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Why India Sees a Chinese “Red Peril” on Land and Sea

6 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor

In recent weeks, public attention in India over what is perceived to be the growing threat lurking north of the border has reached feverish levels. Tensions along the Himalayan frontier with China have spiked noticeably since a round of Sino-Indian talks over long-standing territorial disputes this summer ended in failure. In their wake, the frenetic Indian press have chronicled reports of nighttime boundary incursions and troop buildups, even while officials in both governments have downplayed such confrontations. Elements in the Indian media point almost daily to various signs of a Beijing plot to contain its neighbor’s rise, a conviction aided by recent hawkish editorials from China’s state-run outlets. This week, leading Indian news networks loudly cataloged Chinese transgressions under headlines like “Red Peril” and “Enter the Dragon.”

(Read about China and India’s territorial disputes.)

India and China fought a war in 1962 whose acrimonious legacy lingers even while economic ties flourish (China is now India’s biggest trade partner). Beijing refuses to acknowledge the de facto border — demarcated by the British empire — and claims almost the entirety of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory. Indian strategic analysts believe Beijing’s stance has hardened in recent years, perhaps as a consequence of its increasing economic and military edge over India as well as growing Chinese influence in smaller South Asian countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. Comments made last month by India’s outgoing navy chief that the country could not hope to match China’s hard power capabilities set off a bout of national hand-wringing. “There’s a nervousness among some policymakers that the Chinese see India as weak and vulnerable to coercion,” says Harsh Pant, professor of defense studies at King’s College, London, and author of a forthcoming book on India’s China policy. “Indians feel they can’t manage China’s rise and that they are far, far behind.”

(Read about China and India’s high-seas rivalry.)

But the real arena for future confrontation, say most Indian strategists, lies not in standoffs on remote, rugged peaks but in the waters all around the Indian subcontinent. The Indian Ocean is the thoroughfare for nearly half of all global seaborne trade, and the coastal states are home to over 60% of the world’s oil and a third of its gas reserves. Traditionally, India has imagined the ocean as part of its backyard without investing serious resources in its navy — much more goes to an army and air force that are perched by the land boundaries with the old enemy of Pakistan. And that gap between India’s maritime hubris and real power has been exposed in recent times by China, which is buoyed by a sense of historical revival — dating back to the days when the eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed his medieval trade fleets to India and Africa, bringing back, among other things, a giraffe.

To safeguard its vast appetite for oil and other natural resources, particularly those drawn from Africa, China has embarked upon a “string of pearls” strategy, building ports and listening posts around the Indian Ocean rim. Beijing’s projects span from the Malacca Straits to the Cape of Good Hope and many places in between, including countries that were once in India’s sphere of influence. A massive deep-sea port being built by Chinese funds and labor at Hambantota, at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, has in particular riled Indian analysts. With a $1 billion facility also under construction in Gwadar, in Pakistan, China will eventually possess key naval choke points around the subcontinent that could disrupt Indian lines of communication and shipping. Reports of a tense standoff earlier this year between Indian and Chinese warships on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden — though dismissed by both governments — did little to subdue the sense of distrust brewing between policymakers on both sides.

In response to China’s gains, India’s navy aims to modernize its fleet. It launched the country’s first nuclear submarine in July and purchased new destroyers from Russia and the U.S. Still, China’s plans to build aircraft carriers and boost its own submarine fleet far outstrip that of New Delhi. India has expanded defense contacts and exchanges with a host of strategic Indian Ocean countries and archipelago nations such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and the Maldives as well as engaged in naval exercises with other East Asian and Southeast Asian nations that are wary of China’s growing stature, such as Japan and Vietnam. But China also maintains solid relationships with many of these countries — ties that, in most cases, bind far tighter and offer much more than what poorer India can muster.

Conflict, though, is not inevitable. It’s natural for rising powers to extend their reach and rub up against each other. China and India, says C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation, a think tank attached to the Indian navy, need to “evolve some kind of modus vivendi as they establish themselves in the Indian Ocean.” But few can divine what that may look like. Part of the problem is that despite booming trade between India and China, there is little political understanding between their governments. “They engage very superficially,” says Pant. “There’s rarely consensus on any of the fundamental issues.” Comparisons have even been made linking India and China’s current rapport to the ill-fated understandings between the U.S. and Japan in the early 20th century. Though in a vastly different context, the two countries, says Pant, are clandestinely probing and feeling out each other’s geopolitical intentions in an eerily similar fashion.

An article in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs by Robert Kaplan, a prominent American writer and strategic thinker, suggested that the U.S., far and away still the world’s preeminent military power, could be the chief “balancer” and “honest broker” in the Indian Ocean. But that idea has been received icily in Asia, with many governments seeing the U.S. as a nation in decline, marooned in costly adventures abroad and led by an Obama Administration that is less willing to confront the aggressive posturing of a rising giant like China. It would be better, says Bhaskar, for India and China to slowly forge a constructive pan-Asian consensus and do away with the “post-colonial baggage” that animates the current Sino-Indian border dispute. But as talk of a new Asian “Great Game” gains favor, history and geography may not be so easy to overcome.

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