Thursday, August 6, 2009

On The Risk of Sino-Indian Confrontation

I remember a decade ago hearing about a Sino-Indian competition for influence in the Indian Ocean-not an entirely new thing then, but quite different with the loss of the old Cold War context (inside which China and India fought a month-long war in 1962, and China aligned itself with Pakistan while the Soviets sided with India), and the rapid growth of China's economic and military weight (providing it with a regional influence not seen in centuries). In particular there was a widespread impression that Myanmar was fast becoming an extension of China, and that very soon the Chinese navy would become very visible indeed in the Indian Ocean.

Talk about this competition seems to be heating up again with China's combat deployment of a naval unit to the western Indian Ocean to fight pirates (something India also did, one result of which was a reported stand-off that may have been overblown in the press), and recent Chinese projects aimed at developing port facilities in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka (widely interpreted as potential bases for the Chinese navy, though as ex-Indian Cabinet member B. Raman acknowledges in this paper, the Hambantota facility in Sri Lanka is not slated to become a base, nor likely to be used against India, even if the interest is "more strategic than purely commercial").

The launch of India's first nuclear sub last month seems likely not only to be viewed in this context, but also to be taken as another data point testifying to the rising danger level.1 As implied by the ambiguity of much of the above data, the talk strikes me as overblown. There are real conflicts between them (over border claims in the Himalayas and the status of Tibet), but the relationship between the two nations is more complex than implied in such discussions, considerable cooperation also taking place (in their negotiations with the industrial nations over matters like trade and climate policy, for instance), and some real signs of improvement, not the least of it the reopening of Nathu La (closed after the '62 war).

Additionally, predictions about the development of the military capability of both these nations consistently overestimate the rate of their expansion, and both of them have other, bigger concerns closer to home. Even overlooking the pressing domestic problems that (certainly in an age of climate change and potential energy scarcity) could make their economic booms go the way of the Brazilian miracle, their biggest military/security considerations are domestic upheaval and the collapse of neighboring states (Pakistan or Bangladesh in India's case, North Korea in China's). Even where the list of potential conventional conflicts is concerned, a Sino-Indian fight is far from the top of the list, and in particular a big sea war in the Indian Ocean. (As things stand, China lacks the means to control the Taiwan Strait, let alone project enough power into the Indian Ocean to fight the much bigger Indian Navy and Air Force at their home base; and of course, the nuclear element in the situation is likely to constrain the moves of both actors.)

Laying out a base prediction for the next century last month, my guess was that
generalized economic stagnation (and the tendency toward short-term thinking reinforced by the economic culture) will encourage cautious, conservative statesmanship, risk-averse and commitment-shy (even if governments find it politically expedient to rattle their sabers and play up the foreign menace for the benefit of domestic consumption) . . . Accident, blunder or the hijack of foreign policy by fanatics inside of a key power will pose a bigger danger than any "inevitable" collision of essential state interests-[but] it is not to be taken lightly.
That certainly holds for the situation in the Indian Ocean basin.

1. My analysis of the Arihant's launch can be found here. I emphasized in it that the sub does not yet represent a credible capability-as the ship will not be operational for some years, that a force of several subs is usually required for a continuously functional deterrent, and that the range of the missiles on-board is limited. This quickly attracted criticism, not all of which I agree with, but I do acknowledge the regional nature of the deterrent, the expectation that the missiles will be replaced with longer-range weapons, and that more subs are under construction, all of which may make it operational by the middle of the next decade.

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