This paper was written by Kyle Kessler for IWP 634: Geography and Strategy. Kyle, a Silicon Valley native and expected M.A. in Strategic Intelligence Studies 2022, is interested in the intersection of technological development and national security.
There are roughly 7.8 billion people in the world, over a quarter of whom are in two neighboring countries, China (1.4 billion) and India (1.3 billion). At a quick glance, these two countries appear to have a great deal in common: their current governments were both formed in the wake of World War II, they are each industrializing rapidly with rising GDPs and growing sources of high tech talent, and they are rising powers in an increasingly multipolar world. Yet, the path each of these countries has traversed is incredibly different: the People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian communist dictatorship, with a flair for racial supremacy and a human rights record towards its own people on par with the Soviet Union, while the Republic of India is the largest multiethnic democratic republic in the world, ostensibly with the freedoms of speech, press, and expression inherent to the democracies of the world. This contradiction seems like it would put the two countries on the path to conflict, especially during the height of the Cold War, but due to an accident of geography, outside of the short Sino-Indian War of 1962 and minor border skirmishes between the two states, the contemporary battles between China and India have largely been fought on the battleground of the globalized world: economic competition and information campaigns.
The state of affairs governing China and India before their current governments has shades of similarities as well. India had been divided among many petty kingdoms, the “princely states,” chief among them the Mughals. After the Mughals were defeated by the British, India began its time as the “jewel in the crown of the British Empire,” with all the attendant duties that came with being a prized colony. Taking over full control from the East India Company after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 until 1947, the British Raj united the princely states of India under the rule of the British crown, harvesting its resources and opening up the large Indian markets to British goods. India was used as a launching point to attempt to enter the Chinese market, much to the chagrin of the Middle Kingdom. Tribute missions were allowed, but “[the Chinese] were appalled by the Western envoy’s suggestions that China might be simply one state among many.” The Middle Kingdom’s own folklore portrayed it “less of a conventional nation-state than a permanent natural phenomenon,” a force that defined its neighbors rather than let itself be defined by any other lesser powers. Failing to gain ground initially, the British began exporting (banned) opium into China, produced by the poppies of British India. Recognizing the harm this caused their people, the Chinese attempted to ban the sale and assaulted western trade outposts, beginning the 1839 Opium War and the start of China’s “‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of Western powers.” Between 1839 and 1949, China suffered through the Opium Wars, unequal treaties that ceded important ports such as Hong Kong, the loss of Manchuria to the Russian Empire, the failed Boxer Rebellion, the Warring States of the early 20th century, and a devastating war with Japan, only brought to conclusion with the end of the Second World War and Mao Zedong’s victory in his civil war against the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek.
In the void of their former colonizers (the British for India, and the Westerners forced out of mainland China with the defeat of the Nationalists), each country began to consolidate their domestic affairs in this new reality. The previous buffer zone between the two states, Tibet, had a tenuous border agreement with the British Raj and China, but with the collapse of the British empire, in 1949, “the Chinese effectively swallowed up Tibet.” These two enormous states, previously separated by the arid Tibetan plateau, the Himalayas, and small buffer states maintained by British presence, gained a disputed border with each other for the first time in their respective histories. With tensions high after several incidents regarding the line of demarcation between the two states, on top of other escalations, such as the Dalai Lama being granted asylum in India, in October 1962, the PLA crossed into the disputed territory and the Sino-Indian War began, a conflict the only lasted a month. Despite each country’s massive populations and fierce ideological differences, the casualties were low (722 Chinese soldiers killed, 1383 Indians), and the Chinese declined to pursue objectives beyond their limited territorial goal (Aksai Chin in the west and the McMahon line, “The crest of the Himalayan ranges separating Tibet from Northeast India,” in the east, which both remain disputed to this day). There have been several border skirmishes between the two states since, the most recent taking place on June 15th, 2020 on the border of Aksai Chin and Ladakh, but the scale of the conflict between the two countries remains low.
