
The Indian dilemma
It is in this context that the Indian government faces a serious dilemma, with deep implications for the larger region and the world.
On one side, in an optimistic view, New Delhi is forced to continue with its 1990s engagement policy, fuelling normalization and deepening of bilateral relations, seeking to maximize benefits and tie up or integrate with China on various fronts, thus dissuading Beijing from coercing India on the economic or strategic levels.
On the other side, there is the more martial temptation. For the hawks of New Delhi, including strategists like Brahma Chellaney and some of the new generation of thinkers at The Indian National Interest, it is necessary to modernize the Armed Forces, consolidate India’s maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, develop the intercontinental missile Agni-V (with autonomy to reach Beijing), forge new extra-regional alliances (USA, Japan and Australia, but also Russia and Iran, in order to balance China) and support Tibetan separatism, or at least keep it as a playing card on the table. Definitely an openly hostile strategy, but also a very popular one among Indians in general.
However, the two options are not necessarily incompatible and it seems that PM Manmohan Singh is inclined towards a middle way. While he is betting on the intensification of bilateral relations on the social economic level and admits the possibility of a free trade agreement with China, thus maintaining a soft posture, he is also giving a sign strength by placing a new fighter squadron from the Air Force in the Tezpur base in the North East of India, just a few flight minutes away from the most disputed sector of Tibet and the disputed Sino-Indian frontier.
India’s well-known “double strategy” was popularized by the Indian military, which used it successfully against the internal separatists: "crush them first, and then negotiate". With China however, India seems ready to invert the saying and proceed more cautiously.