While the international media remains concerned to the point of being fixated on the US-DPRK (North Korea) stand-off, in terms of sheer firepower, the much more pressing stand-off between China and India holds the potential to be far more destructive.
Indian Nuclear Weapons
While the best intelligence about North Korea’s weapons delivery capabilities indicates that North Korea is in possession of intermediate range ballistic missile systems which are incapable of hitting the US mainland, India’s intermediate range systems are not only more advanced but due to India’s proximity with China, these missiles could easily strike targets within China.
Of course, China has a vastly more equipped army and nuclear capacity, but any war between China and India that would involve the use of intercontinental ballistic missiles would be a world-changing event.
While many have focused on the possibility of a short land-based border war, similar to that which the two countries fought in 1962, due to the rapid advance of both the Chinese and Indian militaries in the decades since 1962, there is every possibility that such a war could escalate quickly.
The Modi Factor
Much is said in the western mainstream media about North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un being unpredictable and flippant. This information is largely based on self-fulfilling propaganda rather than actual knowledge of Kim Jong-Un’s thought process and leadership.
While little is actually known about Kim Jong-Un’s long term strategic thinking, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s modus operandi is all too clear.
Modi’s political programme has resulted in economic stagnation, worsening relations with its two most important neighbours, China and Pakistan and increasing incidents of violence, discrimination and intimidation against India’s large Muslim minority.
With these major failures looming large (however much they are dismissed or rationalised by the ruling BJP), Modi has resorted to an entrenched militant nationalism which has resulted in galvanising the most extreme elements of Modi’s Hindutva base domestically while provoking China by placing Indian troops in territory China claims as its sovereign soil.
Against this background it could be fair to surmise that India’s leadership is less stable than that of North Korea, even when accounting for the differences in India’s size, wealth and global reach vis-à-vis North Korea.
If US leaders have been well known to provoke wars to get a poor domestic political performance or a scandal out of the headlines, one should not surmise that Modi will behave any differently. The fact that a conflict with China whether a military conflict, the ensuring trade conflict for which India is virtually entirely responsible or a combination of both, is manifestly to India’s detriment, seems to be lost on a leadership which is obsessed with short term propaganda victories rather than genuine economic and diplomatic progress.
Actual versus Perceived Chinese Interests
China’s concerns about Indian violations of its sovereignty and moreover with the anti-cooperative attitude that Modi’s government has taken, is a very serious matter for China. China has repeatedly warned that its patience is being tested and that China will not ultimately hesitate to militarily defend itself, even while stating that war is not China’s preferred option.
By contrast, China’s interest in both North and South Korea is one of stability and more importantly, one of peace. China, like Russia, does not want to see the Korean war reignite on its borders. This is why China has taken an even hand on the North Korean issue, one that has surprised those who overestimate China’s relationship with the DPRK, one which throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, was less important than Pyongyang’s relationship with the Soviet Union.
North Korea is on occasion a source of a Chinese headache, but it is the United States which has a lingering geo-strategic ambition to unite Korea under the auspices of a pro-American government. China by contrast would be happy with the status-quo minus weapons tests and military drills on both sides of the 38th parallel.
In respect of India however, China has a deeply specific set of interests which are summarised as follows:
- No threats made to China’s territorial integrity
- A resentment towards dealing with an Indian government that from the Chinese perspective is needlessly hostile
- A long term goal of cooperation with India in respect of One Belt—One Road
- A more intrinsic desire not to see India fall too deeply into the US rather than what Chinese media calls the ‘Asian’ sphere of influence.
Modi would appear to understand China’s perspective which is perversely why his government is doing precisely the opposite of what China wants. India currently has soldiers on Chinese territory in the disputed Doklam/Donglang region. India is attempting to shut China out of Indian markets in such a manner that seeks to paint India as a competitor to China rather than a country whose economic potential is complimentary to that of China. In an all-out trade war with China, India will lose, the only question remains how badly. Thus far Modi’s attitude does not bode well for an honourable second place.
Finally, India’s recent purchase of American weapons that are vastly overpriced via-a-vis their Russia or Chinese equitant is an example of Modi being penny wise and pound foolish. Modi’s relationship with the United States is one where Modi is squandering Indian treasure in order to make an expensive point. Donald Trump himself joked at a press conference with Modi that the American side will try and get the final price higher before India commits to a final sale of weapons.
India would stand to benefit greatly from doing what Pakistan has been going for years, namely understanding that the old alignments of the Cold War, including the idea of being non-aligned means something very different in 2017 than it did in 1970. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Pakistan’s historically good relations with Russia and its refusal to follow US ally Saudi Arabia into an unnecessary conflict with Qatar and by extrapolation with Iran, demonstrates a far-sighted geo-strategic maturity that will ultimately benefit Pakistan greatly.
India has every ability to do with China what Pakistan has done with Russia while not losing its old Cold War friend. Until India realises this, it is fair to say that the flash-points of conflict between Beijing and New Deli are far more worrying and could be far more damaging in the long term than the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang, frightening though it may at times sound.