Book Review: Uneasy Interdependence – Rivalry across the Himalayas

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For centuries, the great civilizations of India and China have been separated by the natural barrier of the Himalayas, largely keeping the two civilizations from encroaching on one another’s sphere of influence. However, as close neighbors, both countries were inevitably destined to have their interests clash eventually. This has been especially true since the twentieth century. As the new millennium continues to unfold, the relationship between these Asian civilizations is increasingly under the microscope. Cold Peace: India China Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century, a new book from Jeff M. Smith, the Director of South Asia Programs at the DC-based American Foreign Policy Council, picks up the story of the two rival-neighbors from colonial times and tracks their developing relationship through the turn of the new century in a thorough, yet accessible, survey.

With China and India now accounting for two and a half of the world’s seven billion people, and ranking as the second and third largest economies in the world (by purchasing power parity), the two countries have taken center-stage in global geopolitics. Just last month, the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian military entered a stand-off in the disputed region of Ladakh along the Sino-Indian border. The incident was resolved on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly after a couple of weeks, but it is a reminder that relations are delicate between the two giants. At the same time, both nations are cooperating on a range of fronts, including economic, military, and diplomatic affairs. As former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated last October, “when India and China shake hands, the world notices.”

Beginning the narrative with the British Raj, Cold Peace describes in meticulous detail the origins of Sino-Indian rivalry. Born out of botched monarchical border treaties between the two empires, the modern-day border dispute embodies the main—though not the only—source of contention in this great rivalry. Supported by compelling and abundant evidence, Cold Peace presents a balanced look at the viewpoints of the different schools of thought concerning Sino-Indian relations.

Smith’s work spans the range of bilateral relations, from diplomacy and military ties to trade. While India and China appear to enjoy some semblance of a civil and cordial diplomatic relationship, it is a fickle one marked by deep suspicion and distrust. Smith cites a Pew Poll finding nearly two-thirds of Chinese reporting an unfavorable view of India, and an even larger percentage of Indians look unfavorably upon China. Tensions along the border are also high. Smith documents Indian upgrades to dozens of airfields and forward operating bases along the border, as well as the positioning of Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets and BrahMos advanced cruise missiles. On China’s side, Smith has identified roughly 400,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers in the two regions adjacent to India.

China and India’s relationship also extends beyond the bilateral sphere. China’s closest partner in South Asia is Pakistan, India’s historical rival. The Sino-Pakistani relationship remains a natural source of concern for Delhi. Smith also tracks China’s oil and gas pipeline projects through Central Asian states, which, when will have a capacity of almost one billion barrels of oil per day when completed. With China’s energy demands expected to grow by sixty percent in the next two decades, securing the flow of oil is a strategic priority.

The author, an experienced South Asia analyst, employs an effective variety of methods to produce this volume. Most notably, he makes use of his various contacts in India and China, which often include incumbent officials. Smith discretely incorporates the relevant data and corresponding nuance into a comprehensive discourse for his readers. Moreover, Mr. Smith makes expert use of traditional research methods by drawing on established books, reports, and analyses. Cold Peace succeeds at separating the essential from the clutter. Reporting on this complex relationship can often be jumbled, contradictory, and biased. While this book is written primarily from a security studies perspective, trade, cooperation, diplomacy, non-traditional security, and even religion are addressed within.

Cold Peace is a holistic study of the Sino-Indian relationship and presents important perspective on the points of cooperation and contention between China and India. For those readers interested in an extensive discussion of these countries’ security, economic, or political challenges, Cold Peace serves as an apt starting point. The book is also essential for anyone who seeks an accessible yet methodical look at the relationship between two of the most dynamic nations in the modern world.

About the Author

Isaac S. Medina (@IsaacSMedina) holds an MIR from Peking University. He has previously worked for the American Foreign Policy Council and The National Bureau of Asian Research.

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