Thucydides Trap May Weaken Both China & The US. Golden Opportunity For India To Rise To The Top

Thucydides Trap May Weaken Both China & The US. Golden Opportunity For India To Rise To The Top

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Friday, January 6, 2017 04:21 PM IST
Thucydides Trap May Weaken Both China & The US. Golden Opportunity  For India To Rise To The Top A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea. (STR/AFP/GettyImages)
  • The Thucydides Trap will weaken both a waxing China and a waning United States; and if India plays its cards correctly, we have a chance to beat them both and ascend to Number One by 2050.

In November 2016, I wrote in these columns about strategic intent, that missing ingredient in India’s polity that considers the long-term objective that we should be aiming for. I concluded that, unlike several other nations that have clearly articulated what they stand for and aim for, India has been confused about what it wants to be, as it were, when it grows up.

I have my own ideas about what that intent ought to be. In my opinion, India should look to regain the position it held throughout much of recorded history. And that is as one of the pre-eminent powers in the world, economically, culturally and otherwise.

I base this on data collected by Angus Maddison, an economic historian. His timeframe is 2,000 years, and during most of that time, up until the 1750s, India was the largest economy in the world, with second-place China exchanging places with it once or twice. That was the larger India, the entire subcontinent, not the political entity of today, but that was still a remarkable record. And this, in addition to, or perhaps because of, being one of the most creative and innovative cultures of all time.

After a few centuries of European domination, Asia is coming back into its own, and country after country – Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, China – has thrown off the yoke of an inferiority complex and emerged on the world scene. That India has so far failed to do so is an indictment of the Nehru dynasty’s myopia, but let’s not dwell on that. The point is that the dictum that this is Asia’s century appears plausible.

The sudden and dramatic rise of China has many lessons for India. It’s only after a singular event, accession to the WTO in 2001, that China has progressed so far and so fast, although the roots of its rehabilitation lay in US President Nixon’s visit in 1972. The conjecture I take away from this is that a single point of inflexion is all that may be needed to change the course of history for a nation.


Today, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm, India is on the verge of its own point of inflexion, where it joins its Asian tiger neighbours in a dramatic growth phase. Although there are headwinds, as pointed out by V Anantha Nageswaran and Gulzar Natarajan in Can India Grow? the opportunity exists as well.

This is where geopolitical strategic intent comes into the picture. I contend that one of the main reasons that India failed so comprehensively in the Nehruvian Stalinist era (that is, roughly up to 2014) is that Nehru imagined India to be a banana republic. The leader of the banana republics, mind you, but still only a banana republic. The reasons are manifold, including ignorance, and a feeling of inferiority after a childhood spent being bullied by white British kids, but they need not detain us. Only the objective is interesting.

Let us note how, even though (a then-poor and struggling) China mouthed the Non-Aligned Movement rhetoric of revolution and the upliftment of the oppressed nations and the solidarity of the global South and all that impressive drivel, it never actively took part in it. That’s because Mao, and Chou, and Deng and so on did not see their country as a banana republic. They knew they could, and had the intent to, become a Great Power. India did not. It is time to discard that old, tired set of axioms.

Now India needs to innovate in geostrategy and convince itself that it has the capability of becoming a Great Power, one of a G3, a tripolar world order. I’d go even further and say that India should have the clear goal of becoming Number One again. I am not alone in predicting India’s rise: PwC in The World in 2050 (January 2015) and HSBC in The World in 2050 (January 2012) both show India’s GDP (admittedly at PPP) higher than the US’s by 2050. In nominal terms? I am not quite sure when that might happen.

And with Donald Trump’s accession to the US Presidency, a historic opportunity has presented itself to India. As argued by Graham Allison in The Atlantic (September 2015) in The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China Headed for War? when there is an incumbent power and an insurgent power competing with each other, the general tendency is for them to go to war. Many signs point to this happening now.

As I write this in early December, the big news is that the Taiwanese President had called President-elect Trump on the phone. There was much wringing of hands by the usual suspects, worrying about upsetting China’s tender sensibilities. In point of fact, the reaction from China itself was muted; the most worried were various leftist newspapers who in effect said that you mustn’t upset China. Unperturbed, Trump shot back:

This fits in with the possible tone of Trump’s engagement with China. After years of walking on eggshells, the US is likely to respond robustly to China under Trump, who has talked of trade wars and of encouraging both Japan and South Korea to go nuclear to fend off Chinese adventurism.

In addition to general irredentism in the South China Sea and the unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, there is an entire litany of aggressive and warlike Chinese actions (this is a partial list):

  • Chinese warplanes, including strategic bombers, repeatedly flying through the Miyako Straits near Okinawa in an apparent provocation of Japan
  • Continued Chinese attempts to challenge Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands
  • The intercepting by China of 10 Singaporean armoured vehicles, when they were returning from Taiwan on a routine training mission
  • The building of a huge “ghost city” in Malaysia’s Johore Baru right across the causeway from Singapore, intending to affect the island’s real estate market
  • An agreement with the Philippine’s president Duterta to establish strong relations
  • An agreement to sell naval vessels to Malaysia
  • The grant of rights to Chinese military ships at Gwadar in Baluchistan (Pakistan)
  • Ownership of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota

Add to this the provocative actions of two Chinese proxies, Pakistan and North Korea. Just as Cuba did for the Soviet Union, these two provide a way for China to do naughty things and then claim plausible deniability.

