Nico Yardas, Hamilton College
The two largest nations in the world by population, China and India, have conflicting visions for the future of the region and the world. Nowhere in history have two rising powers avoided conflict while competing for dominance of the same area. Articles written on the potential of China to eclipse the U.S. in the 21st century have been countered by those demonstrating the economic dependence of China as an export-oriented state. This categorization overlooks the rise of India.
No nation in history has ever upset the balance of power in any region without spilling blood, and it is unclear whether China’s grip on regional hegemony is as strong as it once was. Domestically, China faces a concerning demographic dividend, a result of its one-child policy, which is projected to reduce the Chinese labor-force’s ability to compete vis-à-vis India. Yet with the accelerating capabilities of automative technology, coupled with a surge in China’s investment in robots, the impacts of the dividend are likely less concerning in terms of production than they are in terms of consumption.
China’s per-capita consumption remains well below that of the U.S. and Europe. American (and to a lesser extent, European) willingness to consume has enabled the success of export oriented growth models, especially once trade barriers began to erode. To replace the West, China will need to transition to a consumer economy, a process it has already embarked upon.
Simultaneously, however, China is seen as increasingly belligerent in the South China Sea (SCS) as it vies for regional dominance over a vital economic corridor that just happens to sit upon some of the world’s largest untapped oil reserves, risking military conflict with the U.S. and Japan. Moreover, the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR), stretching from Beijing to Rotterdam, will also require an enormous amount of productive output and investment to be realized. But the OBOR, which has been likened to the American ‘Open Door’ of the late 19th century, will act as a sponge for excess production and is, in fact, more massive in scope than is strictly necessary for China to exhaust its over-stocked capacity.
Beyond that, Chinese assertiveness in the SCS remains curiously localized in scope, compared to American militarism abroad in the early 20th century. When taken in sum with OBOR, the SCS seems designed to secure the first leg of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Indeed, the BRI and SCS will not slingshot China to global hegemony, nor are they meant to. Rather, they are designed to secure China’s position as the sole regional hegemony in Eurasia by constricting India, the one nation with the capacity to challenge it on the continent.
In terms of grand strategy, China is right to attempt to suffocate India. India will surpass China as the largest country in the world by 2022. In a longer-term game (i.e. over the next 25 years) India may very well supplant China as the dominant economic power on the Eurasian continent. India lags behind China in many measures, yet in all fields – from GDP growth to international investment and trade – India is accelerating. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in 2014, has adopted an expansive economic reform program, privatizing and liberalizing much of the economy in order to attract greater amounts of foreign-direct investment.
Progress, however, has been slow. In 2017, The Economist suggested that Modi is a master administrator, not a radical reformer, lacking the panache to implement the sweeping reforms that he promises. However lackluster Modi’s economic medicine has been (GDP growth has faltered since 2015), he has delivered in other, more concerning areas.
Military modernizations, one of Modi’s top priorities, have been aggressively pursued, boosting Indian defense expenditures by 11% in 2015 to USD$40 billion. Modi has also led India to embark on a slew of high-tech investments and purchases, most recently, the acquisition of 22 naval-variant Predator Guardian drones in 2017 to patrol the Indian Ocean.
More tellingly, Modi has shown willingness to stand up to China and to challenge the Dragon more beyond mere rhetoric. Moving Indian troops into Doklam (a region claimed by Bhutan) at the behest of the Bhutanese government to halt the construction of a Chinese road in the region has provoked threats of war from China; nevertheless, Modi stood his ground until just recently, when the two countries reached a diplomatic accord.
Ongoing border disputes have always been a thorn between the two nations, recently in the Doklam region, but perhaps more pertinently in the Kashmir region, various parts of which are claimed by India, China, and Pakistan. Confrontation with China in Doklam, and with Pakistan and China in Kashmir, has driven India to share the wary stance of the U.S. and Japan towards Chinese expansionism. Pakistan, in contrast, has recently declared relations with China to be the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
A shift in the balance of power in Kashmir seems likely to occur given the progress that has been made on the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This route is the flagship project of OBOR, a $62 billion project that will link the Xinjiang province in China to the deep-water port of Gwadar in Southern Pakistan. If successfully completed, CPEC will give China direct access to the Indian Ocean, by-passing the dangerous Straits of Malacca, and a vital stopping point for the MSR.
Perhaps more importantly, CPEC will give China an excuse to menace India militarily in the name of national economic security, should India decide to attempt to retake Kashmir. Completing CPEC is of paramount importance to China, and only a fool would presume India does not know that. In fact, India boycotted OBOR precisely over the planned construction of CPEC.
CPEC itself is a critical link in the much larger gibbet of OBOR to strangle India’s ambitions to compete with China: a close examination of OBOR shows that it will encircle India, constricting the Elephant’s geopolitical and economic area of operation. The MSR, presumably to be patrolled by Chinese submarines and navy, will cut through the Indian Ocean without making a single stop on the Indian-controlled sub-continent; of the six land routes that the OBOR calls for, half of them will undercut gains India has made in the region by tying smaller states surrounding India to China. CPEC is one of these routes.
India’s own vision for Eurasia hinges on the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC), introduced in 2002 and intended to stretch from Mumbai in Western India, to Iran, through Azerbaijan, and into Russia. Today, the NSTC is nearing completion. Further, India is investing heavily in Iran’s Chabahar port to complement the project, which itself may turn out to be a competitor to CPEC and Gwadar.
Finally, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project will give India a direct link to South-East Asia, connecting India’s Kolkata port and Myanmar’s Sittwe port by sea, as well as linking India’s eastern province of Mizoram to Sittwe. These projects, while no-where near the scope of OBOR, may allow India to piggyback off the trade benefits of OBOR.
It is the potential for usurpation that great powers fear, and China has correctly identified India as a threat. The economic ties shared by India and China are quite dense, and the U.S. is rapidly expanding its military coordination with India in the face of a rising China.
At their first meeting in 2017, Modi and President Trump claimed a growing strategic convergence between the U.S. and India, offering for “India’s consideration the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems [naval drones], which would enhance India’s capabilities and promote shared security interests.” Most recently, the two nations engaged in the largest naval war game that India had ever participated in the Bay of Bengal, the MALABAR naval exercise. Such games may be for show, but for India, the possibility of encirclement is very, very real, and the U.S. is only too happy to assist in hindering China’s rising regional dominance.
The U.S. has focused on China as the rising power of the century. The so-called “pivot” to Asia was an acknowledgment of this fact, vis-à-vis the TPP, designed to cordon off China from an economic zone to the same effect as China is attempting to do to India, geopolitically and geoeconomically, with OBOR. But faced with rising levels of domestic opposition to the TPP, the U.S. withdrew from it. China, it must be acknowledged, is worried about the rise of India this century, and it has veiled its encirclement strategy as a trans-continental economic growth and development endeavor. For India, there is no withdrawing from a much starker reality: encircle, or be encircled.