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China vs. India: the “Contest of the Century”

Thus did the Economistcharacterize the dynamic between China and India, arguing that how they “manage their own relationship will determine whether similar mistakes to those that scarred the 20th century disfigure this one.” 

It’s not surprising that the two countries invite incessant comparisons:

  • They’re giant neighbors.  
  • Each has a population of over a billion (they collectively account for 36.3% of the world’s people).
  • They anchor the “rise of the rest.”
  • Each touts its style of governance as opposed to that of the other: China, with its authoritarian efficiency; India, with its democratic vibrancy.
  • Nor is it surprising that many worry about the potential for Sino-Indian tensions to escalate:

    • 50 years after going to war, they still bitterly contest their border: China estimates it to be about 1,240 miles long; India, 2,175.
    • Each is modernizing its power-projection capabilities: China is doing so much more rapidly, its military budget—the world’s second-largest—having grown at an average of 13.8% per year from 2000-11 (in constant 2010 U.S. dollars); India, meanwhile, has replaced China as the world’s largest arms importer.
    • Each has a sizable nuclear arsenal: according to the Federation of American Scientists, China has about 240 warheads; India, between 80 and 100. [1]
    • As their economies and military capabilities grow—and, accordingly, as their interests extend further regionally and globally—they’re bound to bump up against each other more frequently.
    • I should toss in a few important caveats:

      • Media can and sometimes do exaggerate Sino-Indian tensions.
      • Not all of the trends in their relationship are unfavorable.  Trade between the two, for example, expanded from not even $3 billion in 2000 to $73 billion last year.
      • The Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf suggests that it may be premature to speak of a “great-power rivalry” between China and India: “full-blown geopolitical rivalry cannot occur on one dimension only—it needs to go beyond, say, a military capabilities competition to include diplomacy, economics and even soft power….rivalry can[not] be one-sided….China worries much of the Indian security establishment deeply, but most Chinese strategists are much less worried about India.”
      • In the same vein as Medcalf, most observers argue that while India wants to be seen as participating in a great-power contest with China, that contest ended in China’s favor several years earlier.  Just look at the growth rates of Chinese GDP and defense spending, they say.  

        And yet, it’s both interesting and important to challenge such determinism.  Consider a recent op-ed by Tyler Cowen, who, drawing on an analysis by Bentley University’s Scott Sumner, concludes that “under even modestly optimistic projections the Indian economy will be No. 1 in terms of total size” by the next century.  Or consider a report that RAND prepared for the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment, comparing China and India out to 2025 in four categories: demography, macroeconomics, science and technology, and defense and procurement expenditures.  The report suggests that India may have a long-term competitive edge over China:

        [D]emographic changes are likely to be relatively more favorable to India than to China….The three other dimensions of our assessment reverse this balance….Prospects for India to pursue policies that will enhance its competitive position vis-à-vis China may be better than the opposite prospects for China.  India’s political-economic system entails at least a moderately greater degree of economic freedom compared with China’s, and therefore India’s environment may be more conducive to entrepreneurial, innovative, and inventive activity (pp. 111-12).

        To get a better sense of where Sino-Indian relations might be going, I talked to James Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010); and Jonathan Holslag, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies and author of China and India: Prospects for Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

        POWER GAMES: Which is more likely: a great-power confrontation between the U.S. and China, or one between China and India? 

        HOLMES: I would say a Sino-Indian conflict is more likely than a Sino-American one.  To me, the main reason why is geographic.  The United States and China are far apart on the map, whereas China and India abut one another.  These are two rising great powers that take an expansive view of their prerogatives and duties in their geographic neighborhoods.  The dynamic resembles the dynamic that prevailed during the concurrent rise of Japan, Germany, and the United States a century ago—except that those rising powers were all far from one another.  Imagine if Japan or Germany had bordered the United States.  You would have seen a far more messy situation than that which prevailed in the Western Hemisphere during the age of the Monroe Doctrine, when the United States grew to prominence while facing few great-power threats.  

        There’s simply more opportunity for interests to clash and miscalculations to occur when two adjacent powers are doing things in waters, skies, and territories where they both have pressing interests at stake….In Thucydides’s terms, proximity engages fear, honor, and interest, three of the strongest motives that impel human actions.  Distance helps attenuate these motives.

        HOLSLAG: Between China and India.  Of course, disputes occur all the time…The key question is what could make them turn into a confrontation….one can imagine a showdown because the balance of power shifts to a critical point at which the rising power starts to believe that it no longer has to show strategic restraint in disputes, or…the stagnant player fears that it will be threatened if the rising star is not stopped before it becomes too dominant.  I do not expect [the latter] kind of confrontation to take place anytime soon.  India surely reckons that it is losing influence to China everywhere.…Militarily, Delhi cannot keep on par with the huge efforts of Beijing to enhance its power projection capabilities…Economically, India is also continuing to lose ground….But neither for Washington nor for Delhi is China’s rise an imminent threat at this stage.  They remain potent enough to retaliate against eventual aggression and, besides, would find plenty of other protagonists to side with them in case of a clash.  Beijing…is aware of this and therefore calculates that prudence remains imperative.