India has also experienced the ideological pressure of Maoism. The Naxalite movement, a Maoist-Communist movement born out of the Communist Party of India, had armed insurrections in the 1960s and an extreme resurgence in the mid-2000s. Declared by the Prime Minister of India to be “the single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country,” the movement gained the monopoly on violence in certain areas and committed ideological violence in the name of Maoism. There are many concerns that there is indirect funding from China and an implicit threat that “in an event of a [sic] India-China military standoff, they would act as fifth columnists.” The violence has waned significantly since its peak, due in no small part to a committed military and “hearts and minds” campaign to delegitimize the tenets of Maoism, but it continues to pose a threat about which India must remain vigilant.
How is it that these two states, both developing rapidly, with fiercely nationalistic peoples and a disputed border, have not engaged in a larger conventional military conflict? Geography is the key to understanding this question, both from the military and cultural perspective. With the primary border between the two being the Himalayas, the largest mountain range on Earth, with access restrained to a series of mountain ranges and those largely leading into the sparsely-populated Tibetan plateau, it is simply difficult to maintain conventional supply lines, communication, and heavy military equipment, to say nothing of a reason to go to war over the area. The Himalayas themselves play a part, as the domineering mountains stopped the princely states from venturing over for conquest, instead sending trade missions. China’s aforementioned internal view of itself as a “permanent natural phenomenon” also plays a part in stopping it from seeking adventurism, beyond its historical tribute seeking. Aside from the shared lack of interest in expansionism, each state had its own enemy on its doorstep: India has its perpetual enmity with Pakistan (General Thimayya of India has stated “in the case of Pakistan I have considered the possibility of a total war”), while China has its “wayward” province of Taiwan and an enormous border with Russia/the former U.S.S.R. India chose the path of committed nonalignment during the Cold War, while the Sino-Soviet split brought China out of the orbit of the USSR and laid the groundwork for rapprochement with the United States and the West. The collapse of the USSR, which ended much of the broader ideological conflict in the world, India and China joining the WTO, the expansion of globalization, and the information revolution, created a series of new battlegrounds, terrains that don’t require physical proximity or a casus belli for conflict: the globalized economy and information centers of the internet.
In the early 1990s, the world reached “The End of History,” an argument made by political scientist Francis Fukuyama after the fall of the U.S.S.R. stating that the ideological currents of history have reached their endpoint, liberal democracies would largely govern the world, and the democratic peace theory would create a sort of Pax Liberales. While critics have contested the argument, (“the end of history” does not mean the end of events, and a resurgence of populism, revanchist Russia, and several other events to be described have made the author himself question his accuracy), the general argument is that countries heavily invested in each other via the free market are significantly less likely to go to war. The fall of the U.S.S.R. coincided neatly with a revolution in information technology and globalization, and, as the world was lifted from the Iron Curtain and brought into the fold of the free market, it shrunk substantially. The world’s wealth GDP has roughly tripled since 1980, with a reported global GDP of 27.4 trillion in 1980 and 80.2 in 2017, the most recent year of accurate data. The benefits of globalization were available for those who could reap the benefits, and both China and India are making significant efforts to do so.
China made a concerted effort to join the global free market in the wake of normalizing relations with the United States. Considered a backwater, the planned economy and commandments by Mao had been disastrous for China, causing famines that killed tens of millions and kept the people poor and behind the rest of the world. After normalization, there were sweeping changes, the “Four Modernizations” aimed at entering the global market spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping, finally culminating in entry to the WTO in 2001. Since its admission, the Chinese economy has exploded, becoming the second largest in the world, behind only the United States. China’s focus on high tech development, manufacturing, and telecommunications has paid dividends, with 124 Chinese companies in the global Fortune 500, an economy that maintains consistent growth through government funding and favorable, if occasionally unfair, trade with the global economy. India, by contrast, was a founding member of the WTO and a previous signatory to GATT but did not embark on a process of significant economic liberalization until 1991, and, when it did, the results were staggering. Shaking off controlling regulations and oppressive tax rates, “India has gone from being a poor, slow-growing country to the fastest-growing major economy in the world,” with its GDP growing from roughly 270 million USD in 1991 to 2.87 billion in 2019, fifth in the world and passing its former ruler, the United Kingdom. Beyond sustained agricultural and manufacturing exports, the services sector of India, comprising business, healthcare, and software/other technical services, comprises a majority of the GDP with 31.41% of the country employed in the field. China and India both made long-term educational investments, and it paid off in the newly globalized economy. Beyond advanced engineering universities in each country, such as Tsinghua in China and the Indian Institute of Technology, large numbers of students study abroad, with an estimated 369 and 202 thousand students in the United States for China and India, respectively.
