The Long Engagement

Fifty years after they fought a war, India and China are still on the edge of conflict.


This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian war, when, despite Indian hopes that a shared anti-colonial history would bring the two countries together, divergent perceptions about China’s "peaceful" absorption of Tibet and Chinese concerns about internal control led China to attack — and decisively defeat — India. 1962 might seem like ancient history in the United States, but the attitudes of the Chinese and Indians toward each other are increasingly suspicious and hostile.

An October 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Project report, for example, notes that 62 percent of Chinese surveyed viewed India unfavorably, while only 38 percent and 48 percent viewed Russia and the United States unfavorably. Indian perceptions of China are even more negative. Less than a quarter of Indians polled characterized the relationship with China as cooperative, and only 24 percent of Indians said that Chinese economic growth was a good thing for India. As U.S. policy has tended to aim for stability in India-China relations, the anniversary of the war presents a fitting time to consider what has changed and what remains the same.

The obvious change from a half-century ago is the shift in the balance of power in China’s favor. China achieved local military superiority on the border in 1962 by means of deception, but overall there was rough economic, technological, and military parity between the two countries up to 1980, and maybe even until 1990. That parity is gone, and today the Chinese economic and military advantage is large and still growing. The 2010 Pentagon report on Chinese military power notes the Chinese deployment of nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles and approximately 300,000 troops to the Tibetan plateau. These Chinese troops face 120,000 Indian troops in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state across the border, which are to be reinforced by 60,000 more. Indians take note of recent Chinese statements that China has dropped laser-guided bombs on targets in Tibet in training exercises, while in March the Indian Army and Air Force staged an exercise in Arunachal Pradesh charmingly titled "Destruction."

Concern about the current imbalance should be tempered by an assessment of longer-term trends, some of which are favorable to India. An aging Chinese population will compete with an Indian population that will remain relatively young. If India can implement appropriate policies, it can benefit from the rapid growth characteristic of the early phases of economic modernization, while China will face the inevitable slowing of a mature Chinese economy. These factors will gradually reverse the imbalance between Indian and Chinese economic growth rates.

What will remain constant is the gulf between the Indian and Chinese worldviews. China’s vision is incompatible with India’s, whether the issue is cultural pluralism, as witnessed in the mutual incomprehension over Tibet, or the institutional pluralism of democracy. It seems unwise for India to bet that a Chinese state that seeks a political monopoly and extensive control over its own population will not seek, at the very least, deference abroad whenever its growing power allows a credible attempt. China’s ongoing support for Pakistan’s missile and nuclear program has already put one nuclear power plant online in Pakistan, with another to become operational this year, and China and Pakistan are discussing the construction of two more reactors. In August, the Indian government raised the issue of Chinese security forces and infrastructure construction in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Indian BJP, the main opposition party, is making an issue of increasing Chinese incursions across the China-India border, asserting that there were 147 border incursions in the Ladakh area in 2012 alone.

Further to the east, China is already using its newfound influence in Nepal, where several major Chinese development projects are under way, to pressure Nepali officials to reorient away from India and toward China. This includes demands that Nepal crack down on Tibetan refugees and close the border, as well as intervention in internal Nepali constitutional debates about federalism, which the Chinese oppose on the grounds that it would increase space for Tibetans to operate in the country.

This year, the same trend of deference to Beijing on Tibetan issues could be observed within India itself. During a visit from President Hu Jintao in April, Indian security forces reacted to the self-immolation of a Tibetan protester in central Delhi by jailing hundreds of Tibetans. The New York Times reported that this Indian reaction was designed to protect its "$70 billion worth of trade" with China. With this in mind, consider what might happen in Tibet after the death of the Dalai Lama. India could face decisive Chinese pressure to shut down all Tibetan political activity in India and force the Tibetan government-in-exile into further exile outside India. Tibetan refugees in India would be asked to take Indian citizenship or to leave India, bringing to an end a morally admirable policy that India has stubbornly clung to for over 50 years. As in 1962, China might also use unrest in Tibet as a pretext to seek a new border settlement on Chinese terms. This time, China might end up controlling Tawang, which Chinese officials currently refer to as part of "south Tibet" (along with the rest of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh).

The current balance of power so favorable to China has been decades in the making, so it will likely take decades for India to escape it fully. India needs a strategy for the next generation, which may sound like a tall order for a democracy, but India did build a nuclear arsenal, a national space program, and a metro in Delhi, all of which took decades of hard and steady work, by both national parties. Clearly, the foremost task is maximizing its economic growth, rather than focusing on redistributing wealth. The U.S. role in Indian economic development may largely be confined to promoting free trade with India, which will support relationships of mutual benefit between Indian and U.S. technology firms.

The next task for India will be to focus on the military balance. Here, the Indian government will have to address issues of defense management, strategy, choice of hardware, and total spending, roughly in that order of priority. At a forum on the 1962 war held this month in Delhi and covered by the Indo-Asian News Agency, Brig. Arun Sahgal (ret.) argued that the Indian defense establishment has not done enough to counter China’s options for "asymmetrical attacks." The single most important thing India could do is to make the China problem much more prominent in its defense management processes and the object of an integrated effort. But according to Sahgal, at this point, "There is talk of joint[ness], but there is no thinking on integrated joint operations" within the Indian military. "Because of this, there is no common operating picture," he said. An integrated effort to balance against China would at a minimum include multiple service branches within the Indian armed forces, but it might also include the United States and other states with an interest in preventing Chinese aggression.

As for specifics, a mountainous border is good terrain to defend, but it still leaves room for strategic surprises — for instance, an attack through Bhutan that would close off the Siliguri Corridor, a vulnerable "chicken’s neck" connecting northeast India to the rest of the country, as suggested in a recent report out of the Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Ideally, India’s military should constantly assess such novel scenarios as China’s military capabilities evolve. Other strategic surprises could involve the use of Chinese precision weapons against Indian assets and command-and-control facilities far from the border. India needs an urgent effort to deal with its vulnerability to precision strikes and its cyber-vulnerabilities, both problems that require attention more than large sums of money or high tech. Finally, India should aim at keeping its defense spending at or above the 3 percent of GDP recommended by Indian strategic experts.

These recommendations would require a modest shift from current policies. Official Indian positions as well as semiofficial thinking — as recently on display in the "Non-Alignment 2.0" document — seem still paralyzed by the curious notion that India’s challenge is somehow to triangulate between China and the United States and above all to avoid "offending" China. If India were happy with an equilibrium in its dealings with China, this might make some sense, but neither is India happy, nor is the relationship in equilibrium, so it is hard to understand what India gains by self-censorship.

Two former Indian foreign secretaries have used the 1962 anniversary as an occasion to opine against this tendency. "We must acknowledge that adversarial elements currently dominate in India-China relations," argued Shyam Saran in a recent Times of India piece called "Lesson from 1962: India Must Never Lower Its Guard." Kanwal Sibal, Saran’s predecessor as foreign secretary, ended his last column in India’s the Week with a similar warning, "India has no reason to trust China, which will pursue its interests relentlessly even if it bides its time and dissimulates its true intentions. It is the only country, besides Pakistan, that seeks to change our borders."

Deeper strategic cooperation between India and the United States would both advance India’s interest in balancing China and serve the common U.S.-Indian interest in maintaining a liberal democratic world order. If India manages to close off easy opportunities for Chinese aggression, it will make good India-China relations possible for the long term. The costs for India of adopting the necessary economic and military measures are much lower than the costs of inviting aggression by failing to prepare, which is perhaps the main lesson that Indians remember as they observe this year’s anniversary.

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