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Will Security Dilemma Overshadow Sino-Indian Global Aspirations To Make 21st Century An Asian Century? – Analysis


The security dilemma is a concept in international relations theory (a variant of realism) according to which the means by which one state seeks to increase its security have the unintended effect of decreasing the security of another state, which in turn makes a similar response having a similar effect leading to a cycle of competitive moves that in the worst case result in conflict.i More generally, a security dilemma arises out of the anarchic nature of the international system.

In the absence of a common and superior power, who can protect it, each state tries to maintain its own security for its survival and existence. Faced with the great responsibility, state try to expand their power – economically, politically, militarily and strategically so as to defend themselves, should the need arise.ii But by increasing their own power in this way, they may make their neighbors or other perceived strategic rival states less secure. This compels those neighbors or potential rivals to take counter measures to enhance their own power. Thus, a common search for security creates a situation in which these states feel less secure towards each other. For example, the weapons that a state might acquire for its own self-protection, potentially or actually ‘threaten harm’ to others.iii

This sort of security dilemma is often witnessed among the two Asian giants- China and India due to the complexity of their strategic and security interests. Since the inception of the people’s Republic of China and the Republic of India, on the world stage in 1949 and 1947 respectively, both the states have been forging relations with other powers regional or otherwise to increase their security perceptions. After the Sino-Indian War (1962) and then Indo-Pak War in 1965, Sino-Pak cordial entente came into existence. This Sino-Pak nexus alarmed the Indian security establishment which compelled her to lean towards Soviet Union and which ultimately led to the Indo-Soviet Friendship and Peace Treaty in 1971. Both the sides realized that their bilateral relationship was increasingly sensitive to their relationship with other major powers.

During and after the Cold War, both the giants used their relationship with the United States to gain strategic advantage over the other. That is the main reason, when one state tries to forge the close relations with US, it tremendously increases the security apprehensions in the other country. It can be illustrated from the fact that the growing relations between China and US after the end of Cold War increased apprehensions among Indians about the prospect of a Sino-American Joint hegemony over the Sub-Continent.

The was more apparent when Washington and Beijing issued a Joint Statement on South Asia in the wake of India’s nuclear tests in May, 1998 calling India and Pakistan to halt their nuclear program and resume bilateral dialogue. This development was perceived in India as going against its overall security interests. According to an Indian analyst, “In Indian eyes, the October 1997 Sino-U.S. Joint statement suggested that under the wings of the United States, China might play a wider role in South Asia”.iv

On the other hand, warming relations between India and US in the recent years have raised apprehensions in China about India joining the American containment plan against China. The Indo-US defence cooperation particularly the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), New Framework for US-India Defense Relations, Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation, etc. were perceived in Beijing as an important ingredients of this containment policy. Thus, the fear of hostile strategic alignments by the other has gained ground in both the states and laid the basis for what international relations theorists call the “Security Dilemma”.28 What one nation sees as a necessary step in protecting its own interests be it upgrading their weapons, building infrastructure along the Sino-India border, gaining access to new markets or regional organisations like Association for South East Nations (ASEAN), South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and other organisations, building strategic relations with other countries like the United States, Japan and Pakistan, are seen by other as an aggressive move to undermine its position.

The Security Dilemma, thus, sets-off the two mutually suspicious nations on an ever escalating competition resulting in reducing security for both. It is in the context of these security related apprehensions towards each other that some analysts predict in Asia a coming battle for supremacy between India and China.v They maintain that the overlapping areas of influence between China and India and the determination of both the countries to emerge as major powers on the world stage will ultimately result into the open conflict between the two giants.

Today, rising China and emerging India are more powerful nations, have wide ranging interests, are driven by strongest nationalist impulse with high economic growth rates. They are repeatedly finding themselves at odds in reshaping the regional and global institutions. India has been wary of China’s increasing influence of China along its periphery especially in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and deepening military and strategic ties with India’s arch rival Pakistan.

