A Period of India-China Tension – Now a Mainstream View

We began writing about escalation of military & strategic tensions between China & India in June 2008. At that time, we heard Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale make a statement on TV about how the competition between these countries is now economic and how peace is breaking out. Frankly, this was the view in mainstream American & Indian media at that time. We could not disagree more and we began writing* on this topic.

A year and half later, the military tension between China & India has become a mainstream topic. Last month, the Indian media, led by the Times of India, focused on this issue.  The New York Times wrote about it in September 2009.

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported and opined on this topic. The India-China tension was included this week in the China 2025 Conference at the Council of Foreign Relations. The phrase “a period of India-China tension” was used by Evan Feigenbaum at CFR’s China 2025 conference.

For over 3,000 years, China & India lived in relative peace, mainly because of the massive Himalayan range that separated these two nations. Tibet was always the buffer state between China & India. In the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru unilaterally withdrew Indian Army from Tibet because he did not want “his India” to be an imperialist power. A few years later, Chinese Army literally walked into Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India. Now China considers Tibet a province of China. As a result, China is now claiming parts of India as historical sections of Tibet.

Reclaiming “lost lands” is an important part of Chinese psyche. But, this we think is more of a symptom than a cause. Underneath the China-India tension is the battle for hegemony and regional dominance. China views itself as a superpower that shall soon be on par with America and they believe it is their destiny to be Asia’s hegemon.

Standing in their way is the resurgence of India. We believe that China despises India and considers it to be a minor power that needs to be taught a lesson. Such a lesson would show the World that China is the dominant nation and would teach India its place in China’s Asia.

This specific point was made by the Wall Street Journal articles. “China is trying to become No. 1,” says Brajesh Mishra, a former national-security adviser for India. “This is the seed of conflict between China, India and the U.S.”  – a quote from the WSJ article
China, India Stoke 21st-Century Rivalry

The WSJ opinion article 
Bordering on Danger goes much further. Below are a couple of excerpts from this article:

  • A common theme in (Chinese) state media this year is the desire to capture the lost lands and crush India for daring to compete with China….Adding fuel to this fire is mounting confidence on the Chinese side that China would win any conflict and reap broader strategic rewards from doing so. PLA generals believe India’s military remains inferior in combat, logistics and war-fighting capability. Should the PLA succeed in occupying Tawang, a town near the border, and giving India’s military a bloody nose, the Chinese thinking goes, Indian leaders would be much more deferential in dealing with China. A short and swift victory would underscore the need for other countries in Asia, especially U.S. friends and allies, to accommodate China’s growing power by aligning with, rather than against, Beijing.
  • Though India is no match for China in force-on-force posture, it is no pushover militarily. Unlike the PLA, which has not seen combat since the Vietnam War of 1979, India’s military today is battle-hardened and experienced. If Beijing is determined to gain the lost territory in Arunachal Pradesh, India is equally determined not to see a replay of the 1962 war by losing large chunks of territory. With India embarking upon a massive military modernization plan, a punitive war may well be too costly and its outcome unpredictable.

It is our opinion that China’s bellicose posture has been India’s saving grace as far as military preparedness is concerned. Indian society & Indian Government are typically inward looking & passive to the point of being complacent. They were rudely awakened by China’s turn towards aggression a couple of years ago. This awakening has prompted India to at least talk about modernizing its infrastructure on the Chinese border. China’s behavior today is in stark contrast with the tactics of the wily Zhou EnLai who lulled Nehru into complacency while building a massive military infrastructure in Tibet. So when he decided to strike militarily, India was caught napping.

The WSJ opinion article makes a similar point – “For Beijing, a hardline approach to India could backfire and drive India and its other Asian neighbors into stronger opposition to China and deeper alignment with Washington and Tokyo. The pursuit of aggressive foreign adventures would destroy the benign “peaceful rise” image that China is so assiduously striving to achieve.”

Evan Feigenbaum of the Council of Foreign Relations looked the strategic mistrust between China-India and how the US posture plays into it:

  • “And so there’s a huge explosion in the economic relationship, but an enormous amount of mutual — well, strategic mistrust on both sides. And the manifestations of that on the Indian side are a sense that China essentially has decided that to the extent that the next century is an Asian century, it ain’t going to be big enough for more than one. And so there is a sense in India that China seems to tamp down India’s aspirations. And we can talk about whether that’s true or not, but that is a very tangible perception on the Indian side. And it manifests itself first in the way in which China is increasingly moving to the center of India’s defense planning, replacing Pakistan, in these debates in India about the reliability of India’s strategic deterrent, whether India needs to test again, what a CTBT would mean for the reliability of India’s deterrent.”
  • “On the Chinese side, the way it manifests itself really is concern with the U.S.-India relationship, because to put this very, very crudely — and I’m going to put this very crudely — since 1962 I think Chinese strategists have basically decided that they can deal with India on their own terms. But when you introduce the United States into that equation, it introduces all kinds of uncertainties into Chinese planning. And so the U.S.-India relationship has introduced a lot of uncertainties.”
Mr. Feigenbaum’s conclusion You know, I think we’re in for a period of India-China tension.”

* Our prior articles on this subject include:

The China-India strategic competition is being extended to the Indian Ocean. This topic was discussed in the article:

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