Insights into Editorial: There isn’t going to be a war between India and China today
The scholar of India-China relations on the contours of the ‘new Cold War’ in Asia and Beijing’s vision for the Indian Ocean speaks about the challenge to India from China in South Asia, his research on the 1962 war, and why he thinks there will not be another India-China war, even as India firms its counter-alliance in the Indo-Pacific.
Role of the Soviet Union and the U.S. was a key to the outcome in 1962. In a war-like situation between India and China today, what position would the U.S. and Russia take?
Trade between India and China is important for both the nations and its growing continuously. Any impact to the trade would adversely affect both the nations. So there is unlikely to have a war between India and China today.
What we’re seeing today is a new Cold War in Asia, an informal alliance between India and Japan [versus China]. The United States is a bit unpredictable under Donald Trump, but it had under previous president embarked on a pivot to Asia, with the rise of China as the main concern.
For the first time, since the 15th century and Admiral Zheng He, the Chinese are now in the Indian Ocean. China didn’t even have a proper navy until recently. So now when it talks of One Belt One Road, and the ancient maritime trade routes, it must be remembered it’s not so ancient.
In the Indian Ocean, we have India, which considers it its own lake, as it were. But also in the Indian Ocean is the U.S.’s most important base, Diego Garcia. And the French control 2.5 million acres of land in the Indian Ocean. This is why these alliances are growing.
Had Doklam stand-off this year was not about China’s designs on India, but aimed to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan?
Bhutan is China’s only neighbour that doesn’t have diplomatic ties with it. Relations are maintained through these boundary talks, which have been going on for more than two decades. Bhutan has been under Indian influence, but it is now asserting itself as a sovereign power. (In recent UNGA resolution on Jerusalem issue India voted in favour of it but Bhutan abstained from voting.)
- Why did China even need the road in Doklam? Maybe the plan was to get Indian troops out of Haa (Bhutan’s Haa Valley) and get them more directly involved in this conflict, which would embarrass many Bhutanese.
- The statements from Bhutan at the time, which were very cautious, and many Bhutanese think that India overreacted and wanted to show its control over Bhutan.
- China is on a charm offensive there (in Bhutan). They’re sending acrobats there, circus performers, football teams, tourists, scholarships for students.
Clearly China wants to extend its influence to all its neighbours, and that includes Bhutan.
What does this mean for India-China relations in the future, especially the resolution of the boundary question?
The Indian Ocean is going to become the biggest challenge in the near future. It will be hard to believe both nations will fight another war in the Himalayas.
- China has in the past suggested a swap between Arunachal/South Tibet and Aksai Chin. On paper that sounds reasonable, but we don’t know how serious the Chinese are.
- Also, if China were to accept the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the border, it could control any dissidence within.
- In India, which is a democracy, the government couldn’t just go ahead with that solution. Because it would be a political suicide.
- But in the larger picture, China seems not to care if the boundary remains unresolved. They are not looking for a solution; they are looking for a strategic advantage.
- Where there is a conflict of interest building up is in the Indian Ocean. The joint naval exercises with Australia, US, Japan and other countries are important.
Do you see the newly convened “Quad”, of India, Australia, Japan and the U.S., building up as a military alliance?
Yes. It is almost inevitable. It has to do with the rise of China and with economic power there comes political power and then military power, which you need to protect your interests.
The Maldives has recently concluded a free trade agreement with China, and is growing much closer to Beijing in all respects. The question is, how can India counter China’s obvious advantage in terms of money power?
So far, India has been an observer about Chinese moves in the Indian neighbourhood. The same thing is happening in the Seychelles. China is paying enormous attention to the country, of less than 100,000 people.
India’s eastern border with Myanmar is also so much more important. But India spends an inordinate time on its western border (with Pakistan). Myanmar is China’s corridor to the Indian Ocean. What India can do to counter it is to pay more attention.
Will the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) change the politics of the region?
The success of CPEC depends on the stability of the country Pakistan and China will have to deal more and more with its internal dynamics.
- In addition to it, the CPEC connects to Xinjiang, away from China’s economic centres, unlike, say, Myanmar that connects to China’s eastern economic zones and ports.
- Over the past year, given the problems in Rakhine state, China is even looking for a third route into the Indian Ocean to bypass the choke-point at the Strait of Malacca. Here China is pushing the idea of the Kra Canal (from Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea).
So for China what is important is the goal, not so much the routes to it.
Moving to the east is China’s control in Myanmar inevitable, or is there something India can do?
India has three main problems on its boundary with Myanmar compared to China.
- Infrastructure: On Myanmar’s northern border, China has super-highways, an airport not far from the border. Kunming has been upgraded to a huge international airport. On the Indian side, infrastructure is still a major problem. It’s better than 10 years ago perhaps, but not comparable to what already exists on the Chinese side.
- Red-tape and bureaucracy: There are still many trade restrictions on the Indian side and several checkpoints. An integrated checkpoint, which is being planned by India, will help.
- Underground rebel groups operating on the Indian side, which can carry out attacks and extort money all along the border.
India has to resolve these problems as People of Myanmar would like to do much more trade with India, because the dependence on China is so massive, it is worrying for everyone, including their military.