India-China rivalry sharpens

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrives in India next week, the rhetoric of cooperation between the two Asian giants will intensify. But one has only to scratch the surface to know the extent of the embedded mistrust and competition between the two.

To be sure, bilateral tensions have ebbed, helping to boost bilateral trade from a mere $262 million in 1991 to nearly $14 billion now. However, if growing trade could connote political progress, Japan and China, with more than 10 times larger bilateral trade, would not be locked today in an emergent cold war.

It has become commonplace to compare India’s and China’s economic march in the belief that the two would spearhead global economic growth and help make the 21st century an Asian century. The comparisons inexorably pit India’s services sector-driven growth and institutional stability, founded on pluralism, transparency and rule of the law, against China’s resolute leadership, high savings rate, good infrastructure and manufacturing forte.

Little noticed, however, is that globalization threatens China’s autocracy, not India’s democracy.

It is also fashionable to hypothesize, especially in leftist intellectual circles, on how an India-China partnership could help correct the unipolar power structure in the world.

But can India really work with Beijing to fashion a multipolar world when China strives to be the sole pole in Asia, so that it is free to limit U.S. influence, contain India, bully Taiwan, bring shame on Japan, divide ASEAN and make use of semi-failed states that serve as its clients, such as Pakistan, Myanmar and North Korea? China is now seeking to draft into its orbit another failing state, Nepal, after a palace coup there prompted India, the United States and Britain to join hands and suspend cooperation with the kingdom.

In fact, loath to see its Asian peers, India and Japan, as permanent members of the Security Council, China presents itself as a status quo power as far as the U.N. system is concerned.

The schism between India and China, however, is not merely because one is a politically open and the other a politically closed society. The two symbolize opposing worldviews and approaches.

China’s ruthless pragmatism and assertiveness contrast sharply with India’s sanctimonious worldview. Prone to seduction by praise, India is a nation that yearns to be loved, and feels best when its policies enjoy external affirmation. China, quite the opposite, wants to be held in respect and awe, and never muffles its view when any interest is at issue. Compare Beijing’s early warning against U.S. Patriot antimissile system sale to India, with New Delhi’s silence on the move of its strategic partner, the European Union, to upset Asian power equilibrium by lifting its 15-year arms embargo on China.

Their approach to bilateral ties is also revealing. India does not believe in strategic balancing and has no intent to employ Tibet or Taiwan for countervailing leverage against China. In fact, India has bended to China on Tibet. When then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Beijing in 2003, he used used the legal term “recognize” — in a joint document signed with his Chinese counterpart — to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

In contrast to India, Beijing pursues bilateral ties valuing the multiple strategic cards it holds against New Delhi, including a Himalayan line of control it refuses to define despite 24 years of border negotiations, its commitment to maintain Pakistan as a military counterweight to tie down India south of the Himalayas, its new strategic flank via Myanmar, its budding military ties with Bangladesh, and its depiction in official maps of three Indian states as outside India — Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Kashmir.

Despite endless speech-making, political cooperation remains intangible and even surreal. Take energy, where India has sought cooperation to prevent competing Indian and Chinese demands from leading to skyrocketing energy prices on world markets. Playing the new “Great Game” on energy, India and China have made state-owned companies buy far-flung oil and gas fields, especially in pariah or problem states. But while China made many such investments in the 1990s when oil was less than one-fifth of the current price level, India began acquiring overvalued assets more recently at the high end of the pricing cycle. Multinational companies hesitate to acquire such risky assets, but the bureaucrats running Indian and Chinese firms readily gamble with taxpayers’ money.

This could prove a profligate waste of state capital, especially for India, if the concerned nations were to reassert control over their assets. When that happens, China, with its greater power-projection force capability, could recover more of its investments than India. At the present, however, China’s autocrats revel in outbidding the Indians and others, even if it raises prices to artificial levels.

Energy needs, in fact, are beginning to sway military planning. China’s growing oil imports act as justification for its pursuit of a sea-power strategy.

Beijing perceives the sea as a sphere of opportunity for extending its influence. It is positioning itself along vital sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. Its new strategic focus on the seas, in turn, is influencing India’s long-term defense planning.

Nothing better illustrates the competitive dynamics between the world’s two most populous nations than Wen’s trip.

When the second-ranking Chinese official arrives in New Delhi to talk cooperation, he will have first done his bit to constrict India’s strategic options.

Starting his South Asian tour early next week from Pakistan, China’s “all-weather” friend, Wen will inaugurate the Chinese-built Gwadar port and naval base, close to Pakistan’s border with Iran. Gwadar, one of the world’s largest deep-sea ports, will not only arm Pakistan with critical strategic depth against a 1971-style Indian attempt to bottle up its navy, but it will also open the way to the arrival of Chinese submarines in India’s backyard, completing India’s strategic encirclement by Beijing.

Gwadar, at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, is part of China’s strategy to fashion a “string of pearls” along sea-lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, by securing naval or eavesdropping access from regional states, ostensibly for building maritime safety.

The Chinese strategy leaves India with obvious choices. If instead of industrializing rapidly through infrastructure growth, reform of antediluvian labor laws and open competition in labor-intensive manufacturing, India remains content with a GDP growth of 6.6 percent vs. China’s 9.5 percent, it will find it more difficult to build a level-playing field with Beijing. And if it continues to pare down its defense spending, it will enlarge the asymmetry. While China has maintained double-digit growth in annual military appropriations since 1990, India put military modernization on hold for a full decade and has allowed its defense spending to plummet from 3.59 percent of GDP in 1988 to 2.35 percent in the new fiscal year.

More than the global fight against al-Qaeda, a grouping now splintered and holed up, China’s rise is going to pose the single biggest challenge to world security in the years to come. Just as India bore the brunt of the rise of international terror because of its geographical location, it will be frontally affected by the growing power of an opaque, calculating empire next door.