Today or tomorrow, China will likely turn against India. New Delhi must be ready for when the time comes

by T V Paul

In recent years, India has developed multiple strategies to deal with China’s rise and threatening postures on both its land border and in the Indian Ocean. They include limited balancing based on asymmetrical arms buildups and informal coalitions with like-minded states and regular diplomatic engagement with Beijing both bilaterally and through multilateral forums. But the most significant non-traditional soft balancing efforts have been in building limited strategic partnerships with the United States and Japan as well as participation in ASEAN Forums, along with other regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The strategy is also based on institutional denial by not agreeing to China’s membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and, most prominently, refusing to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There have been some efforts at creating counter economic cooperation initiatives with regional states as alternatives to BRI. The Africa Growth Corridor with Japan was planned in 2017 as a limited alternative to BRI, although it is yet to take full shape.

None of these strategic options has diminished the palpable differences in Beijing’s behaviour toward India. As discussed in my just released volume, The China-India Rivalry in the Globalisation Era by Georgetown University Press, the relations between the two Asian giants have remained a “managed rivalry” with ups and downs in terms of ‘hostile’ or ‘friendly’ interactions. Economic globalisation has helped to reduce the intensity of the rivalry, but not to eliminate the issues that the two states compete over. Since May 2018, a limited d├ętente is visible as China is facing considerable economic pressures from the Trump administration. The Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan in May 2018 and the several meetings between the two leaders at forums such as SCO and BRICS have helped to smoothen rough feathers since the July-August 2017 standoff in the Doklam plateau in the trijunction between Bhutan, China and India. The Trump administration’s trade policies have generated worries in both China and India as the United States has imposed tariffs on both countries, even though New Delhi has been trying to develop improved economic and strategic relationships with Washington. China, however, offers the most significant challenge to India’s core interests as Beijing’s larger goals in the Indo-Pacific clash with India’s. Thus far, India’s response has been limited to China’s expansionist policies. Why are India’s strategic options so constrained and why has soft balancing become such an important strategic tool for India?

There are four key reasons.

The first is economic. China has emerged as India’s lead trading partner and during 2017, China traded some $84 billion worth of goods and services with India involving a trade surplus of $52 billion for Beijing. Despite, all protestations from India, this huge trade gap is unlikely to change anytime soon, as Indian manufacturing and consumer industries are heavily dependent on Chinese products for cost and other reasons. India’s alternative strategy of developing products domestically through the “Make India” program has not advanced far in the face of the Chinese economic onslaught.

The second is the nonavailability of reliable partners to joining a balancing coalition who are not hampered by China’s wedge strategy. China’s approach toward India has always involved an effort to make sure India doesn’t form active balancing coalitions with parties, including the United States, Japan and Australia—the so-called Quadrilateral grouping. This is a form of wedge strategy, and China practices such a strategy in different regions by weaning potential partners in Southeast Asia and elsewhere through economic carrots and sticks.

Third is the U.S. strategy under President Donald Trump. Trump is not exhibiting a deep strategic vision vis-a-vis India as his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama did. Trump wants America to withdraw from many of its commitments, including those involving India, without realizing how hard it was to build a rapprochement between the two ‘estranged democracies.’ For the past seventy years, almost all U.S. alliance partnerships have been jointly built around their economic and military relationships. Trump is placing economic tariffs on allies and adversaries alike, hoping to bifurcate the two. India is also included in that list of targeted countries. In addition, Trump’s immigration policies, in particular reducing the H-1 and student visas, are hurting potential Indian applicants more than those from most other countries. These policies are doing little to befriend India, and hence Modi has now decided to pursue a more appeasing strategy toward China. Under Trump, the United States is not a credible partner in the eyes of most allies, including India.

The lack of reliable partners is a challenge partially because India is unable to fulfill the requirements they expect of New Delhi. The United States is an unreliable partner for India despite its frequent statements of good intent. The lifting of sanctions on India in the nuclear nonproliferation area through the 2005 U.S.-India Nuclear Accord was a major symbolic act that allowed India to bypass many a stricture of the non-proliferation regime. India was expected to buy several U.S. reactors, but the nuclear resurgence in India did not happen due to the country’s inability to come up with a strong antiliability bill. In the meantime, the Fukushima accident in Japan generated much nuclear pessimism which has dampened the civilian industry’s growth worldwide.

Finally, India has a strong instinct for strategic autonomy, a hangover from its nonaligned days. Any time when pressures mount from multiple great powers, India has found the return to strategic autonomy an appealing option. Today, India is once again showing that it may pursue autonomy more than any other strategy because of the threats coming in different manifestations from China and the United States.

Vacillating U.S. Policies

The United States has in the meantime been distracted by a number of other considerations. One of them is its interactions with China. The Trump administration, despite threats of trade sanctions, has not led an effective balancing coalition against Beijing, and the two areas this has manifested is in it’s inability to prevent the Chinese island reclamation and naval buildup in the South China Sea, along with the Chinese navy’s increasing forays in to the Indian Ocean.

The Obama pivot to Asia strategy did nothing to dampen Chinese expansionism into the Indo-Pacific. Its deterrent effect was nil. Instead, by helping generate a fear of future containment, it probably encouraged Beijing to accelerate its naval expansion. So, China perceived a short-term window of opportunity to maximize its strategic presence in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean before the United States brought in additional forces and military deployments.

More importantly, America’s withdrawal from the crucial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) has signaled to China that soft balancing through this particular economic instrument will not happen. The Trump administration’s lack of interest in regional institutions also hampers soft balancing efforts. Washington is developing heavy weapons. including aircraft carriers. for deployment in the Pacific, but Beijing is not planning a major arms race based on an equivalent strategy. The incremental pace with which China militarizes the region is not creating an imminent crisis, and the United States has not been able to muster domestic or international support to confront China in a preventive manner. The occasional joint military exercises such as Malabar and the freedom of navigation naval visits in the South China Sea are not producing the outcome of restraint—let alone containment.