China and India’s rapid development carries with it the constraints that come with lifting societies into the industrialized world as well. Both countries are consistently rated as having among the worst air pollution in the world with the attendant health risks, while each country has a significant government corruption that impacts the autonomy of its citizenry. There are also still significant geographic/economic points of contention between the two countries, not the least of which are water rights and a growing Indian concern over a lopsided trade balance. Nevertheless, the future of the global economy is in continued high-tech growth, whether in manufacturing, development, or services. With the geography of business shrinking through the advent of cyberspace, and progression in this space affecting information, the end result in the internet age is simple: information warfare.
The true battleground of the 21st century will take place in the information warfare of cyberspace. With the sum knowledge of human existence accessible with a few taps on a modern smartphone, controlling information and informing the truth becomes a national security task in and of itself. Chinese strategists, eager to exploit this new reality, published an analysis on new methods of non-military warfare, including “Financial War…media warfare (manipulating what people see and hear in order to lead public opinion along)…technological warfare (creating monopolies by setting standards independently)…cultural warfare (leading cultural trends along in order to assimilate those with different views)” among many others, and have begun enacting these tactics in their bid to dominate not just the West, but the world as a whole. They have altered the digital terrain to their choosing through a variety of methods, from forced technology sharing to do business in China, a threat to ban companies unless they censor the speech of their employees (with the example of Apple, the NBA, and Activision Blizzard in October 2019 as the most public-facing), building telecommunications infrastructure at a lower cost to facilitate spying, and outright banning potential sources of information that conflict with the official government information within the borders of the “Great Firewall.” The closed garden of the Chinese internet stands in contrast to India’s connection with the open internet.
India’s service economy is able to thrive due to a significant portion of its population’s ability to speak English, the lingua franca of the global economy. Its population with access to the internet is increasing dramatically year over year, with an estimated 696 million people having access at the time of writing. Western media is available for Indian citizens to read and comment on, with social media being incredibly popular, so popular that its availability to this large population caused smartphones around the world to freeze thanks to their propensity to share images saying “Good Morning.” With the free flow of information being available to anyone interested and the ability to share their views, Indian and Hindu nationalism has flourished and expanded, with Narendra Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister serving as the governmental epitome of this nationalistic streak.
The openness of India’s internet combined with the nationalist fury at the border clash with China has created an online Indian fervor against the actions of the Chinese government. In the wake of the battle in the Himalayas, India’s government banned a series of popular Chinese applications, including the intrusive TikTok and WeChat applications, due to its worries about cybersecurity threats and likely a modicum of nationalist spite. Social media for each country erupted in a flurry of threats, with users inside China’s closed garden attacking India’s aggression, while the open policies of India led Western media’s Twitter feeds to be overrun with comments from Indian Twitter users, all condemning and assaulting the actions of the Chinese government to a broad audience. The continued information assault in an open information ecosystem, combined with China’s suspected role in the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, has resulted in the world’s condemnation, with the majority of citizens in surveyed countries having extremely unfavorable views on the Chinese. Polls conducted by India Today have shown that approval for banning Chinese apps in India approaches 91%, and there are likely to be continued sanctions in the future after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
Two nuclear states making up a quarter of the world’s population and holding ideologically conflicting views always hold the potential for disastrous consequences, but China and India are unlikely to have a protracted conventional conflict with the situation as it currently stands. Beyond limited skirmishes on the border regions and the potential for Chinese financial backing of Maoist revolutionaries in India, large-scale conflict is unlikely, especially with continued Indian diplomatic efforts to unite like-minded democracies in the region. However, the true battleground of the 21st century will take place in the economic and information realms, and each country remains locked in conflict with the other. China’s efforts to tilt the economic scales in its favor will likely continue, while India’s continued economic development in services will likely continue its GDP’s meteoric ascent. And while China has blocked its internet from unwanted interference and spread propaganda/threats to the Western world, India embraces its openness, interacting with the global community and using its place there to spread the message that China is not to be trusted. Its accuracy has been proven through recent events and will likely continue to prove India correct.
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