China and India: Great Power Rivals

The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia correspondent Luke Hunt speaks with Mohan Malik, author of China and India – Great Power Rivals, for his take on how each of these potential superpowers is shaping up in the 21st century against a backdrop of political hype and possibly unrealistic expectations.

Global commentators seem completely pre-occupied with the rise of China, and many assume this is the “China Century,” with superpower status all but guaranteed. Has too much hype been attached to this scenario?

I believe that it pays to be cynical about Pax Sinica or “the China Century.” Much as China would like to regain its long lost supremacy in Asia, and re-emerge as the sole unchallenged, preeminent and dominant power in Asia, the geopolitics of the region has changed to China’s disadvantage. China isn’t rising alone – India is also rising. Japan is becoming a normal nation and Russia is energized to stage a comeback on the world stage. So, it’s a crowded geopolitical space out there. Each of these powers has the potential to spoil China’s coming out party of the century if China becomes too ambitious, too arrogant, too assertive or aggressive.

Equally, has too much emphasis been placed on India’s rise as a global power, and has this clouded arguments over its rivalry with China? Your book China and India – Great Power Rivals, obviously deals with the contentious issues that help frame the relationship between these two countries. Was there a decisive factor in determining why you undertook to write about such an enormous issue?

The “Chindia myth,” the idea that China and India will join hands to power the global economy and usher in a new era, that’s being propagated by instant China experts and pseudo-India watchers motivated me to write this book to set the record straight. Being an old, long-time observer of China-India relations, I know that these two are fierce competitors determined to outdo each other, not collaborators with common agendas. Both are uncomfortable with each other’s rise and harbor intense suspicion and hostility. Beijing, in particular, shows no desire to accommodate India as an equal partner.

Are there any side issues that are too often overlooked due to the importance attached to China and India, but which should command more attention? For instance, some people complain that Washington’s preoccupation with China has resulted in less importance being placed on its older and “more deserving” allies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

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To some extent, I think Washington’s preoccupation with China has resulted in more attention to new partners such as Mongolia, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. Since much of the economic growth post-Cold War has occurred in continental Asia, and thus outside the traditional U.S. network of alliances in the maritime Western Pacific, Washington has had to focus energies on integrating the economies of China, India and other countries with the world economy. This may have led to the perception of Washington neglecting its old allies. But in reality, China’s diplomatic missteps over the last 4 years have revitalized U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines.

Is a conflict between China and India inevitable?

Nothing is inevitable in life or politics – domestic or international. So a conflict between China and India isn’t inevitable. The last chapter of my book lays out five alternative strategic futures for China and India through the year 2040. For the foreseeable future, though, the probability of a military showdown or a cold war between China and India seems higher than between China and Japan or China and the United States. Both China and India aspire for the same things at the same time in the same, namely contested geopolitical space. Asia isn’t big enough to accommodate both.

Where do you hope your book on India and China will make a difference?

My book will surely help policymakers understand the present and future of China-India relationship in order to frame appropriate and more realistic responses with respect to multilateral institutions, UN reform, nuclear proliferation, territorial/resource disputes and maritime rivalries.

Mohan Malik is professor of Asian security studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. His most recent books are ‘Radicalism and Security in South Asia’ and ‘Dragon on Terrorism: Assessing China’s Tactical Gains and Strategic Losses Post-September 11.