China's Response to a Rising India

Interview with M. Taylor Fravel
October 4, 2011

NBR spoke with M. Taylor Fravel, Strategic Asia contributing author and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who argues that China views India’s rise as a largely positive development that promotes China’s own interests and objectives more than it threatens or challenges them.

Strategic Asia 2011–12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers—China and India is the eleventh volume in the Strategic Asia series and explores how key Asian states and regions are responding to the rise of China and India. NBR spoke with M. Taylor Fravel, Strategic Asia contributing author, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who argues that China views India’s rise as a largely positive development that promotes China’s own interests and objectives more than it threatens or challenges them.

You note that in two areas, GDP and defense spending, India is not a rising power in material terms when compared to China. How does China view the rise of its fellow Asian giant?

In a global context, China views India as a rising power when measured in terms of wealth. India, for example, is described as rising in relative terms when compared to the United States and many other countries. At the same time, Chinese experts do not necessarily view India as rising with respect to China. In 1990, the Chinese and Indian economies were roughly the same size. Today, China’s economy is more than three times as large as India’s, and the gap between the two continues to widen. A similar yawning gap characterizes the levels of defense spending in each country.

In your chapter, you discuss China’s interest in having India both help check U.S. power and reinforce China’s position on issues such as climate change and trade negotiations. However, you also acknowledge that tension still exists between the two countries related to the border dispute and the issue of access to the Indian Ocean. How does China view India militarily?

To be clear, China does not see India as an ally in the geopolitical sense—the two are not security partners. But China does view India as a rising power that can help China limit the potential influence of the United States in various arenas, especially in international institutions.

Regarding the military dimension of the border dispute, Chinese military writings continue to express concern about the potential for an armed conflict with India. Nevertheless, Beijing approaches such a conflict from a position of considerable strength. With a few exceptions, China already controls the disputed territory that it values most, principally the territory in the western sector known as Aksai Chin. In other words, China is more or less satisfied with the status quo in terms of the actual control of disputed territory. In addition, because of the geography of the region, India faces real challenges in projecting military power over disputed areas, especially those held by China. China occupies the high ground and its forces can move easily across the Tibetan plateau. By contrast, India must seek to transport its forces uphill into high-altitude areas and cannot easily shift troops laterally along its border with China.

In the Indian Ocean, China views any limits on its ability to access this body of water as a potential threat, especially in the event of an armed conflict in East Asia. Beijing also acknowledges the capabilities of India’s navy and its ambitions in the Indian Ocean. For now, however, China is not seeking to match these capabilities. Instead, in the words of one Chinese analyst, China seeks access to the Indian Ocean “indirectly” by strengthening its commercial and political relationships with other littoral states, especially Pakistan and Burma.

You note that China does not view India as a major security threat, despite its growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. In his chapter, “India Comes to Terms with a Rising China,” Harsh Pant points out that India sees China as “enemy number one.” How will China act to dispel misperceptions that could clearly impede its ability to work with India on several important issues?

Just because one country views another as its “enemy number one” does not mean that such a perception is mutual. More generally, it is important to understand the broader context in which these perceptions have formed. China and India exist in a structural situation where China is much stronger and wealthier than India. In general terms, China can threaten India more than India can threaten China. As a result, Beijing may underestimate concerns in New Delhi about growing Chinese power. For this same reason, New Delhi may exaggerate the threat posed by China, as China sees the United States and not India as its principal strategic competitor.

Within the last year, Chinese experts have demonstrated a growing sensitivity to the increasingly negative views of China within India and have encouraged their government to take action to reverse this trend. These experts have floated a variety of proposals to improve what they describe as “strategic trust,” including increased support for what each country views as its core interests, dialogues on areas where interests may conflict, and genuine progress moving to resolve the border dispute. Nevertheless, the underlying asymmetry of power suggests that India’s perceptions will be hard to dispel.

In the security arena, access to the Indian Ocean remains a major concern for China. You list several other areas where relations between the two countries are strained—for example, India’s desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. How does China’s strategy toward India consider these challenges and abate them?

China’s strategy is to find all the areas where it can cooperate with India and to do so. That is, Beijing pursues comprehensive economic, political, and international engagement with New Delhi to buffer the overall relationship from specific challenges and sources of friction, such as India’s bid to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member. Such comprehensive engagement seeks to create a situation in which both countries have a vested interest in sustaining generally cooperative ties by increasing the costs of reverting to a more confrontational relationship. To be sure, many points of friction still exist, but China’s emphasis on comprehensive engagement is intended to immunize the relationship from these potential challenges and to prevent any one of them from defining the terms of the relationship.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and a member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This interview was conducted by Erin Fried, the Program Coordinator for the Political and Security Affairs (PSA) group at NBR.