        As social uncertainty feeds nationalism in all three countries [the U.S., China, and India], pragmatic leaders are under growing pressure from hardliners to stand strong.  So even if muscle-flexing does not pay off from a traditional security viewpoint, it will become increasingly relevant for political survival.  This pull of patriotism is going to be the greatest challenge for Asia.

        The greatest chance of seeing nationalism push power politics into overdrive is in the South China Sea—between China and its weaker neighbours.  Escalating incidents between China and a country like the Philippines would inevitably prompt the United States to show resolve, which…would throw oil on the flames in Beijing.  It would be very difficult for Chinese leaders to stand idle if an aircraft-carrier battle group were to show its flag near the Spratlys…as in the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996.  Will an escalation be in China and America’s strategic interests?  I guess not.  Will it be politically rewarding?  That’s becoming evermore probable.

        But, still, my bet is on India.  Why?  India…has a greater chance to slide into political turmoil than the U.S….and has as much of a chance of becoming a failed state as a great power….an increasingly weak civilian political elite is jockeying with a military establishment that has a clear anti-China tilt and is looking for every single opportunity to boost its budget and authority.  The more India sinks into political instability, the greater the chance of unilaterally moving on the disputed border, of mismanaging ties with Beijing’s crooked partners in Islamabad, or of resorting to the kind of nuclear nationalism that we saw in the 70s and 90s.  

        PG: Which of those confrontations would pose a greater threat to international order?

        HOLMES: For the foreseeable future, a Sino-American conflict would be more destructive than a Sino-Indian one.  After all, we live in an international order that has been presided over by the United States since 1945.  The United States needs strong military power to keep performing this custodial function.  Now, suppose Washington hazarded the U.S. Pacific Fleet into the Taiwan Strait and lost.  That would collapse one of the struts supporting American sea power.  In turn it would keep the U.S. from overseeing the international system effectively for some time to come, if ever….In the interim, the world would likely flounder around until a new international order could sort itself out.  We might see regional powers take charge of their surroundings, or maybe China or India would bestir itself to take charge.  Parts or all of the commons might revert to anarchy….Until Chinese power and Indian power mature, it’s hard to see a quarrel between them carrying the same repercussions.

        HOLSLAG: If the failure of India were to become a reality…the main scenario to be feared would be that the whole area from the Irrawaddy to the Hindu Kush would turn into a big security black hole—a political wildfire in which ethnic zeal and political rivalry will intermingle with persistent poverty and unrestrained population growth.  Europe and the United States should be very cautious about what they expect from India as a balancer against China.


        Even if tensions between China and the U.S. do not spiral out of control in the next decade or so, strategic distrust will continue to complicate cooperation over a broad range of issues and thus undermine global security….There was a time when many of my interlocutors in China thought the U.S. presence in Asia to be conducive to stability, but now the prevalent view is that the U.S. is fanning the flames and encouraging other states to resist China’s rise.


        The people I talk to in China are hugely skeptical about the prospects of economic relations with the U.S….a lot of decision makers in Beijing fear that the U.S. could plunge into recession again.  They expect the U.S., like the EU, to become more protectionist.  That is an important argument for conservatives to resist economic opening….if protectionism is going to delay the reforms that are required to keep China’s growth on track, you risk a situation in which (1) both the U.S. and China become more vulnerable to stagnation and social unrest, (2) economic tensions fuse with strategic rivalry, and (3) political weakness renders it harder to manage military tensions.

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        PG: As India’s economy and military capabilities continue to grow, can you imagine a joint Indo-U.S. attempt to contain China’s rise?

        HOLMES: I am no fan of the term “containment” to describe U.S. (or U.S.-Indian) strategy vis-à-vis China.  Containment…[refers] to an ideologically driven opponent that has to expand, or mellow, or die.  Containment means strengthening those who would resist such expansion.  But I see little sign that China wants to subvert, let alone conquer, its neighbors.  I think China claims too much in the near seas, but that’s different from its being a Soviet Union on the march.  Ergo, containment doesn’t fit.  Now, could I envision the United States and India joining to check China’s pretensions?  Sure….Realist theory predicts balancing behavior.  Washington and New Delhi would have reason to make common cause in the Indian Ocean, and maybe even in the Pacific.  But that would resemble great-power balancing in 19th-century Europe more than it would the Cold War.

        HOLSLAG: I don’t believe in a grand alliance between India and the U.S.  The Indian political elite is as cautious towards China as towards the United States….India most of all wants to be an independent power that leads Southern Asia.  Military cooperation with Washington is balanced out by close ties with Russia and some synergies with Europe in terms of arms purchases.  Economically, there was short-lived interest among some people in Washington in harnessing India as an alternative investment market…That effort obviously has not taken off, for the simple reason that U.S. companies were not so keen to sink money into an economy that is much more corrupt and unstable than China’s.

        [1] China’s warheads “are not thought to be operational but in storage”; India’s “are not deployed but in central storage.”

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        Photo Credit: ddmatt31/


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