In East Asia, India has found common ground with regional capitals alarmed by China’s claims in the South China Sea, and Delhi has become a vocal proponent of “Freedom of Navigation” there. It has begun a robust agenda of military exercises in the region, joining trilateral naval exercises with the U.S. and Japan to complement regular military exercises with members of ASEAN. Finally, India is exploring for energy in waters off Vietnam—waters claimed by China as part of its Exclusive Economic Zone.
In conclusion, China and India are likely to witness continued friction across the geopolitical spectrum for the foreseeable future, even if outright conflict remains unlikely. Perhaps that should be expected from two powers so large, rising so fast, in such close proximity. And perhaps the Chinese and Indian leadership should be given credit for pursuing mutual cooperation despite their litany of differences. Whether they continue sparring and collaborating under the framework of a cold peace or descend into an openly hostile rivalry will depend on China.
If Beijing restores its commitment to a “peaceful rise,” subdues the tide of militant nationalism, focuses on resolving its litany of domestic and economic problems, and pursues a resolution of the Sino-Indian territorial dispute in good faith, it will almost certainly find a willing partner in Delhi. However, if Chinese nationalists remain determined to atone for China’s “century of humiliation” by aggressively seeking unilateral resolutions to China’s territorial disputes or seeking submission from neighboring countries in a new, Chinese-led regional order, it will find a great deal of resistance from its old rival to the south.
Jeff M. Smith is the Director of South Asia Programs and Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington DC. This article was drawn from excerpts of his new book Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century.