Perhaps I am simple-minded but I prefer analysis that's clear and focused. Most academics embellish their argument with so much equivocation you're never certain what they're saying. Some even resort to language that's befuddling. They use it to impress rather than express. The book I want to introduce today rises above these failings, which is why it's easy to read and easier still to understand. Whether you agree or disagree is another matter.
I'm referring to Kanti Bajpai's India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends. On its opening page, it says "India-China relations are darker and more complex than most observers appreciate or acknowledge". On the next, it adds "India and China are not friends for four key reasons". The rest of the book explains the four. They are "deep seated differences over their perceptions of each other", "their territorial perimeters", "their strategic partnerships" and, most importantly, "the asymmetry of power". In Bajpai's opinion, "mutual perceptions and the power asymmetry" are the most important. I found the chapters devoted to them fascinating and eye-opening.
India and China's mutual perceptions changed pretty significantly over the centuries. China looked up to Buddhist India; a millennium later, India held Imperial China in great regard. The situation changed from the 19th century onwards. China's respect for India declined, if not withered away, whilst India began to see it through British eyes.
Today, we've reached the apogee of that trajectory. "Clearly, China does not see India as a fellow great power," writes Bajpai and, therefore, "from a position of strength China does not see the need to accommodate" India. The opposite applies to India. "From a position of weakness India feels it cannot afford to (accommodate China)" without "loss of standing and strategic autonomy".
It's in this context Bajpai analyses the power asymmetry. Many will be surprised to read "as a soft power, contrary to the generally held view, China betters India". But that's not all. Bajpai also believes China's lead "looks set to persist for a good long time". I won't give away more by telling you why. The answer, however, isn't unconvincing.
More cheering is what Bajpai says about the hard power disparity. We know only too well of the economic gap. What I hadn't realised is that "compared to the enormous disparities in economic strength, India and China are not as far apart in military strength." That was a pleasant surprise. "Indeed", Bajpai adds, "given the stopping power of the Himalaya and the maritime distances, the imbalance is less daunting."
First, however, look how daunting that imbalance is. Although India has the larger army, China has three-and-a-half times more aircraft, three times more submarines and twice as many nuclear weapons. But it's the difference in indigenous defence production and China's ability to produce new technologies that gives Beijing the decisive edge. Yet, much of this, Bajpai argues, is checked by geography and strategy. This is why China's "ability to coerce or defeat India appears limited".
But there are four caveats. First, logistics. "India's logistics are wafer-thin… because it depends on foreign supplies". Second, India's "massive dependence on foreign systems". We don't "produce a single major conventional armament, with the partial exception of naval vessels".
Third, "nuclear weapons". Just as India has escalation dominance over Pakistan, so China has that advantage over us. Fourth, "cyber, automated and remotely operated devices married to artificial intelligence". Bajpai says the Chinese military is "ahead on all counts".
Which brings me to his conclusions. The lesser: "a good bet there will be more Ladakhs". He also fears problems in Arunachal, strategically more important because it's rich in resources. The greater is more disturbing. "China's comprehensive national power is about seven times that of India". And "until India substantially closes the power gap, there's little prospect of a lasting rapprochement." Finally, is that likely?
Here Bajpai suddenly becomes equivocal. To catch up "India will need a near-civilisational change". His readers have to decide whether that'll happen.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil's Advocate: The Untold Story.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.