Countries are relying on internal strength, engagement with Beijing and external balancing. Prioritise wisely

by Dhruva Jaishankar

The period between the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Chumar stand-off during Xi Jinping’s India visit in 2014 witnessed the most sustained engagement in recent years

First, efforts at internal balancing required a robust Indian economy, appropriate budgetary allocations for national security, and political will to deploy these tools. However, the Indian economy did not perform as dynamically as many had hoped after 2011. Nonetheless, India activated once-dormant airfields, raised army mountain divisions, reallocated air force assets eastwards, and began to improve border infrastructure.

Other tools came into play. Indian aid and concessional loans to the neighbours (especially Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives) increased and naval deployments in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans picked up by late 2017, although capital budgetary allocations did not keep pace. India’s willingness to intervene to support Bhutan against Chinese road-building in Doklam was an important statement of intent. While these developments have been positive, it is debatable whether they have been sufficient given the widening resource gap with China.

India also attempted engagement with Beijing. The period between the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Chumar stand-off during Xi Jinping’s India visit in 2014 witnessed the most sustained engagement in recent years. This was motivated by several factors — an accelerated global economic rebalance, US attempts at engaging China under Barack Obama, and political dynamics within India. While this period also witnessed a hardening of India’s military position on the border, efforts at external balancing slowed down.

The latest period of engagement, which began in 2017, revealed that neither China nor India were able or willing to make major compromises. India continued to reject both the BRI and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The boundary question remained unanswered. Even on economic relations, China made only minor concessions on agricultural and pharmaceutical imports. Even in the absence of real changes, the rhetoric of engagement made sense in the aftermath of the Doklam crisis only because it bought both countries time.

Finally, external balancing involved a series of arrangements with partners that shared India’s concerns about China, with the intention of improving interoperability, facilitating intelligence and assessments, and boosting each other’s economic and defence capabilities. In the past few years, India has made progress in facilitating logistics support, increasing maritime awareness, upgrading military exercises, and regularising strategic dialogues with the US, Japan, Australia, Russia, France, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and others. This month’s India-Australia “virtual summit” is but the latest step in a larger progression.

India is not alone in having a domestic debate about managing China’s rise. A combination of approaches will remain in the policy mix of every country. But if one believes that India’s internal balancing has been inadequate and engagement requires some genuine compromises by Beijing, New Delhi must logically accelerate its efforts at external balancing to deal with a more powerful China.

Dhruva Jaishankar is director of the US Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation