India 2008: Friends and Rivals

It has become commonplace to describe the future of the world as belonging to China and India—Chindia, as the ugly neologism would have it. Both economies are roaring along, of course, with China hitting double-digit growth rates and India reaching the high single digits. It is widely assumed that in just a few decades China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy with India likely to follow by 2050.

But if 21st-century economic interests have supplanted traditional geopolitics as the primary driver of foreign policy, then somebody forgot to tell China and India. The two nations are in the midst of ambitious, multibillion-dollar military modernizations, with implications that stretch across the globe.

Although Beijing and New Delhi have strengthened ties in recent years, the neighbors have long had an awkward, at times tense, relationship, going back to a bitter war in 1962 over still-unresolved territorial disputes along their 2,500-mile border. China’s aiding of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capabilities continues to chafe India, and to be sure, China hasn’t forgotten the slip of the tongue by the Indian defense minister who said the chief aim of the country’s 1998 nuclear weapons tests was, in fact, to deter China.

Since then India has become America’s newest best friend. Partly as a way to counterbalance China, the Bush administration has actively sponsored India’s rise and pursued close military relations with New Delhi. Last year battleships from India, the United States, Japan, Singapore, and Australia conducted one of the largest peacetime naval exercises in history. Operation Overlord it was not, though China might have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. The five days of war games in the Bay of Bengal, dubbed Exercise Malabar, sparked noisy protests from India’s Communists. China, which had been invited to participate but declined, said nothing.

It was a telling moment between India and China. Neither wants war with the other. But as Bill Emmott notes in his absorbing new book, Rivals, conflict between China and its neighbors “is not inevitable, but nor is it inconceivable.”

Even if, in the interest of politeness, neither would admit to it, India and China seem to be preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. It is hard to interpret their movements any other way. China is now building a “blue water” navy to rival that of India. The latter already has two aircraft carriers and is on course to have at least three by 2020. China’s first carrier should be ready by 2015. Both countries, particularly China, are developing space-based military capabilities.

In addition, China is establishing a “string of pearls” around the Indian Ocean—naval ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, all India’s neighbors and some, like Pakistan, openly antagonistic. China says the ports are peaceful in design, but some Indians see them as “forward bases,” part of a Chinese strategy of encirclement.

India is leaving nothing to chance. Whereas New Delhi might once have accepted China’s explanation or simply pretended it wasn’t happening, 21st-century India is a much more hard-nosed operator. It has set about building closer ties with China’s most neurotic neighbors, particularly Japan and key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But India’s most significant step has been its move closer to the United States, even calling the two countries “natural allies”—words Gandhi and Nehru, who viewed Americans as neocolonialists, could never have uttered.

Were it not for India’s Communist parties, which prop up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s waning coalition government and are motivated as much by Americaphobia as by Sinophilia, New Delhi would have already implemented its historic 2005 civil nuclear agreement with the United States. The deal would allow access to nuclear fuel technology India wants to feed its fast-growing, energy-guzzling economy. It would also, at least implicitly, shore up India’s nuclear weapons capability.

The agreement has the necessary support in India and may be approved by the U.S. Congress this fall. But even if the deal sinks into the Bay of Bengal, the ships overhead will be conducting ever more elaborate naval maneuvers. The next Exercise Malabar is scheduled for 2009. By then China will be another year closer to completing its string of pearls.

Edward Luce, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Financial Times, is the author of In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India.