NEW YORK – In Kashmir, shells and bullets regularly fly back and forth across India’s de facto border with Pakistan. Yet, although India’s 4,000-km border with China is similarly disputed, not a single shot has been fired in anger there for decades. That may soon change. There are genuine fears in New Delhi that the long period of calm may not last. And whether it does or not, the latest standoff in the Himalayas is sure to change India.
A weekslong confrontation on the shared border between China, India and tiny Bhutan — the sort that barely makes the headlines outside the countries involved — has lasted longer than usual, and neither side looks ready to back off. Troops have had shoving matches and now stare one another down from encampments just kilometers apart. Although previous confrontations have been quietly resolved, this time some Indian strategists believe China will soon be tempted to launch a limited punitive strike as a reminder of its military superiority.
Clashes between India and China don’t usually matter to the rest of the world. Even when the two countries fought a short and bitter border war in 1962, the world’s attention was fixated on the brewing nuclear crisis in Cuba. While Indians have never quite forgotten our humiliating loss in that war, China has rarely chosen to remind us of it. This time, however, the usual chest-beating from India’s hyper-patriotic news media has been matched by similar noises from over the border. The state-controlled People’s Daily even posted a bellicose editorial from 1962 on its Weibo account.
In Beijing a few weeks ago, I got the clear impression from some Chinese policymakers and diplomats that they thought India was getting, well, a bit above itself. Unhappy about China’s big Belt and Road Initiative, India not only stayed away from President Xi Jinping’s recent forum showcasing the project but released a stinging denunciation of the principles underlying the grand infrastructure scheme. That same language found its way into the joint statement issued by U.S. President Donald Trump and Narendra Modi when the Indian prime minister visited Washington last month. And India has recently taken a harder line on Tibet and the border than it has in the past.
For leaders in Beijing, this behavior seems inexplicable. I was repeatedly asked whether India had forgotten that its economy is five times smaller than China’s. Perhaps, one got the impression, India needed to be shown its place.
The problem is that India does not quite know its place. This makes sense when one considers its vision of its past and its expectations of its future. Independent India inherited the Raj’s armies — the peacekeepers of Asia and Africa — and with them, the Raj’s self-image as dominant east of Aden. It has always viewed itself as at least China’s equal in spite of the 1962 loss — and even as its northern neighbor raced ahead economically. That was a minor setback, Indians feel; eventually we’ll catch up, once we sort our messy politics out. And meantime, why not behave as if we already have?
For the first time, perhaps, a sense of disquiet about this assumption has crept in. Questions are being asked about whether India is, in fact, ready to play a bigger strategic role in the region. Defense spending has not kept pace with India’s economy; the government spends less, proportionally, on the military than it has at any point since 1962. Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer noted on Twitter recently that India is one of the very few countries spending more on infrastructure than defense. This is by design; Indian policymakers are convinced that a new highway strengthens the country more than another battalion would. They may be right, too.
But it’s unlikely India will sit quietly in a corner. This is a young country, and impatient. When a billion people have been led to expect that they are a great power, they will demand their government behave accordingly. And so, whether or not we can afford it, whether or not it makes a great deal of objective sense to outsiders, our democracy guarantees that we won’t do what Deng Xiaoping’s China did and “bide our time.” Every time China appears to disregard or dismiss India’s capabilities — actions which seem eminently rational in Beijing — it merely hastens the day that India will step up and seek a bigger role, one that matches its self-image.
Last week, Australia’s foreign minister pointed out the stakes in New Delhi. “Military outlays in our region expanded by over 5.5 percent in 2015-2016, easily outpacing the 1 percent overall global increase in military spending,” Julie Bishop noted. “By 2020, combined military budgets in our region are forecast to exceed $600 billion. Now this is significant, given U.S. expenditure is currently at $611 billion and Europe is at $334 billion.”
And this is without India even seeking to live up to its conception of itself. The question for China soon won’t be how the world manages its rise, but how well it manages India’s.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”