On the other hand, China is concerned about India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and especially the growing ties with Japan and Vietnam. Both have clashed over the reform of UN Security Council where New Delhi aspires a permanent membership owing to its size, geography and economy while as China is reluctant to see another peer competitor in this elite India watches China carefully and keeps close watch on China’s military assistance to Pakistan.

China, also had its own concern, e.g., India’s hosting of the Tibetan government in exile and instigating Tibetan refugees against China on the Indian soil. Both the countries pay careful attention to each other’s military developments, whether nuclear capabilities, planned blue water navies, missile tests or the exercises of troops along their common border.vii

Thus it can be asserted that due to this security dilemma, the cleavages and strategic gap between New Delhi and China will not only widen but will assume new dimensions. However, in spite of all these facts, the civilizational and cultural links between the two countries provide India and China with the foundation to build a strong relationship.

Besides, the present global economic drive has made it essential for both the states to look afresh at each other as friends and cooperate with each other in order to address varied problems at the bilateral, regional and global level.

Hence in the contemporary international scenario, they cannot afford any potential confrontation which may hinder their economic development and their ambitions of big power status. Within these parameters, a substantial measure of success have been achieved by now in the endeavor to establish mutual understanding. The two countries have been successful in maintaining relative peace and tranquillity along the Sino-India border though there exists material differences in perception regarding the exact demarcation of boundary.

Moreover, Sino-Indian relations have been diversified and a series of dialogue mechanisms are in place including on subjects such as counter terrorism, security issues, joint stand on global issues. High level visits are also being exchanged regularly. However, the fact that Sino-Indian relations today seem to be better than at any time during the last four decades should not led one to assume that all the hurdles in the relationship have been overcome. Despite improvement in Sino-Indian relations, an under-current of mutual mistrust continues to haunt Sino-Indian relations due to various factors related to security as discussed above. It can be asserted the Sino-Indian current relations are complex where competition and cooperation, suspicion and trust, friendliness and rivalry co-exist side by side. If the rivalry culminates in war, it is bound to diminish both China and India. Thus, the big question is whether the two can manage their rivalry by keeping it limited and peaceful without the wisdom to do so, both will find it difficult to realise their larger global aspirations.

In the 21st century as both the giants will emerge as great powers, they have the responsibility to reshape and reorient the world in a more positive and equitable direction. In future, both the states will play an important role in framing the international rules (the recent international negotiations on global warming and WTO rules are main example in this regard). It will be even more evident in the coming years as China and India position themselves at the top of global power hierarchy. Peaceful co-existence and deeper bilateral cooperation between China and India, are then the primary pre-conditions for stable and sustainable world order in the 21st century and more appositely for the 21st century itself as on ‘Asian century’.

About the author:
*Mehraj Uddin Gojree
, Research Scholar, Aligarh Muslim University, India.

i. Sankhya Krishnan, India’s Security Dilemma vis-à-vis China: A Case of Optimum or Sub-Optimum Restraint? Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo, 2009, p. 7. Retrieved Oct. 21, 2010, from policy_ paper/Policy47.pdf
ii. John W. Garver, The Security Dilemma in Sino-India Relations, India Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, Frank Cass, London, October 2002, p.1. Retrieved July 25, 2010, from
iii. Ken Booth and Nicholas J. Wheeler, The Security Dilemma, Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics, Palgrave Hamilton, New York, 2008, p. 1.
iv. Keshav Mishra, Rapprochement Across the Himalayas: Emerging India-China Relation in the Post Cold War Period (1947-2003), Kalpaz Publishers, New Delhi, 2004, p.304.
v. K. Santhanam, Srikanth Kondapall (Eds.), Asian Security and China: 2000-2010, Institute of Defense and Strategic Analysis (IDSA), Shirpa Publications, New Delhi, 2004, p. 3.
vi. Ashok Dogra, Think India Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2, June 2010, Vichar Nyas, New Delhi, pp. 210-211.
vii. Francine R. Frankel and Harry Harding (Eds.), The India-China Relationship: Rivalry and Engagement, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, p. IX.

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