Book Review | Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century

 By Anushka Vora
Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century by Jeff M. Smith

India and China, the two countries deemed to be the world’s fastest-growing economic and political powers today, have long shared a history that is dotted with competition, cooperation and discord. The tone of Sino-Indian relations have varied over time; both nations have sought economic cooperation at different junctures while frequent border disputes have been a major point of hostility. “Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century” by Jeff M. Smith published in 2013, thus examines this rivalry through a security studies paradigm. Delving deep into the causes of the said disputes between the two giants and simultaneously exploring the implications of those points of discord, this book has been put together through extensive field research and over a hundred interviews with renowned analysts from think tanks and academia, serving and retired government officials, policymakers and military personnel from India, China and the United States.

As stated by the author, this book aims at collecting, organising and presenting an objective picture of the Sino-Indian relationship that would be both: comprehensible by laymen as well as valuable to analysts and policymakers around the globe. Additionally, this book provides new insights and analyses that would prove vital for a number of future research projects and policies. It truly provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of the complex layers of the relations between the two countries.

In Part One of the book, the author briefly explains the trajectory of the India-China relations since independence and puts forth points to establish the fact that the two nations do not exist in a zero-sum universe, rather, cooperation and competition coexist side by side. It also quantifies India and China’s threat perceptions of each other. While many in India’s national security establishment arguably believed that China far surpassed Pakistan as our country’s primary security threat, India, by contrast, ranked considerably lower in China’s threat matrix, although India’s growing military capabilities have raised its profile within China’s threat matrix over the years. The chapter explains how this construct has had important bearings on the two countries’ security outlook towards each other.

In Part Two, Smith has attempted to provide a factual foundation to examine the role of the border dispute in contemporary Sino-Indian relations. It starts off by briefly stating the dispute over Tibet by explaining its historical relevance in the pre-independence era and how it progressed through the years while still remaining a major source of friction. Additionally, the India-China border dispute has been defined by the author as an amalgamation of separate territorial disputes. It consists of the western sector referred to as Aksai Chin, the middle sector comprising Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the Sikkim border and the most sensitive area of conflict as stressed upon by the book: the eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh.

The following chapters highlight a series of advancements in bilateral relations and subsequent disputes which ultimately undermined the progressive engagements. The chapter titled ‘The Elusive Settlement’, looks at various deals between India-China over time that has conspired but ultimately not proven to be fruitful. It mentions the ‘Swap Proposal’ put forth by China, which offered to recognise India’s position in the eastern sector if India accepted China’s sovereignty over the Aksai Chin area in the west. Evidently, this proposal was rejected by India and it failed, consequently leading to an almost closed window for any further mutually agreeable proposals. The author supplements the collapse of this agreement with other elements such as the issue of Tibet and the domestic constraints of the two countries which eventually led to an unsaid status-quo between them.

Part Three of the book provides a brilliant analysis of the complexities of the India-China relations due to the disputed areas of Tibet and Tawang – a small town in Arunachal Pradesh. It explains how Tibet remains a core area of discord and why India’s proximity to Tibet along with hosting the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Government of Exile has continuously irked China. The chapter goes into the detailed history of the India-Tibet-China problem, the causes, the repercussions and the future discourse of the same.

In Part Four, Smith moves on to explain the role of third parties i.e. Pakistan and the United States in Sino-Indian relations. He provides an account of those aspects of the Indo-US and Sino-Pak relations that create complications in the Sino-Indian relations. For example, as mentioned in the book, while India has opted to establish a tactical partnership with superpowers such as the United States to balance against its more powerful neighbour China, Beijing’s strategic alliance with Pakistan has explicit elements of a containment strategy vis-a-vis India inherent in its relationship with Pakistan. This part of the book focuses on India’s ‘Look East’ policy of strengthening relations with Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and other ASEAN countries too.

The book also extends its analysis to explore the maritime relationship and security threats faced by India and China in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean. A chapter titled ‘Securing India’s Oceans: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI)’ stresses on the strategic importance of the islands in enhancing India’s maritime security and mitigating the threat from China in the Indian Ocean.

On the issue of water security, the author remarks that India’s concern regarding dam-building operations on the Brahmaputra by China are over-exaggerated since China’s water diversion and dam building projects are not poised to affect water flow into India.

Finally, the last part focuses on the economic relationship between the two countries while examining the volume and composition of trade. Statistics referred to in the book reveal that the trade is highly unbalanced. While China imports mainly raw materials from India, India on the other hand imports highly advanced and technical goods thus pushing the terms of trade in favour of China. Further, India is the one country that has filed the most number of antidumping claims against China and the two have time and again created trade barriers for each other, thus restricting market access. However, Smith explains that this secular economic relationship between India-China is expected to grow stronger in the coming years since the release of the book in 2013.

All in all, this book entails a holistic understanding of India-China relations over the years while also shedding new light on the complex dynamics between the two Asian giants. It has been touted as being one of the rare books that are valuable to the veteran policymaker and accessible to the interested reader. This book precisely justifies the statement “If China and India are indeed rivals, they are not rivals by any traditional definition of the word” by providing the appropriate and legitimate references and information gathered through extensive research. Personally, what I liked most about the book was the unbiased tone and details that were mentioned; something that is extremely sparse. With Cold Peace, Jeff Smith has delivered a great addition to the boundless literature on Sino-Indian relations.