One of the things political scientists learn over the decades is that very few things in the realm of politics are impossible. Seemingly incompatible states ally, while ideological comrades confront one another. Seemingly solid states and empires collapse with remarkable speed, while weak ones become great powers with nearly equal celerity. Consensuses that war is outdated and anachronistic have been repeatedly proved wrong, as have predictions of victory in war by superior powers. Could another war between China and India happen? Of course, it’s not impossible.
Let’s assume an India-China war would very probably result from a Chinese initiative. China is the superior power and has deeper, more focused grievances toward India than vice-versa. It has fought wars with the US and the USSR, with India and (in the 1930s) with Japan. India’s wars (aside from the Sri Lankan intervention) have all been with Pakistan. So the question can be reformulated this way: when and why might China’s leaders decide war is necessary to punish India?
There are a number of reasons why Beijing would not decide for war against India. It would frighten China’s other neighbours, and might drive them together and/or into alignment with the United States, or with India. A war would also disrupt China’s remarkably successful development drive. China’s post-1978 strategy has entailed a deliberate break with Mao’s ‘line’ of war and revolution, and fostering of a peaceful international environment to accelerate development. India itself is a major economic partner of China’s. A war with India could also be difficult to conclude. Beijing’s strategy would certainly aim at a quick war. But things often go wrong. If China found itself in a long war with India, its current advantageous situation of watching from the mountaintop as the US and Iranian tigers confront each other in the Persian Gulf would dissipate. China’s grand strategy is to maintain peace and rush forward with development while US hegemonism exhausts its will and treasure in the Persian Gulf. War with India would be a dangerous diversion from that fruitful approach.
Was the loose talk of “another 1962” in the Chinese media in the late 2000s a warning to India for its growing US ties?
Yet there are ready caveats to each of the above propositions. Fear of scaring the neighbours did not deter China in 1979 against Vietnam, or from confronting the United States over Taiwan in 1996-97, or today in the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands or the South China Sea. Making the neighbours wary of offending China would also offer Beijing advantages; it could be the perfect leverage for Chinese friendship diplomacy. It would give the neighbours greater reason to desire a ‘friendship’ with China. Arguably, China’s leaders are much more concerned about Chinese domestic opinion than about foreign opinion. A forceful, assertive foreign policy could well rally popular support behind an otherwise unpopular government. Wars have economic costs, but governments still decide for war. Some Chinese analysts have asserted that a Chinese war with the United States would cost China 4-5 years of development—a price they deem acceptable to foil what they call Washington’s anti-China policies. A war against India would cost far less, perhaps several months of development. That might be an acceptable price to, say, keep India from pursuing overly offensive ‘anti-China policies’.
Situations involving Pakistan seem the most probable route to a Chinese decision for war with India. China sees a strong Pakistan as vital to maintaining a balance of power that constrains India, thereby keeping India sober and respectful of China’s interests in Tibet and elsewhere. A strong Pakistan combined with the Sino-Pakistan entente cordiale confronts India with the real prospect of a two-front war. A strong Pakistan gives substance to that prospect. This constrains India in moves toward both Pakistan and China. The unresolved Sino-Indian territorial dispute offers a plausible casus belli, justifying whatever move Beijing decides on. States often go to war to maintain balances of power they view as advantageous, and this, it seems to me, is the situation Beijing confronts in the Pakistan-India equation. I would go so far as to assert that in a ‘fifth round’ (counting the Kargil mini-war as an integer) between India and Pakistan in which India was about to decisively subordinate Pakistan, Chinese entry to support Pakistan would be rather likely. This prospect is, perhaps, a key rationale of India’s decision to develop a nuclear weapon capability.
What about other prospects? Chronic rivalry in Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, or the Indian Ocean could intensify the security dilemma between India and China, with India seeking to counter Chinese advances, and China viewing these counters as offences against it. That rivalry might lead to increased tensions between China and India, and it is easy to imagine one or both countries using military power to bolster their moves. It is difficult, however, to imagine Beijing deciding for war with India because, say, the Border Roads Organisation was building a road from Imphal to Mandalay or modernising the Sittwe harbour.
Unlike in 1962, Tibet is unlikely to precipitate a Sino-Indian war, primarily because China’s control over Tibet is tight and steadily getting tighter. Rail and modern highways, combined with steady in-migration of the Han, along with a strong PLA presence and tight internal security measures, pretty much seal Tibet’s fate. That fate is a cruel one, but also a story that has been told many times in history, including in the histories of both India and the US. Given these hard realities, it’s difficult to imagine any Indian move, short perhaps of a drive by an expeditionary force of three Indian divisions on Lhasa, that would endanger China’s control over Tibet sufficiently to warrant a decision for war.
A punishment for New Delhi for its overly close alignment with the US is a possibility. Hanoi’s decision to ally with the USSR was a key factor in Beijing’s decision for war in 1979. From Beijing’s perspective, it desires friendship with all its neighbours, but expects a quid pro quo from those neighbours. For them to join in what Beijing deems “anti-China combinations” and/or connive in anti-China activities cooked up by other powers merits Chinese punishment. The normalisation of Sino-Russian relations, circa 1992, for example, required the mutual pledging that neither would join a combination against the other or allow its territories to be used for activities injuring the interests of the other. Beijing watches closely India’s growing ties with the US, Japan, Australia and other countries, and could conceivably decide on India as the weak link of a chain of encirclement that was becoming tight. In fact, loose talk of “another 1962” that erupted in Chinese media in the late 2000s was probably intended to warn New Delhi of the dangers of such a course.
But Indian strategists understand this logic and are not likely to overplay their American card. Punishing New Delhi militarily for a too-close alignment with the US or Japan could also easily backfire. Even if China’s ‘lesson’ to New Delhi went according to Beijing’s script, the consequence could be that India draws even nearer to other powers apprehensive over China’s growing power.
(The author is professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology)