Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Book Review - Asia’s Next Contest

Derek Grossman

Jeff M. Smith, Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 290 pp. $95.00.

On May 11th and 13th, 1998, the Indian government, then led by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), successfully detonated five nuclear weapons at New Delhi’s test site at Pokhran. Instead of highlighting the threat from perennial adversary Pakistan as justification for the test, Indian officials identified a power largely considered a distant second in terms of threat: China.

Beijing’s predictably harsh reaction resulted in China’s first-ever Defense White Paper spelling out the “grave consequences for peace and stability in South Asia.” Nonetheless, relations between the two pushed on, and senior Indian diplomats were welcomed back in Beijing by the end of the year. In the years that followed, a determined diplomacy persisted; Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met an impressive 26 times from 2002 to 2012.

The Pokhran nuclear tests and their political fallout highlight the essential nature of China-India relations. As Jeff M. Smith explains in his new book, Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century, Beijing and New Delhi harbor a mutual and deep-seated strategic mistrust of one another. Yet both countries have continued to conduct their daily interaction with impressive comity, even under the most trying of circumstances. With the exception of a brief border war in 1962, China and India have exerted enormous effort in shaping positive momentum in their bilateral ties over the decades. But the warmth and symbolism on display in these exchanges should not be mistaken as rapport. The two are indeed regional rivals with profound problems intrinsic to their bilateral ties—and, as Smith asserts, the troubles are only growing.

Smith, who directs the South Asia Program at the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), comes to this conclusion after two years of meticulously-
conducted interviews with senior Chinese, Indian, and U.S. policymakers, as well as scholars, and military officials in Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi. As such, his book serves as a much-needed update to John W. Garver’s seminal 2001 work on the same topic, entitled Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century.

In Cold Peace, Smith convincingly argues that China and India continue their rivalry, and does so by comparing his results with what Chinese analysts call the “Five Ts” of Sino-Indian Relations: threat perceptions, territory, Tibet, Tawang (a key Buddhist enclave of Tibet), and third parties (namely, the U.S. and Pakistan). Smith adds a sixth “T,” turf, to denote emerging frontiers in China-India strategic competition, including the Indian Ocean Region and the South China Sea.

In his survey of the traditional “Ts,” Smith finds that threat perceptions of China among the Indian public remain high, and more importantly, among senior Indian national security officials, China has already surpassed Pakistan in New Delhi’s strategic threat planning. Indian concerns are driven by Beijing’s quantitative and qualitative military edge along disputed borders, as well as by China’s growing strategic capabilities in other areas, particularly the maritime domain. India also continues to believe that China maintains its exceptionally close relationship with Pakistan to limit India’s growing influence in the region.

One of the most interesting sections of the book is Smith’s discussion of the role that Tawang plays in the resolution of the China-India border dispute. Little understood in the West, Tawang is a tiny Buddhist enclave located between the disputed Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh and the nation of Bhutan. Perched high in the Himalayan mountainside, Tawang is situated along an old trade route that is the shortest and least hazardous path through the harsh conditions of the Tibetan plateau. Recognizing its strategic value, the Chinese seized Tawang during the 1962 border war, but inexplicably gave it back without a fight shortly after China and India’s cease-fire a month later. Today, Beijing seeks a return of Tawang to China as a prerequisite for any final border resolution, because Chinese leaders do not like the idea of having a Tibetan outpost beyond their physical control. The Dalai Lama has visited there no fewer than five times, most memorably and symbolically during his 1959 exile from Tibet. Yet no deal looks likely in the future.

When it comes to turf, Smith explains that, oddly enough, the Pokhran nuclear test actually resulted in closer U.S.-India ties. Alarmed by the potential for a nuclear war on the subcontinent, Washington decided to dispatch then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to India for the most substantive diplomatic engagement since the 1960s. U.S.-India rapprochement, a reversal after years of complicated relations during the Cold War, played into Beijing’s worst fears of containment. This new power dynamic, Smith argues, is the primary reason for concerted, but mostly failed, Chinese diplomatic outreach to India in the 2000s.

Smith is at his best when he looks to the longer-term strategic dimensions of “turf” during his discussion of growing China-India rivalry in the Indian Ocean. He contends, contrary to many views (especially Indian perspectives), that China’s so-called “String of Pearls” strategy—Beijing’s effort to build a network of ports, listening posts, radar stations, and container terminals that could have military applications against India down the road—is overblown. Smith recognizes, however, that China is increasingly concerned about the security of its sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through the Strait of Malacca, which is viewed as critical to ensuring energy imports. Smith’s most interesting discussion (and one that is scarcely mentioned in the literature) involves India’s response to the perceived String of Pearls strategy, which is to build a defensive network referred to as the “Necklace of Diamonds.” As its crown jewel, this network features the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where India is growing its naval capabilities to eventually patrol and block channel entries into the Strait of Malacca, if needed.

One notable omission in Cold Peace is Afghanistan, which will almost certainly become increasingly important to both China and India as Washington draws down its troops there. The China-India geopolitical rivalry also extends to this region, primarily in the form of competition for natural resources and other economic interests. Afghanistan is also a place of potential cooperation, in that both Beijing and New Delhi seek stability there—though effective collaboration might be inhibited by China’s exceptionally close ties with Pakistan, and by Islamabad’s ongoing tensions with both New Delhi and Kabul.

Nevertheless, Cold Peace stands as a comprehensive and important update to the study of relations between Asia’s two rising giants. The key takeaway for U.S. foreign and security policy is that competition and rivalry will only increase in coming decades. Smith’s work, then, sets the stage for an international drama that will likely define the latter half of the twenty-first century, and which will have a profound impact on U.S. national security planning.

Derek Grossman is an expert on East and South Asia issues at the Department of Defense. His views do not represent those of the Department or of the United States Government.