Few factors are as pertinent to contemporary military strategy and diplomacy as the growing power of emerging nations, the most notable of which being China and India. It is difficult to forecast world affairs in 2017 without first considering how Beijing and New Delhi will respond—not only towards other countries, but also with regard to one another.
As both states seek to establish dominance in the Asia-Pacific, analysts have already pinpointed numerous ways in which China and India are in direct competition. Attention has primarily been afforded to either clashing economic diplomacy with Asian partners, or pointed military buildups.
Such discussions fail to recognize another policy that China has stealthily employed against India, one that combines both economic statecraft and military thinking to form a powerful but escalatory geostrategy: countering New Delhi’s rise through arms trading with Indian neighbor states.
It is not happenstance, therefore, that an overwhelming share of Chinese arms sales are delivered to states bordering India—nor that an Indian arms sale counter-response has already begun to materialize. These competing defense diplomacies will help shape the future of strategic coalitions in the Asia-Pacific. They also risk heightened regional tensions and increasingly weaponized supporting powers.
China’s Biggest Weapons Buyers
According to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database, Chinese sales of major arms increased by 88 percent between 2006–10 and 2011–15 to reach a total of $8.4 billion. This is notable in itself, with Beijing now the third largest arms provider in the world.
Hidden in the subtext, however, is an even more important revelation. In that same 2011-15 period, 71 percent of China’s foreign arms transfers were received by Pakistan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh—all of which share a border with India.
The SIPRI report briefly suggests that these specific states might seek weapons from China to balance the immense scale of arms importing conducted by neighboring India, which now is the largest weapons purchaser worldwide. While indeed a factor, focusing on the motivations of the importers obscures the more significant possibility that China may be strategically targeting this limited set of nations for the majority of its arms exports.
The Geostrategy of China’s Arms Sales
Beyond the obvious economic and diplomatic benefits that come with securing lucrative trade deals with foreign nations, there is a deeper geostrategic incentive for China to conduct a majority share of its weapons sales with states that surround India.
Recognizing that India is the only Asia-Pacific state with the potential to challenge China regionally, Beijing seeks to broadly constrain the spread of Indian diplomatic influence while also introducing new vulnerabilities to New Delhi’s strategic calculus. By trading arms with states that border India, China is able to achieve both without resorting to explicit military use.
The strategy works on numerous levels. For one, selling arms to Pakistan—a country historically hostile towards India—equates to arming it with the power to counter New Delhi, should conflict arise. The same applies with more amicable neighbors such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, albeit to a lesser extent, as India must be more cautious in regional military considerations when any nearby states are more formidably armed.
Second, exporting arms to Indian border states inflicts surrounding countries with long-term dependencies owed to China. All three importers will require China to upgrade and service their exports over the years to come—drawing them more permanently towards Beijing while making it more difficult for India to make diplomatic gains.
In short, arms trading with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar allows China to both challenge and contain a rising India.
India’s Response and the Balance of Power
With that said, China’s strategy is not without consequence. Though the majority of Chinese arms sales are limited to three regional governments, the increasing military capabilities of those select importers will further perpetuate the emerging Asia-Pacific arms race.
In fact, India has recently begun pursuing ambitions to become a major arms exporter. Demonstrating this initiative in September 2016, New Delhi agreed to provide $500 million in arms to Vietnam, a Chinese border state enduring rising tensions with Beijing.
As this competition develops, it will accelerate the polarization of the region around the emerging powers of China and India. Countries on the receiving end of Chinese or Indian arms sales will be increasingly dependent on their arms provider—and in turn increasingly likely to side against their provider’s competitor—while also possessing greater firepower than previously held.
Conversely, Asia-Pacific states may also seek to capitalize on the opposing power-plays of India and China as a means to balance their ever-growing rivalry for regional influence and further national interests. This can already be seen in Bangladesh, which in November 2016 began to balance its significant arms purchases from China by opening negotiations on a new Indian defense agreement that envisions future military sales. Similar balancing efforts from other countries, though still resulting in a more heavily armed continent, will help avoid escalation by cancelling out the deeper aims of Beijing and New Delhi.
Chinese efforts to expand the power asymmetry with India is thus leading to opposing strategies of containment through arms transfers, with potentially major impacts for Asian geopolitics. China will maintain an advantage for the foreseeable future, having already developed a formidable domestic defense industry—but the long game in Asia will be anchored by both nations, and India is determined to realize its potential.
Ian Armstrong is a Senior Analyst and Commissioning Editor at Global Risk Insights. He earned his BA in Political Science from Temple University in 2015. Ian is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
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