China is using economic globalisation and interdependence for its military and naval expansion in such a manner that no parties feel that the threat is strong enough to justify the costs of balancing China in an effective or urgent fashion. For effective balancing coalitions to emerge, the security threat has to be seriously felt by affected states.

India, like other potential allies of Japan and the United States, is thus restrained from adopting any strategy that goes beyond limited hard balancing and somewhat vigorous soft balancing toward China. The limited hard balancing depends on unequal arms purchasing and deployment, but the soft balancing relies on regional and international institutions as well as lower level strategic partnerships to constrain China’s threatening behavior. The intended message appears to be that these soft balancing instruments could be upgraded to hard balancing if the threats become overwhelming. It’s possible that allies in Southeast Asia, particularly ASEAN countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, are also not keen on actively balancing China, although there is some interest in soft balancing among Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore—and this is giving India more opportunities in this is regard.

So, what strategic options does that leave India with? A continuation of current low-key balancing is not a bad strategy, as hedging will allow India a certain kind of maneuverability in the short and medium term. However, India needs an alternative to the BRI, and this is where New Delhi may have a chance to build or rebuild its links with neighboring countries and beyond. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor initiated by Japan and India in May 2017 has yet to take off. This was supposed to be an answer to China’s BRI by focusing on quality infrastructure, digital connectivity, and improvements in health and agriculture as well as human skills development in countries in Africa and Asia. There is also a plan supported by Japan to develop infrastructure in India’s Northeast, connecting the region to Southeast Asia and China. The latter may also allow linking with select BRI components if China is willing to collaborate in a selective fashion. Not allowing all neighbors to fall into a dependent relationship with China is in India’s interest, though New Delhi still needs to keep the United States, Japan, ASEAN and Australia as potential allies in case Chinese nationalism and expansionism turn sour.

Strategic autonomy or a form of nonalignment may be another option, but this will not necessarily bring security to India in the current atmosphere, as China is unlikely to respect India’s autonomy. Instead, it may expect reverence and allegiance to its expansionist schemes. In order for China to meet its strategic goals, it needs to weaken India as a challenger in the Asia Pacific region or otherwise mellow India’s possible objections.

China’s tactical signals of friendship are unlikely to last. Today or tomorrow, China will likely turn against India, unless it is willing to bandwagon or remain neutral in China’s expansionist policies. This is because China’s goals under Xi Jinping are ambitious: it seeks to replace America as the next hegemonic power, which India will have a tough time reckoning with. As China pursues this, it will have to expand its naval footprint in the Indian Ocean as its economic investments under the BRI projects increase, which will leave India will leave feeling threatened.

Does India Have A Strategic Vision?

The absence of a proper strategic vision in Washington today limits India’s strategic options. The question is: does India also lack a strategic vision? Are the Indian elite and society at large aware of the challenges India faces in the ongoing strategic competitions in the region? What can India do to avoid being subjugated once again by powerful actors, if not directly this time? Will the East India Company syndrome repeat itself? The Chinese BRI has many elements of East India Company syndrome, such as opening trading posts and then converting them to naval bases—a process that would leave the oceans under Chinese control. Chinese policies are turning smaller parties into overly dependent clients, and they will have to make substantial territorial and economic concessions to China, as happened to Sri Lanka in the leasing of the Hambantota port for ninety-nine years to China in December 2017. This is a bit akin to the British acquisition of Hong Kong and Macau from a weak Chinese empire in the 1800s. China has also brought in large number of its workers to the construction projects and encouraged its citizens buy the houses and real estate it has developed on these island states. It is increasingly involving itself in the domestic politics of the client states, tactics that East India Companies adopted as well.

Grand strategy may not offer all the answers, but strategies that leave a nation ready to face different contingencies is necessary to survive and prosper in a highly competitive international environment. Linking domestic performance and international performance is critical as well. This is where India lags. Despite an impressive economic growth rate, now above 7 percent, it faces all the challenges of a weak state, such as being unable to provide basic public goods, be it in infrastructure, water provisions, education, electricity or health services. Urban planning and development are archaic, while India’s hygienic standards look medieval at best. India’s political and bureaucratic class is yet to imbibe the need for becoming strong developmental agents to transform their country on an urgent basis. Many of them seem more interested in the acquisition of private wealth at the cost of the state and its agencies. Even if they are supporters of development, their slow pace in approving and implementing developmental schemes is in effect hurting India’s larger goal of emerging as a global power that can withstand challenges coming from China and others. This also affects India’s possible emergence as a lead power to emulate and follow. Indian electoral politics are generating many of the tendencies of a fragile democracy, with communal forces increasingly shaping the agenda. An intolerant political dispensation will hurt India’s soft power substantially and its claim for a global leadership role. There has to be something others can imitate or value in the governance and politico-economic structures of a global power. Effective grand strategy must thus begin at home.

The strategic challenges the twenty-first century brings into India are multifarious. New Delhi needs much more nimbleness in diplomacy and to develop different instruments for balancing and engagement. Soft balancing using international and regional institutions, limited alignments and economic instruments such as denial are crucial components—even when the country develops strong defensive and deterrent capabilities for hard balancing purposes. Diplomatic engagement is equally important, but summit level meetings and agreements need to be followed through and the decisions made must be carried out in a timely manner. Tactical moves by the leaders ought to be translated into coherent grand strategic policies. Avoiding an intense rivalry with China is necessary for India to grow economically, although its rise may be hampered by increasing international, regional and domestic pressures.