Chinese PLA truck movement along the Line of Actual Control

Over the last two years, Indian officials have stressed that a multipolar world requires a multipolar Asia. But chasing multipolarity is a useless diversion

by Rajesh Rajagopalan

India's strategy to deal with China is increasingly hemmed in by two problems. The first is India’s focus on border confrontation as the key in determining relations with China. While there is no doubt that the deliberate Chinese aggression at the border is an immediate concern, a second, even more serious problem is China’s growing domination of the continent itself. New Delhi needs to focus at least as much on the looming prospect of Chinese hegemony over Asia as on the confrontation at the border. Unfortunately, India’s obsession with multipolarity may be a hindrance here.

Indian officials have been repeating the mantra that relations with China cannot be normal until the situation at the border is normal. While unobjectionable on the face of it, the implication is that if the border returns to ‘normal’—which presumably means China withdrawing some of its forces deployed there since 2020—then Sino-Indian relations can return to some normalcy. A few days ago, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar suggested that the border situation was preventing Sino-Indian cooperation to build an Asian Century. This again implied that if ‘wisdom dawns’ on China regarding the border, New Delhi and Beijing could rebuild cooperation.

The simple truth is that even if the situation at the border returns to normal, India’s troubles with China will not go away. What China did at Galwan Valley in 2020 may have underlined the challenge to India but it does not encompass the entirety of the difficulty that New Delhi faces with its neighbour.

Chasing A Useless Dream

On the one hand, Indian officials aren’t entirely oblivious of the problem. Over the last two years, they have repeatedly stressed that a multipolar world requires a multipolar Asia. There can be little doubt that this diplomatic wording is hinting at the fear that China seeks to dominate Asia. The call for a multipolar Asia has little to do with the border problem itself; rather it’s a recognition that Chinese hegemony over Asia will be detrimental to Indian interests. As the foreign minister said, distinct regions, cultures and powers in Asia is a “prescription” for multipolarity.

On the other hand, the focus on multipolarity is problematic for two reasons. Multipolarity cannot be wished up or built with diplomatic effort. Polarity is a function of power, and it is consequential for just this reason. Polarity describes the relative power balance, whether globally, in Asia or any other region. To be multipolar, there has to be a minimum of three countries (or preferably five or six) with roughly the same or comparable power resources in terms of wealth and military capabilities.

Neither Asia nor the global system has such a distribution of power. Asia in itself is undoubtedly unipolar, with China as the hegemon. China is not only much more wealthy and militarily capable than any other single Asian power, it is stronger than almost any combination of other Asian powers, even if we overlook the difficulty of bringing all other Asian powers on a common platform against China.

The global system, by this same token, is clearly tending towards a US-China bipolarity. Indeed, it may not be wrong to characterise it as already bipolar. The US has been the world’s most dominant power in military and economic terms for decades. Now, China has built sufficient wealth to be comparable to the US. While Beijing may not yet have the globe-girding military power that Washington has, it is growing at such a pace that in the Indo-Pacific at least, it is now capable of matching American military power. It will not be long before China builds the capacity to challenge the US outside of the Indo-Pacific.

Focus On China’s Dominance

No one else comes even close to these two behemoths. While India is justly proud of building its first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, it is dwarfed by China’s carrier building programme and naval construction more generally. China’s second carrier, built in less than a decade, is much larger than INS Vikrant, which also took a lot longer to build. And while India debates its next carrier, China will have its third, even larger carrier, shortly and rumours suggest more are in the pipeline. This is only one indicator of the difference in wealth and the corresponding scale of military power that China is assembling.

Short of some major catastrophe affecting both the US and China simultaneously while leaving other powers unscathed, it is difficult to imagine how the current bipolar order can become multipolar. It will take a long time for any other power to grow sufficiently large to match these two. Diplomacy cannot create a multipolar world, let alone a multipolar Asia, when power is so grossly unbalanced.

Rather than chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of multipolarity, Indian strategy must focus on how to counter what cannot be prevented: China’s dominance in Asia. Focusing on the impossible objective of multipolarity only diverts Indian efforts from this more urgent task of dealing with the effects of China’s dominance. This is essentially a defensive task as an objective and it surely requires diplomacy to bring other powers in Asia and beyond to counter China. The problem thus is not diplomacy itself but the objectives of that diplomatic effort. But it begins with recognising that campaigning for multipolarity is a useless and wasteful diversion.