By Uttara Choudhury
New York: US strategic analyst Jeff M. Smith’s new book, Cold Peace, is a wonderfully nuanced analysis of the complex India-China relationship bedeviled by rivalry for almost six decades, but steeped in surprisingly steady cooperation in the diplomatic and economic spheres.
“The reality is, 13 years into the new century China and India are more politically engaged and economically interdependent then at any other time since their birth as modern nation-states in 1949 and 1947, respectively,” writes Smith in Cold Peace: China–India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century.
Smith, who is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, in Washington, says the Sino-Indian relationship has largely been defined by the “longest continuing frontier talks between any two countries since the Second World War.” During Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Delhi in May last year, the two sides said they would study new ways to ease tensions on their disputed border after an army standoff in the Himalayas.
The long-running border dispute gets in the way of improving economic relations between the neighbors, but the gains have still been striking. Bilateral trade reached $66 billion last year. India runs a $29 billion deficit with China, a sore point that Chinese premier Li sought to address in a joint statement, with specific reference to pharmaceuticals, IT services and agriculture.
In 2006, Beijing and New Delhi also signed a memorandum of understanding providing for regular war games and annual defense summits. Operation Hand in Hand, the first-ever joint defense exercise between the Indian and Chinese armies was held in 2007, and it has been followed by others in 2008 and again in 2013. The two countries have worked together to voice common concerns in international forums such as the WTO.
Smith says that all this has led a large number of Chinese scholars to contest the proposition that China and India are rivals at all. Western analysts and some Indian hawks, they say “have fabricated a narrative of Sino-Indian rivalry in an effort to sow discord among Asia’s two great powers and draw India into a US-led alliance to contain China.”
Smith takes a different tack: “While the elements of rivalry that have shadowed the relationship for almost six decades are not only genuine and deep-seated, they are largely intrinsic to the bilateral relationship. And they are growing in number.”
Smith then touches on all the structural disputes and irritants to the relationship which include the continuing border dispute, the issues of Tibet, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean and even the difference about the adjustment of the world political and economic order. India has been alarmed over China’s military build-up near India’s northeast, while the Indo-Tibetan Border Police have revealed that there have been dozens of border incursions by the Chinese in the past year.
An informal survey conducted for the book suggests that for many in India’s national security establishment, China has replaced Pakistan as their country’s principal long-term national security threat.
“Chinese perceptions of India appeared to be colored by two distinct themes — disdain and disinterest — and Chinese threat perceptions towards India focused around four areas: Tibet, the Indo-US relationship, India’s military modernization and India’s Look East policy,” writes Smith, who covers all the themes in great detail in the book.
“In East Asia, Delhi is broadening its strategic engagement with the US-allied countries of the Western Pacific. The changes have been most profound with regard to Japan, which is fast becoming one of India’s closest partners in the region,” says Smith.
India has found common ground with regional capitals alarmed by China’s claims in the South China Sea, and Delhi has become a vocal proponent of “Freedom of Navigation” there.
Smith notes that if there is one characteristic that most defines the Sino-Indian rivalry, it is the recognition that it is “not the rivalry of equals.”
“Thirteen years into the new century, the strategic gap between China and India is as large, or larger, than the gap between China and the US,” notes Smith writing that in 2013 China’s official military budget of $119 billion in 2013 was over three times larger than India’s $38 billion defense budget.
The author, however, points out that if India can leverage favorable demographics it will be in a position to close the strategic gap with China by midcentury. Smith writes that in 2012 India’s working-age population grew by twelve million while China’s shrank by over three million. A June 2013 UN report on world population prospects predicts India’s population will surpass China’s by 2028.
Smith’s Cold Peace yields many fresh subtleties. He maintains that the “civil rivalry” and irritants in the Sino-Indian relationship do not suggest that the elements of cooperation are an illusion.
“Rather, it is a recognition that Sino-Indian relations do not exist in a zero sum universe: cooperation and competition coexist side by side, at times advancing in tandem on parallel tracks,” says Smith.
Smith points out that since the 1980s, Beijing and Delhi have crafted a durable framework to manage their border dispute and cooperate in areas of mutual interest within the confines of a cold peace.
“China and India are likely to witness continued friction across the geopolitical spectrum for the foreseeable future, even if outright conflict remains unlikely. Perhaps that should be expected from two powers so large, rising so fast, in such close proximity. And perhaps the Chinese and Indian leadership should be given credit for pursuing mutual cooperation despite their litany of differences,” writes Smith.
Smith’s book is the most consistently subtle, and thought-provoking of all the new books on the Sino-Indian relationship. He has travelled extensively through China and India and his book draws from over 100 interviews with government officials, and military officers in India, China, and the US.