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National Strategy Lecture - The Sources of Instability in Asia

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  • December 14, 2011
    Speeches and Lectures

    In his presentation, Prof. Ganguly discussed why a Sino-Indian conflict is more likely than a Sino-American conflict drawing on the literature on rivalries. He developed his key arguments in four stages: a discussion on theories of power transition; their applicability to the intensifying Sino-Indian rivalry; dealing with potential objections to the predictions of the theory; and suggesting possible policy recommendations.

    At the outset, Prof. Ganguly notes the conventional concerns over a US-China rivalry which will increase instability and tension in Asia and may even lead to war. With China’s increasing economic heft, aggressive growth of sea power and focus on augmenting its naval capabilities, it is possible that at a point the interests of the two powers may clash. There is a possibility that the US might be drawn into a Sino-Taiwanese conflict or a clash in the South China Sea. While there is already a lot of academic and policy-oriented focus on the possibility of a US-China rivalry, Prof. Ganguly located a more likely source of instability in Asia: the Sino-Indian rivalry.

    The extant and growing tensions within this rivalry matter because the two states have long held competing self-images, they are likely to vie for a dominant role in Asia and because China sees India as the most likely competitor for great power status in Asia. Theories on power transition suggest that there is a high propensity of conflict between aspiring and dominant great powers. The speaker, citing Rapkin and Thompson (2006), highlighted three features pertaining to the context in which great powers have historically emerged;

    • First, all aspiring powers felt the necessity to take on another powerful state in the global order.
    • Second, most great powers emerge from greatly troubled neighbourhood; and
    • Last, they start out as being the predominant power within the neighbourhood.

    Prof. Ganguly extended Rapkin/Thompson analysis of explaining the conditions under which great powers are likely to emerge to examine how an extant rivalry between two rising regional powers can led to a militarized conflict. He argues that a modification of the Rapkin/Thompson argument about the conditions conducive to the emergence of a great power actually leads to a prediction of a potential conflict between the PRC and India. This rivalry, already accentuated by significant power transition as the PRC steadily outstrips its principal regional rival, India, could culminate in a major war. Long before the PRC comes into direct conflict with the US, it is far more likely to cross swords with India. As India’s economic clout, military prowess and diplomatic status increase, the PRC will be tempted to curb its rival’s rise. Given the existence of an extant and seemingly intractable territorial dispute, the likelihood of such a conflict, though not imminent, seems wholly plausible. The speaker backed up his assertions by finding support for Rapkin and Thompson’s three propositions:

    1. The ongoing border dispute, China’s expansionist tendencies as witnessed in the case of Arunachal Pradesh, border incursions, and growing militarization of the region suggest that the process to militarily take on the competitor of the aspiring great power could be underway.

    2. The PRC has penetrated Myanmar and virtually colonized Mandalay. It has transferred nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology to Pakistan. There is increased competition in the Indian Ocean over sea lanes critical to both India and China. The PRC has also adopted an intransigent stance on the Kashmir issue. There is, therefore, ample evidence to prove that the rivalry operates in a tough neighbourhood.

    3. Moreover, China is easily the predominant power in the neighbourhood, thus, confirming the third proposition.

    On the view that a Sino-Indian conflict is unlikely because of, firstly, growing economic interdependence, and secondly, presence of nuclear weapons, Prof. Ganguly noted that:

    • Economic interdependence is not a panacea. It is not a guarantee for peace. Moreover, India-China trade relationship is asymmetrical.
    • Sino-Indian cooperation in global forums are fleeting moments of convergence of interest and not a strategy.
    • Mutual possession of nuclear arsenals does not obviate the prospects of limited war. It is possible that Chinese probes and Indian military reactions might precipitate a conflict.

    Thus, going by the literature on rivalries, PRC may well be looking for an opportunity to discipline what it deems to be an upstart power in its neighborhood to demonstrate its clout as a great power.

    Given the analysis that the intensification of the Sino-Indian rivalry could well prove to be the likely source of a militarized conflict, in conclusion Prof. Ganguly outlined some policy options/strategies for India to forestall the conflict;

    • India could simply concede ground to PRC and make significant territorial concessions. This option has the potential to prevent immediate conflict but it may embolden the PRC to seek further concessions.
    • A second strategy would be to align with the United States.
    • Third, India could embark on a strategy of internal balancing. Indeed, India has started following this strategy in a rather haphazard fashion.
    • A fourth, and most likely path that India might pursue involves elements of the first three, involving, intermittent concessions to China, growing alignment with Japan, naval cooperation with the US and steady expansion of its own internal military capabilities.

    Report prepared by Bhavna Tripathy, Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.