In recent years China’s attempts to alter the status quo in its territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have seized global headlines. The games of brinksmanship being played by Chinese naval forces in the Western Pacific have put the region on edge, propelling Asia into becoming “the most militarized region in the world.” Yet while the world’s attention has been focused on the maritime arena, it is China’s neighbor to the south, India, that has quietly become the world’s largest importer of arms.
The China-India rivalry has not garnered the same attention as the China-Japan rivalry because their disputed Himalayan border—the longest disputed border in the world—has been virtually free of violence since the first major conflict in their history, the 1962 border war. Compared with the volatile confrontations playing out in the East and South China Seas, the de facto China-India border, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), has been relatively tame. It’s also because since the 1980s, Beijing and Delhi have crafted a durable framework to manage their border dispute and cooperate in areas of mutual interest within the confines of a cold peace.
Today China and India are more politically and economically engaged than at any time in recent history. Bilateral trade expanded sixty-seven-fold from 1998 to 2012, and the Chinese and Indian armies held their first-ever joint military exercise in 2007, followed by two more in 2008 and 2013. They have periodically found common agendas on global issues of mutual interest like world trade talks, climate-change negotiations, the primacy of state sovereignty, and the need to reform global-governance institutions.
Most important, both capitals have shown a commitment to mitigating recurring tensions in the relationship. When crises do arise—as was the case when a Chinese border patrol intruded across the LAC for three weeks in April 2013—they’ve responded with calm and patience to dissolve the crisis diplomatically. At the government-to-government level relations are, in a word, civil.
However, cooperation and competition coexist in this relationship, advancing in tandem on parallel tracks. And while the cooperative track has been accelerating since the turn of the century, the strategic competition has kept pace, and in some arenas advanced faster. The phenomenon should be familiar to Washington. U.S.-Chinese relations operate in a similar framework: deeper integration in the diplomatic and economic sphere accompanied by growing strategic mistrust in the security arena.
Perhaps the key feature of the China-India rivalry is that while it is felt and sustained by both parties, it is in many ways one-sided. China’s “comprehensive national power” exceeds India’s by such a wide margin. China’s economy was over four times the size of India’s in 2012, and over eight times the size when adjusting for purchasing-power parity (PPP). China’s official military budget of $119 billion in 2013 was over three times larger than India’s $38 billion defense budget. India more than twice China’s poverty rate (29.8 percent vs. 13.4 percent) and only two-thirds its literacy rate (62 percent vs. 95 percent).
If India can leverage favorable demographics it will be in a position to close the strategic gap with China by midcentury. In 2012 India’s working-age population grew by twelve million while China’s shrank by over three million. A June 2013 UN report on world population prospects predicts India’s population will surpass China’s by 2028.
However, for the immediate future China will remain a distant peer, and this gap is matched by a major asymmetry in threat perceptions. While India ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack in China’s matrix of strategic priorities, most Indian strategists today view China as their country’s principal security threat. In Delhi, being anti-China is politically popular and financially profitable. A Lowy Institute Poll released in May 2013 found just 31 percent of Indians surveyed felt China’s rise had been good for India while 65 percent felt India should “join other countries to limit China’s influence.” Some 73 percent of Indians surveyed thought war with China was a “big threat” and 70 percent thought China’s aim was “to dominate Asia.”
These assessments are corroborated by India’s evolving twenty-first century defense posture: India is now the world’s largest importer of arms, despite its conventional military superiority over archrival Pakistan. Nearly all the major initiatives to improve India’s military infrastructure are taking place not at the India-Pakistan border, but the India-China border. In 2009 India added two new mountain-infantry divisions, followed in 2013 by the raising of India’s first offensive Strike Corps, all for the Eastern Sector of the border dispute with China.
In the strategic-arms arena, India is developing longer-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets upward of five thousand kilometers away, despite having all of Pakistan covered by its short- and medium-range arsenal. India’s naval modernization program, meanwhile, is geared toward power projection capabilities. Delhi is working diligently to bring its first indigenous aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines to sea in the next five years. (It already operates two carriers and a Russian-leased nuclear submarine).
Perhaps most important, over the past decade India has begun to transform its external relationships after spending much of the twentieth century focused inward on the subcontinent. In East Asia, Delhi is broadening its strategic engagement with the U.S.-allied countries of the Western Pacific. The changes have been most profound with regard to Japan, which is fast becoming one of India’s closest partners in the region. After decades of lukewarm relations, Delhi and Tokyo are now conducting joint military exercises, discussing nuclear cooperation, and talks are underway to make India the first recipient of exported Japanese military hardware in the new century. At its premier Republic Day celebration in January 2014, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was Delhi’s chosen guest.
The most significant change, however, has been the profound transformation of the U.S.-India relationship since 2005, when the two sides signed a ten-year defense partnership agreement and a historic civil-nuclear deal. At the time, U.S.-India defense trade had been limited to a few dozen jet engines and some Firefinder radar. By 2011, India was the third-largest purchaser of U.S. arms, accounting for some $4.5 billion in sales that year alone. By 2013 Delhi had ordered or purchased sensor-fused bombs, Apache helicopters, P8-I surveillance aircraft, M-777 howitzers, C-130J and C-17 transport aircraft, and a large amphibious transport dock. The U.S. now conducts more joint military exercises with India—over fifty a year by one count—than with any other country, NATO allies included. And while the U.S.-India partnership is grounded in a litany of common interests and robust diplomatic and people-to-people exchanges, shared concerns about China’s rise remain a driving force behind the strategic rapprochement.
In sum, though Indian diplomats frequently speak the language of Sino-Indian comity, their strategic posture reveals a country profoundly affected-and threatened-by China’s rise. And while anti-India sentiments are both less prevalent and less fervent in China, nearly two-thirds of Chinese polled by Pew in 2012 reported an “unfavorable” view of India. Among China’s influential nationalists, disdain for India is more widespread, and more intensely felt.
So how has the China-India rivalry evolved in the twenty-first century? In the early 2000s it appeared as if the two sides would enjoy something of a second honeymoon. They signed two important agreements to manage their border dispute in 2003 and 2005, in addition to the first substantive rounds of military-to-military dialogues mentioned above, and the convergence of interests on climate change and trade.
However, the lure of rivalry seemed to re-assert itself after 2005. The border negotiations process—now over four dozen rounds and counting—ground to a halt after 2005, with an arms and infrastructure buildup on both sides of the Line of Actual Control, aggressive border patrolling, and renewed Chinese claims on Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese nuclear and military assistance to Pakistan, Chinese infrastructure projects in Kashmir, and China’s use of “stapled visas” for Indian residents from Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh frequently positioned China as a villain in Indian headlines.
Meanwhile, a new Indian assertiveness on issues relating to Tibet has come at a time when Chinese sensitivities on the plateau have been heightened by a wave of unrest, including over one hundred self-immolations by Buddhist monks protesting Chinese rule. The transition of power to an elected prime minister in the Tibetan Government in Exile and a forthcoming battle for the right to name a successor to the 78-year-old Dalai Lama are likely to keep Tibet a volatile issue in China-India relations for the foreseeable future.