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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Sino-Indian Relations and the Probabilities of War

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

No sooner had China and India concluded their 13th round of border talks by Special Representatives (SRs), came a suggestion from a Chinese strategist for balkanisation of India into several parts for decimating any possible challenge to Chinese supremacy (or hegemony) in the Asia-Pacific region. While offficials from both the countries dismissed the hypothesis, such reports are on the rise and emanate from both sides of the border. Only a few days back, the Chinese state-supported Global Times had published an editorial on ‘India’s unwise military moves’, certainly not in good taste both factually and logically. But there is no dearth of similar war cries in India as well! Witness, for example, a recent article by an editor of a leading defence magazine where he apprehended Chinese attack on India before 2012. Another article in a Delhi based newspaper few months back had claimed that China would attack India in 2017!

Many of these hypotheses have only paper value with no takers either at the official level or amongst the area experts of the two countries. Yet, if the media in the two countries have publicised these theories, there could be compelling reasons. For one, the 13 rounds of border talks at the SRs’ level, preceded by several other rounds of border talks at various levels, are yet to yield an acceptable outcome. China’s increased aggressiveness on Arunachal has further complicated the talks. Moreover, with both countries consolidating their positions in the great power club, the competition for power and influence is spilling over to other areas, the latest being the mutual show-off in the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But above all, it is the mutual ignorance, misperceptions and mistrust that create space for speculative hypotheses. Two decades of political, economic and military relations since Rajiv Gandhi’s epic China visit in 1988 notwithstanding, the two countries are yet to instutionalise and expand autonomous and sustainable societal relations between them. This mutual apathy has prohibited genuine research about each other.

Although war is never ruled out in an anarchical international system, more so since China and India have fought each other in 1962, there are genuine reasons for lesser probabilities of another war between the two countries. First, the two countries have come a long way building a cobweb of relations criss-crossing many areas and have made genuine investments in reaching out to each other. Second, the growing complexities in international relations and mutual interdependence have escalated the war costs. China and India are part of this process. Either way, there are fewer wars between great powers. India is also relatively better prepared and may deny another victory to China. Third, the unresolved border, that could lead the two countries to another war, has been exclusively subjected to special negotiations. If the talks have not succeeded, neither have they failed. Perhaps the outcomes would be incremental and the two sides would take their own time for a solution acceptable to both the countires.


If some Chinese scholars then fantasise a Chinese attack on India and its disintegration into smaller states, it only reflects their desire to carve out China’s own area of influence or perhaps a pax-Sinica zone where no amount of balance of power games by India or the US would undermine China’s leadership. The sustained investment in Chinese military modernisation, supplemented by the recent upsurge to expand its area of operation in distant waters such as the Gulf of Aden, unfortunately add weight to such apprehensions. China’s objectives behind military modernisation are no longer targeted only at Taiwan, but aimed at playing a larger role in the Asia-Pacific region and a rising India could claim its own sphere of influence, if not compete with China. This annoys China.

Coming to Indians, the only thing that unites them is the rising importance of China in Indian foreign policy. However, the policy suggestions are quite opposite with one set of proponents still dreaming of ‘Chindia’, not having learnt the bitter lessons from the bhai-bhai fiasco. On the other hand, the ultra-realist thinkers envision only conflictual relations with China, with some of them creating the ghost of a looming attack from China sooner than later, without substantiating the reasons for the same. Such open and sustained militant attitude, whether by Chinese or Indians, would only derail the painfully constructed relations between the two countries.

China could be a threat, but the best way out is to enhance India’s capacity to manage relations with China. While there could be numerous hypothetical factors that could lead the two countries to war, much will depend upon the the ongoing border talks and the communicative channels between the respective political leaderships. Once the two countries decide to live in peace with or without an unresolved border, other issues may lose the steam for a full fledged war between the two sides. As two rising powers, China and India may still compete for power, influence and resources but perhaps the two neighbours can live with a fair amount of healthy and sometime cunning competition.

Dr Bhartendu Kumar Singh is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views conveyed here are his personal.

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