Taking all these together, it is clear that China intends war in Asia; or by using their Tsun-Tzu strategy, the avoidance of war by forcing incremental concessions by the other side. I think they call it the “salami-slice” tactic. Incidentally, China is also not averse to actual wars so long as it thinks it can win them. After all, it has 30 million excess men who will never find women because of the one-child rule: these testosterone-ridden, unruly men have to be killed off through some war, most probably against Russia in Siberia. China will not fight the US, and its last war against Vietnam was a disaster for them. But a Russia war is winnable, especially because of Han colonisation of Siberia.

The Chinese are clear, as the Germans were a century ago: the times, they are a-changin’, and China is waxing and America is waning. There is much hubris and the revival of the Han Chinese jingoism that holds that their country is the centre of the universe (“the Middle Kingdom”) and everybody else is a barbarian, a foreign devil, gwailo.

But there is also a certain pushback that the Chinese are slow to recognise. Their forays into Africa and to an extent in Latin America have resulted in resentment at a new Chinese colonialism. Similarly, erstwhile friends in Myanmar (the junta) and Sri Lanka (Rajapakse) have been voted out and replaced by less-friendly leaders. So China may be guilty of imperial over-stretch without ever having had an empire. But it is not clear they themselves realise this: I suspect they are labouring under a Confucian version of Manifest Destiny.

The upshot of all this is that it is almost certain that the Thucydides Trap will lead to a confrontation between China and the US. Whether this will be a trade war or a shooting war remains to be seen. In any case, there will be alliances created on both sides: China will continue to push its two “Cubas”: Pakistan and North Korea as proxies for plausible deniability in their acts of war against India and Japan respectively.

The US has been talking about a coalition of powers to contain China: namely Japan, India and Australia, as China continues to rampage in the South China Sea. However, the alleged “pivot to Asia” by Barack Obama was a bit of a damp squib. It is in India’s interest to support Trump in his potential efforts to “contain” China. However, India does not benefit from being an American tributary, but only as a free agent. India benefits by encouraging a ruinous contest between the Americans and the Chinese, which will weaken both, while an India on the sidelines is relatively unscathed. This would be the analog of America coming through the Great European War (First World War) relatively unscathed while its competitors were deeply affected.

The real goal should be to develop its own military and trade alliances especially in the Indian Ocean Rim, particularly with ASEAN and emerging East Africa. A blue-water navy is an essential component to this, along with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. There are a number of potential allies in Asia, most notably Japan and Vietnam, but also others, who need to be pursued, for instance Indonesia, maybe Thailand and Singapore.

But the crying need of the hour is the blue-water navy. If there is any windfall from demonetisation, it is my hope that this will be invested in building up naval muscle, rather than in less productive populist measures such as giving it away to small account holders.

At a time when the Chinese have launched their first aircraft carrier, and have at least eight nuclear submarines, India is limping along with both its aged carriers scrapped or ready to be scrapped and the alleged new one still years away in its shipyard. There is also only one Akula-class nuclear submarine, the Arihant, whereas you need at least three at a minimum to form a deterrent: two at sea, and one in dock being refitted or repaired. And there is a cloud over the Scorpenes, with allegations that their plans have been delivered to the Chinese.

There is no substitute for a navy. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dictums about naval power are still relevant. So, it must be said, is the vision of Emperor Rajendra Chola, who ascended to the throne almost exactly 1,000 years ago, and whose conquest of the maritime Srivijaya empire in distant Sumatra is an under-appreciated act of Indian geo-strategy.

It would be a great idea to launch a commemoration of the Chola conquest of Sri Lanka in 1017 and of Srivijaya in 1025 with a massive plan to increase the Indian Navy’s clout and reach, including perhaps acquiring rights for military use of Vietnam’s Haiphong port (conveniently only 200 miles away from China’s zealously guarded submarine pen on Hainan island) and Cam Ranh Bay, a former US base. And a string of other ports as well.

The Chola example is particularly relevant, because it is quite likely that Rajendra’s fleet was the largest ever assembled before the advent of steamships. To sail 1,500 miles clear across the Indian Ocean, and decimate the Srivijayas, was a remarkable military and logistical feat in itself.

The Srivijayas were no slouches, as they had dominated the region for a thousand years, and had built the spectacular Borobudur temple in Java, the largest structure in the entire Southern hemisphere. Defeating them was a landmark achievement for Indian naval power.

We need to reinforce this conquest, as a counterpoint to the much-ballyhooed Chinese (non-military reconnaissance) expedition under Admiral Zheng He, which the Chinese have lately mythologised and made larger than life. Here, in contrast, is a real-life Chola armada that fought and won and had a tremendous impact on the region.

In addition, a relationship with Indonesia (Indira Point in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is only 100 miles away from Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca) is imperative, although strangely India has neglected the Joko Widodi government in power in that country.

The Thucydides Trap will weaken both China and the US; China is likely to suffer from nemesis for its current hubris and imperial pretensions. An India that bides its time and bulks up, understanding that its core capabilities need to be the naval power to project its will on distant shores, and the ability to be the trading and manufacturing partner for both Africa and Southeast Asia, has a chance to beat them both and ascend to Number One by 2050.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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