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May 1, 2012

Asia’s Quiet War

NEW DELHI, India—It is one of history’s great ironies that the Buddha grew up, attained enlightenment and taught in India, while Buddhism has gained its greatest number of adherents—nearly 40 percent of the population—in China. This discrepancy was on full display last December, with New Delhi and Beijing each jockeying to be the site of the new International Buddhist Confederation. Swayed by India’s status as Buddhism’s birthplace and displeased by China’s treatment of the Dalai Lama, 900 Buddhist delegates to a conference in India voted to establish Buddhism’s de facto world capital here in India’s capital.

Angered that the Dalai Lama had been allowed to speak at the Indian gathering, China broke off diplomatic talks with India—talks to negotiate a boundary dispute that has festered for fifty years, ever since China invaded the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the month-long Sino-Indian War.

This mildly farcical battle over Buddhism is merely one manifestation of a broader struggle, an ongoing “Quiet War” between Asia’s rising superpowers. Overshadowed by high-profile incidents—such as India’s recent test launch of its Agni 5 ballistic missile with a 3,100-mile range that includes Beijing and Shanghai—it is in little-noticed trans-border activity and diplomatic skirmishes that Asia’s elephant and dragon are posturing and probing one another, seeking advantage in the new “Great Game” unfolding on the Asian continent and its surrounding seas.

Last year, for example, the capture and confession of a top Indian separatist leader roiled New Delhi with revelations that Chinese arms dealers were arming and financing insurgents in India’s restive northeast. Add to this explosive disclosure of “China’s secret war with India” that China’s five largest arms buyers—Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Iran, and Sri Lanka—are India’s immediate neighbors.

Coupled with Chinese railroads encroaching through Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as a $2.5 billion pipeline through Myanmar, these moves have made clear Beijing’s intention to encircle India while securing key resources for itself. When India recently asked the Asian Development Bank for loans to develop coveted hydropower resources in Arunachal Pradesh, China blocked them (much as Beijing has prevented India from becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council).

In the meantime, China has staked a claim to the Indian Ocean region—through which 40 percent of the world’s energy and 50 percent of its merchant shipping travels—as its “Ocean of Destiny.” Dubbed its “String of Pearls” strategy to surround India, China is constructing commercial ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, which Indian analysts fear ultimately will be turned into military bases. The latter partner is especially worrisome to India, which has seen China consistently support Pakistan—in international disputes, and even with nuclear technology—as a major check on India’s influence in Southeast Asia.

Consequently, though it has largely kept quiet, India has not been quiescent. Just as the 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar once moved courtiers around a life-sized chessboard, India has maneuvered with great care to protect its assets and counter the encirclement China envisions.

This has primarily been accomplished by hewing to a more assertive version of India’s decade-old “Look East” policy, engaging more closely with its smaller eastern neighbors to strengthen its hand in the region.

During an October 2011 state visit, India and Vietnam signed energy and security cooperation agreements to counter Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea. India has likewise begun strengthening economic ties with Vietnam’s neighbors, Laos and Cambodia, while using newly-liberalizing Myanmar as a bridge between South- and Southeast Asia. Reacting to China’s growing naval footprint in the Indian Ocean, Indian troops have stepped up exercises in the strategically critical waterway. In short, India is presenting China with a significant countervailing sphere of influence.

It would be naive to think that very real geopolitical concerns—particularly ones as acute as access to vital energy and water resources—can be glibly dispensed with. There is little love lost between China and India. As the world’s two largest countries and fastest growing economies emerge from the shadows of their colonial pasts onto the world stage, both have some shaking out that needs to be done.

But we can take heart that the sabers are at least rattling relatively softly, and both New Delhi and Beijing seem willing to sheath their swords when there are greater economic gains to be made.

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in 2010, for instance, he brought with him a delegation of 400 businessmen, larger than equivalent delegations from the U.S., U.K., or France. Despite present barriers to doing business, both countries anticipate that bilateral trade—which grew 20 percent last year to hit a record $74 billion—will roughly double by 2015. In a gesture of good faith, and in recognition of its increasing utility, India has even begun offering Mandarin classes in secondary school. As the columnist James Lamont notes, “‘Indo-Pak’ was a hyphenation born out of 62 years of bruising hostility. ‘Chindia’ is shorthand for rising prosperity.”

For all the seemingly inevitable flashpoints born of geopolitical growing pains, a war that is carried out quietly may yet be concluded as quietly. When I recently met with India’s Foreign Secretary, Ranjan Mathai, he characterized his country’s relationship with China as “stable,” especially in light of China’s upcoming elections. And, experience shows, the promise of prosperity often speaks loud enough to drown out decades of belligerence and mutual unease.

Just a week after India tested the Agni 5, China and India concluded a long-delayed deal to import Indian basmati rice, ignoring Pakistan’s strenuous objections.

Who knows? When China and India have settled into their own a few decades from now, Buddhism and basmati may trump ballistics and brinkmanship. After all, in Buddhist teachings, Siddhartha Guatama’s acceptance of a bowl of rice is the turning point that led him down the path to enlightenment. Perhaps this latest exchange of rice, too, hints at a Middle Path for India and China in the years to come.