India and China: Avoiding the Past

11 April 2005

India and China: Avoiding the Past

By Gwynne Dyer

It wasn’t the sort of statement that sets the blood racing: “We have more or less reached agreement with regard to the political parameters and the guiding principles for the settlement of the boundary dispute.” But Indian National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan’s announcement on 10 April, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s four-day visit to India, is good news for those who hope that their children or grand-children will not die in the Third World War.

There will have to be further talks before India and China actually start demarcating their long Himalayan frontier, where the existing uncertainties led to a brief border war between the two Asian giants in 1962. More things also need to happen if China and India are to avoid confrontation as both countries take their place in the front rank of the great powers over the next generation — a free trade area would help, and a mutual security pact wouldn’t hurt either — but this is definitely a step in the right direction. And not a moment too soon.

It has become urgent because the Bush administration is trying to lure India into an alliance with the United States that would implicitly define China as the enemy. When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited New Delhi last month, she told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that it is now America’s policy to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century,” and the State Department briefer emphasised that Washington “understands fully the implications, including the military implications, of that statement.”

The biggest American bribe on the table is the recent announcement that India would be allowed to buy the next generation of advanced combat aircraft from the US, which would give it definitive air superiority over China (and Pakistan) in a single bound. Other inducements will be deployed in coming months, and the White House hopes that by the time President Bush visits India later this year, the two countries can reach an understanding — it won’t actually be called an alliance — on military cooperation in Asia.

The neo-conservatives in the Bush administration have a high opinion of their own strategic abilities, and they imagine that they are replaying the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of thirty years ago. Then America’s great strategic adversary was the Soviet Union, and Nixon’s rapprochement with China gave the Russians something else to worry about by completing their encirclement. Now, the neo-conservatives see China as the emerging strategic rival, and want to draw India into a military alliance against it.

Except that that the US strategy of encircling China is more likely to convince Beijing that it must build up its military power in order to protect itself. The right analogy for what is happening now is not Nixon’s China policy of the early 1970s. It is the period before 1914, when the traditional great powers who were facing a future of relative decline, Britain and France, sought to contain the rapid growth of German industrial power by making an alliance with the other rising power, Russia. And that led to the First World War.

Nobody was actually to blame for the First World War. Germany’s rapid industrial growth after unification in 1870 triggered the old balance-of-power reflex in the existing top dogs, Britain and France, who got together to “contain” it. That persuaded the Germans that they were encircled — as indeed they were, once Russia, the other rising industrial power, had been drawn into an alliance with the western great powers.

No analogy is perfect, but this one feels pretty convincing. America is playing the role of Britain and France, China is being cast in the role of Germany, and India gets to play Russia. We have seen this movie before, and it did not even end well last time, when we were only playing with machine-guns and trenches. This time around, we are playing with nuclear weapons. If China were hell-bent on conquering the planet, other countries might have to accept the risk that a “containment” policy entails, but it isn’t.

Even under the current Communist regime, China has not been expansionist. The various border quarrels that led to brief outbreaks of shooting thirty or forty years ago with the Soviet Union, India and Vietnam were driven by genuine boundary disputes and prickly Chinese nationalism, but the territories at issue were not large or important. China’s forces never pushed past the specific territories they claimed, and in most cases they were withdrawn again after making their point.

China’s occupation of Tibet and its claim to Taiwan are both contentious issues, but they are seen in Beijing essentially as domestic issues having to do with the country’s historic territorial integrity. They do not constitute proof of a more general Chinese expansionism — which would be, in any case, pretty pointless in the current era of the global economy.

The master strategists in Washington are trapped in an old paradigm that no longer served the true interests of the great powers even a hundred years ago, and certainly will not make America or anybody else safer now. If India falls for their blandishments, they will drive China into a needless military confrontation with its neighbours and destroy the fragile hope of reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

The good news out of New Delhi this week is that the Indian government seems not to be falling for the neo-conservative strategy. There is a lot of work still to be done on Sino-Indian relations, but at least the trend is away from confrontation, not towards it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Even…economy”)