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Asymmetry in the Sino-Indian Strategic Rivalry

11 May 2021
By Manjeet S. Pardesi
Flags of China and India. Source: Yiftaa

How will a rising China relate to a rising India? China thinks of India as a “lesser” strategic rival that has the ability to obstruct China’s grand strategic objectives.

China’s long-term goals include domination in East Asia followed by pan-Asian domination, and eventually global primacy. In the Chinese worldview, India has been on a long quest to seek hegemony in Southern Asia (South Asia and the Indian Ocean). A hegemonic India in Southern Asia will not only prevent Chinese hegemony at the pan-Asian level, but it will also allow India to be more active in East Asia, thus undermining Chinese domination in that region. India’s activities are particularly suspect because of India’s growing partnerships with the United States and Japan. Therefore, China views a rising India with suspicion, and will pursue policies to undermine any potential Indian domination in Southern Asia in an attempt to keep India focused on that region instead of East Asia.

The Sino-Indian rivalry began as a one-sided rivalry in the late 1940s, but it was China that first began to view India as a rival, largely because of Chinese suspicions regarding India’s interference in Tibet, and because of India’s ambitions to emerge as a great power in Asia. India became suspicious of China after the Chinese invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950–51. However, the Sino-Indian rivalry is asymmetric.

In spite of this asymmetry, China thinks of India as an imperial and hegemonic power, albeit a “lesser” power. When seen from Beijing, India is an imperial power vis-à-vis China as New Delhi interferes in China’s internal affairs in Tibet. The presence of the Dalai Lama and the self-styled Tibetan government-in-exile in India creates three problems for China: India’s interference in Sino-Tibetan affairs, the imposition of reputational costs on China, and complications for the Sino-Indian territorial dispute. At the same time, China also worries about India’s hegemonic aspirations in Southern Asia. In the Chinese worldview, such behaviour stems from India’s ambitions as well as competition for influence with China. Not surprisingly, China is pursuing a regional strategy, especially through the Sino-Pakistani alignment, to thwart India’s regional hegemonic ambitions.

The Sino-Indian positional rivalry in Asia is intrinsically tied with their territorial dispute that represents the world’s longest unmarked border. However, given Chinese sensitivities regarding Tibet, and the fact most of the Sino-Indian border is in fact the Tibet-India border, their territorial rivalry cannot be resolved until the Sino-Tibetan issue is also settled. The presence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and thousands of Tibetan exiles in India means that India will remain involved with the Sino-Tibetan dispute. However, the stakes are even higher because not only are Tibet and the border dispute linked, but both of these issues also have implications for their positional rivalry in Asia. If the Tibet and the Sino-Indian border issues were to be resolved, then India would in theory be able to invest in diplomatic and military resources to dominate Southern Asia and project power into East Asia instead of preparing for a land war with China in the Himalayas. However, a more active India in East Asia will undermine Chinese hegemony in that region, while a dominant India in Southern Asia will create obstacles for Chinese domination at the pan-Asian level. The interconnections between the Tibet issue, their territorial rivalry, and their positional rivalry mean that they are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

The Sino-Indian rivalry is a “complex rivalry” as opposed to a mere dyadic rivalry, and the dynamics are influenced by two other factors: interactions with other rivals as well interactions with other partners. China has forged a long-term security partnership with Pakistan with the aim of balancing India. China’s proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan was at least partially motivated by balance of power politics vis-à-vis India. It is possible that the Sino-Indian and Indo-Pakistani territorial disputes will be resolved only after an implicit understanding between China and Pakistan is reached.

China is also concerned about India’s growing partnerships with its other rivals, the United States and Japan. Not surprisingly, China is officially preparing for two 1.5 war scenarios with contingencies involving India – on land in the Himalayas as well as in the Indian Ocean – that may emerge in the context of conflicts involving China and Japan or the United States in East Asia.

The Sino-Indian rivalry with its military undertones will also spill-over into other countries across the region as China and India compete for regional influence. In recent years, China and India have competed for influence in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives. Nepal’s recent constitutional crisis that resulted in the imposition of India’s unofficial blockade in 2015 has led Nepal to turn towards China. China’s plans to build trans-Himalayan physical connectivity with Nepal, including a railway line from southern Tibet to the Nepal-India border, is of particular concern to India’s defense planners.

Sino-Indian competition over strategic influence in the Indian Ocean is believed to have led to India’s interference in Sri Lanka’s electoral process in 2015 to oust the pro-China leader of that country in order to replace him with one favourably disposed towards India. While India officially denied these charges, events may pan out differently in the future. Notably, China was willing to display the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean when India contemplated military intervention in the Maldives for similar reasons in 2017. Finally, India’s decision to risk a military crisis with China in support of its Bhutanese ally in 2017 in Doklam was interpreted by Chinese strategists as a part of India’s strategy “to maintain South Asian order dominated by India.”

As the material power gap between China and India has increased in recent decades, so too has the tempo of their rivalry. Since the 1986–87 Sumdorong Chu crisis, there were only three militarised disputes of short duration between China and India between 2003 and 2009. However, there have been five major militarised disputes between them since 2013. Although the reasons for this changed dynamic remain unknown, the paradoxical trend is of rivalry escalation in the context of a widening power gap as opposed to rivalry de-escalation due to growing material power asymmetry.

In spite of their asymmetry, the tempo of the Sino-Indian may increase rivalry in the years ahead. If India’s economic growth rate exceeds China’s in the coming decade, as is projected by many estimates, then India will be the only major power in the world that will grow faster than China. As of now it remains unclear whether India can maintain this momentum because India’s higher growth rates in recent years were a function of the slowing down of the Chinese economy. Furthermore, India’s economy faces a number of structural problems that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, if India is able to maintain this momentum, then Sino-Indian relations will certainly be tested in the years ahead. This material power shift will assume greater significance if India enhances its strategic partnerships with Japan and the United States.

On the other hand, it cannot be assumed that if the material power gap continues to widen in China’s favour, then their rivalry will automatically de-escalate. As India tries to pursue policies to be taken more seriously by China, such as those related to closer ties with China’s other rivals like Japan and the United States or through militarily assertive behaviour along the Himalayas and in the Indian Ocean, then it runs the risk of crossing certain (unknown) Chinese “red lines.”

Manjeet S. Pardesi is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Asia Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.

This is an extract from Manjeet S. Pardesi’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled, “Explaining the asymmetry in the Sino-Indian Strategic Rivalry.” It is published with permission.