Three ‘cold wars’ involving India and China have been underway for some time. And each shows how much the world has changed since the ‘original’ Cold War between the US and the USSR, and how distinct in their worldviews and approaches India and China are from the superpowers of an earlier era. These cold wars are also now picking up pace.
The first cold war is a direct one. Mutual trust has never been a strong suit of the India-China relationship but the ongoing Chinese transgressions in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) indicate a significant breakdown of long-standing bilateral agreements and can be considered a tipping point. For the foreseeable future, the LAC face-offs involving violent physical altercations and possibly casualties will become the norm. And yet, these are unlikely to escalate into full-fledged conflict even as both sides criticise each other more openly in bilateral and multilateral conversations.
What also separates the India-China cold war from its predecessor between the superpowers is the deep and growing economic linkages between the two sides. Another feature is the distinct asymmetry in the military and economic equations in China’s favour. But while calls in India for selectively boycotting Chinese goods are unlikely to work, the Narendra Modi government can still prevent further Chinese ingress in the form of capital and technologies. Given its own political economy, this might be more of a concern for China, than the LAC factor itself. Asymmetry, thus, does not necessarily mean lack of leverage for India, and avenues for negotiations and compromises will exist in the relationship.
The US factor
A second cold war that India might consider itself a part of is the one developing between China and the US. This one also distinguishes itself from the older version due to the fact that economic ties between the two adversaries are so wide and deep that opportunities for deal-making and compromises will continue to exist. But this cold war is turning ideological and confrontational simply because, for the Communist Party of China, American democracy – or democracy, in general – is seen as a threat to its legitimacy and hold on power at home.
With increasing consensus across partisan divides in both the US and India that China is a long-term challenger, there are also compelling reasons for them to work together. Such a partnership, however, cannot be sustainable without some common principles of agreement beyond mere security interests. Democracy is the easiest such principle at hand. Even though neither India nor the US is a model democracy or even very good at promoting it abroad, in the Chinese worldview, any India-US partnership is an ideological attack and will, therefore, sharpen its attack against both.
Given India’s independent political trajectory and economic weight in global affairs, this incipient cold war should be seen as having not just two principal adversaries but at least two major players — if not three, including the European Union — working together to both engage with China as well as contain its bad behaviour. Also, in this second form of a cold war, other countries, including Russia, will not remain passive actors but seek to play one camp against the other.
This brings us to the third cold war involving China that India faces, namely the one with its smaller neighbours in South Asia. In recent years, not only has China solidified its ties with Pakistan, it has leveraged its economic influence with India’s other neighbours in a way that each has, on several occasions, been able to actively oppose New Delhi’s interests. Consider the fact that with the exception of Bhutan, every other country in South Asia is a participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Thus, this is a cold war in which India lacks significant allies in its own immediate geography. New Delhi’s hitherto asymmetric advantages have begun to work against it because of its inability over decades to build up either economic integration with its neighbours or any substantial degree of political or ideological identification with them.
In these three forms of India-China cold wars, New Delhi’s task is cut out – how to expand room for manoeuvre and achieve its interests without increasing bilateral tensions, and how not to get dragged into conflicts it is not ready for. The Indian economy certainly needs to get cranking but so also do the grey cells in South Block.
Jabin T. Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh. Views are personal.