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China Attacks India? Unlikely.

August 18, 2009

Blogs are buzzing about a recent article by Bharat Verma, editor of Indian Defense Review, in which he unambiguously predicts that “China will launch an attack on India before 2012.”  The prospect of the world’s two fastest-developing economies slugging it out to see who is top dog is generating outcry in India and rebuttals from China.  The angry to-and-fro has some convinced that China has a secret plan to “break up” India.

Several years ago, when I was still serving as a U.S. Army officer, I made a serious study of the 1962 border war between India and China.  The circumstances that led to its outbreak are very different from anything we see today.  At that time, India was unofficially allied with the Soviet Union and the bitter Sino-Soviet split had just become public (in 1961).  China was still consolidating its hold over Tibet.  It had only been three years since the Dalai Lama had fled (in 1959) and been granted political asylum in India–infuriating Mao–and the CIA was actively sponsoring Tibetan guerillas across the border in Mustang, Nepal.  The war was sparked by China’s occupation of Aksai Chin, a remote Himalayan region which provided a vital strategic road link between Tibet and western Xinjiang.  Even with these catalysts present, the region’s tortuous terrain and the absence of any further strategic objective made it difficult for either side to sustain anything beyond inconclusive light infantry operations.

Today, the geopolitical challenges that China faces are radically different.  China’s main priority is to secure access to the raw materials–particularly oil, copper, and food supplies–needed to fuel its economic growth, and the routes used to supply them.  Oil, in particular, is China’s Achilles heel.  Starting in 1993, China went from being a modest oil exporter to a major importer.  Some of this oil (and natural gas) enters via pipeline from Central Asia, but most is shipped from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Malacca, and across the South China Sea.  That is why China has been investing heavily in naval, air, and logistical capabilities–including development of an aircraft carrier–that would enable it to project power along such vital supply lines.

Of course Tibet remains a concern, but China faces no immediate external threat from that quarter.  In fact, it relies on India to keep the Tibetan exile community there on a short leash.  Unlike in 1962, China’s borders are relatively secure.  And given its other concerns, China would like to keep it that way.

Verma’s basic thesis is that China will attack India (soon) in order to distract its population from a collapsing economy and growing unrest.  Now those of you who have read my other posts know that I am highly concerned about China’s economic outlook.  But given the strategic context I just outlined, provoking a clash with India would only make China’s troubles worse, not better.  India is ideally situated to impose a naval blockade that would choke off China’s oil supply and bring its economy to a grinding halt.  And India’s long-standing intelligence links with Tibetan exile groups give it the perfect instrument to stir up trouble where it would be least welcome.

What Verma’s article does call attention to, however, is the great uncertainty that China’s growing wealth and prominence is generating among its neighbors.  Unlike Britain or the United States, or even Russia, China has no track record as a Great Power.  For decades, China has espoused a policy of “noninterference,” but this stance was at least partly the reflection of a poor and weak China that possessed neither substantial interests abroad nor the ability to influence events.  Nobody really knows how a powerful China would behave.  Its spokesmen often note that China presents no threat to others because it has no territorial ambitions.  But the United States doesn’t have any territorial ambitions either, yet rightly or wrongly, plenty of nations feel threatened by how it uses its power to promote or defend its various interests around the world.

So China’s neighbors are quite reasonable to wonder whether, at some point, it may feel tempted to flex its muscles.  China has not actually fought a war since its brief but embarrassing defeat by Vietnam in 1979, thirty years ago, and might see some benefit in demonstrating that things have changed.  But its mountainous border with India makes a poor choice for testing China’s new capabilities, for the same reason the rough terrain in Afghanistan blunts the effectiveness of America’s high-tech military.  Chinese forces performed well in Himalayan warfare in 1962 because of their proficiency in small-arms infantry tactics.  But to achieve its goals in the 21st Century, that is precisely what China must demonstrate it has advanced beyond.

Of course anything is possible, which is what makes watching the Great Game in this part of the world so interesting.  But as sparring partners go, China has little reason to stage a rematch with India.

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