One of my more unfortunate habits is projecting my own sense of poetic justice and a sense of overarching narrative onto reality. Though in my head it immeasurably improves the 6:00 news, in reality it is more of a troublesome habit that clouds my understanding of international politics. Despite this, there is something irresistibly human about looking for pattern or a story in events – searching for something solid and dependable in an ocean of uncertainty and doubt. The desire to feel an emotional connection with characters in an unfolding history; this is a habit that –though I recognise it’s profound distance from reality- I guiltily indulge in.
It is for this reason that I take particular interest in the unfolding drama in the East – the rivalry between India and China. The two countries have long been at loggerheads, with a decent amount of disputed territory between the two and at least one full-scale war under their belt. The reason for the tension is simple: China sees itself as the dominant power of the Asian continent. It holds a position to which there can be no challenger. China is an ancient and powerful nation – steeped in imperial heritage, imbued with an inordinate sense of purpose and a will to undo a century of humiliation. China’s history as one of the world’s first true nation states legitimises, at least in the eyes of the Chinese, their claim to superpower status and domination of the Eurasian continent.
Growing in the East we have India. Though Indian civilisation rivals China’s in age, the Indian nation is a new one, having emerged in its current form as the British withdrew in 1947. After being the favoured son of the British Empire, it is now the largest democracy in the world and seeks to challenge the historic dominance of China. In the past, the impassable Himalayas divided the two nations, however, as modern technology and globalisation continue to advance, this geographical barrier will cease to be an effective barrier between the pair. We have already seen one conflict over these mountains in 1962, and it seems likely that we may see another in the future as technology makes it easier to conduct warfare on such difficult terrain.
We will also see further conflict at sea. India and China already possess powerful navies, and I have discussed in previous articles the Chinese strategy of projecting power across the Indian Ocean with a string of military bases. The important division here is the Straights of Malacca – the point through which all shipping from the Indian Ocean must pass through in order to reach China. This straight and the Indonesian nation (who control it) will likely also become a source of tension.
Both nations see themselves in the top spot as the dominant Asian power, a vision that does not tolerate pretenders. Both countries are lead by men who seem to have very clear strategies and the will to implement them. Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping both have a very clear vision and seem happy to engage in a Geopolitical battle of wits that will shape the next century of international politics.
And it seems that the first field of battle in the newest iteration of this conflict will be Pakistan. Pakistan is India’s ‘worst enemy’. Their rivalry is a long and bloody one: the two countries seem to be almost constantly at war and engaged in a nuclear standoff. Pakistan is, therefore, a natural ally to China, and true to form China has taken this obvious opportunity. China’s particular model of forming alliances is peculiar. They pour money and investment into a country in the form of massive infrastructure projects in an attempt to show their good intentions. China seems to be attempting to mimic Russia’s alliance formation strategy – show your allies that you can be trusted to uphold your bargains where the USA cannot. The problem is that China has dismally failed to do this. Massive construction projects in Sri Lanka have become a huge financial drain and of the $24 billion promised to Indonesia in 2005, less than 10% has been made available.
Despite this, Pakistan is in a desperate situation and knows that it has little other choice. Verging on collapse, the state is desperately clinging to life as separatists in the south call for an independent Baluchistan, and the USA continues to pressure the government to act against Islamic insurgency. Pakistan seems willing to accept the financial concessions being demanded by China. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor seems like it could be the saving grace of Pakistan’s failing economy, however, the trade off is a possibly disastrous one for the country. A Pakistani officer has made the bold prediction that his country will be an ‘autonomous province’ of China by 2030. How far this prediction will hold true can be doubted, however, the prospect of further Chinese domination of the country is undeniable. Pakistan has become another of China’s ‘nuclear talons’ on the Asian continent.
The first real test of China’s commitment recently came from India. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, commented on the struggle of the Baluchi people in southern Pakistan for the first time on August 15th. The Baluchis have been trying to get independence for 70 years –ever since the clumsy British partition of the sub-continent – and have continually been crushed by the Pakistani army. An estimated 50,000 people have been killed in the conflict, but the Baluchis refuse to surrender.
An influential Chinese think tank has warned India that China will ‘get involved’ should India attempt to ferment trouble. The reason for China’s opposition to Baluchi independence is obvious – it would halve Pakistan in size, restricting China’s access to the Indian Ocean and it has the potential to shatter one of their most important allies. On top of this, a successful independence movement in Baluchistan could provide inspiration for the many ethnic groups within China to fight for their own independence. This is something China cannot allow. On the other hand, unrestricted Chinese influence over the region is something India cannot allow. These latest developments indicate that both nations are willing to turn up the heat to prevent either from becoming the dominant Asian power.
It may be illogical to watch international politics unfold through the lens of my own imagination, but when you are considering the future of the 21st century, it is difficult not to see the threads of an epic tale beginning to form. The politicians of today will one day be characters of the past. Their battles will be remembered as legends from times gone by. Their acts -though they may have real impacts for us today- will become the stories in our history books. When I watch these events, the beauty of that fact is difficult to forget.