A U.S. Army soldier during “Yudh Abhyas, close to the disputed border with China

It is a rather straightforward one — smart balancing China in Southern Asia and beyond must form a key element in India’s grand strategic planning and decision making

by Happymon Jacob

If principal contradictions must determine strategic priorities, New Delhi should decide what its principal contradiction is. The concept of a principal contradiction — one that poses the most intense challenge to an individual/organisation, and has the power to shape its future choices and consequent outcomes — is a useful method of optimising and prioritising strategic decision-making. Whether or not Indian policymakers articulate it as such, China is contemporary India’s principal strategic contradiction. Every other challenge, be it Pakistan, internal insurgencies, and difficulties in relations with its neighbours, fall in the category of secondary contradictions.

If so, I would argue that major decisions in New Delhi’s strategic decision matrix should pass the China test, which amounts to asking and answering a rather straightforward question: “does x or y decision/development/relationship help deal with the China challenge, or not?” Decision-makers must then view the decision/development/relationship in the light of this answer. It is not that secondary contradictions are not important or that they do not add to the primary contradiction. A perspicacious ‘China test’ can help prioritise strategic decision making in the longer run, at least as an analytical tool with potential policy utility.

From an operational point of view, the ‘China test’ consists of three distinct elements. First, an assessment of how a certain Indian decision or a specific regional development squares with Chinese regional strategy or interests. Second, an assessment of whether India’s decision or a certain regional development would require India to make modifications at the level of secondary contradictions. And third, an assessment of whether this would require any major policy changes internally. Let me highlight the utility of the ‘China test’ using a few examples.

India-U.S. Relations

New Delhi has had a complicated relationship with Washington which is increasingly getting normalised and interests-driven. Despite its withdrawal from the region, Washington is seeking to re-engage southern Asia (Pakistan, South Asia in general, the Indo-Pacific, and perhaps even the Taliban). It appears that one of the lessons New Delhi learnt from the standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control in 2020 was that it was perhaps a consequence of India’s growing proximity to the U.S. If so, should New Delhi temper its relations with the U.S., particularly in the Indo-Pacific, in the hope that this will keep Beijing’s aggression at bay? Or, should India continue the strategic partnership with the U.S. irrespective of what China thinks about it?

What would a ‘China Test’ of India-U.S. relations suggest? Given that Beijing seeks to dominate the region, it is clearly not in its interest to see an American reengagement of the region or growing India-U.S. proximity. If so, the lack of/lukewarm India-U.S. strategic engagement in the region is precisely what would help Beijing’s long-term objectives. A China test would suggest that New Delhi should not give into the short-term temptation of not being on the wrong side of China given its long-term implications. While the fears of such a relationship irking China may not be entirely unjustified, they invariably play into the Chinese strategy of boxing India in the region.

Does the China test require India to pacify its relationship with Pakistan? Let us ask ourselves the question: “does making (relative) peace with Pakistan help India better deal with China?” The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding yes. Imagine this. For China, the best-case scenario is an India vigorously preoccupied with Pakistan which ensures that India is not focused on the growing threat from China, thereby providing Beijing with the opportunity to displace traditional Indian primacy in South Asia. So, for India, a course-correction on Pakistan, even if it is only post facto, is a strategically sensible one.

Let me put that somewhat differently. What India should actively seek is not a balance of power in South Asia with Pakistan but balancing Chinese power in Southern Asia. Hence, India’s objective in South Asia should be to seek a pacification of conflicts with Pakistan, so that it can focus on China. Similarly, India need not oppose the American engagement of Pakistan for the same reason — it helps prevent Pakistan from going into the China camp completely. A Pakistan engaged with the U.S. and the West is better for India than a Pakistan shunned by the U.S. and the West.

The Russia Connection

India-Russia relations in the wake of the Ukraine war are among the most debated bilateral relationships in the world today. Let us apply the China test to examine the logic behind India-Russia relations in the face of western pressure on India to decouple from Moscow. “Does continuing its relationship with Moscow help New Delhi better deal with the China challenge?”

The answer may not be a straightforward one, but the China test does provide an answer. The U.S. and its allies would like India to stop engaging with Moscow and condemn its aggression against Ukraine — which India has refused to do so far. In return, there is on offer greater accommodation of Indian interests including perhaps diplomatic and political support against Chinese aggression. There is also the growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing which reduces the robustness of India-Russia relations. So, does the China test require New Delhi to continue to engage with Moscow against all these odds? While I am personally convinced that India-Russia relations are on the wane, there is a strong rationale for New Delhi to continue its relationship with Moscow — which is China.

Consider this. If indeed New Delhi was to completely break away from Russia (as India’s U.S. and western partners have asked India to), what would be the likely consequences of such a decision? Such a decision is most likely to play into China’s hands. For one, in the absence of an India-Russia relationship, the extent of Sino-Russian cooperation is likely to strengthen, and India will be cut out of the continental space to its north and west. Second, New Delhi continues to get discounted energy, cheaper defence equipment (even if some of it has to be retrofitted with more sophisticated technology from elsewhere), support at the United Nations Security Council, and Moscow has been understanding of New Delhi’s ‘political sensitivities’ more than its western partners. If India decides to break away from Russia, many of these could come to a grinding halt, and the natural beneficiary of such an eventuality will, undoubtedly, be China. This could also push Moscow towards Pakistan with or without some nudging from Beijing.

It is also important to note that Moscow is not keen to have China dominate the strategic space around it and has been keen to balance the growing influence of China in Central Asia with partners such as New Delhi. New Delhi’s turn away from Moscow will ensure that China gets a free hand in Central Asia too. In one sense, therefore, the China piece best explains the enigma called India-Russia relations.

For New Delhi, the message from the China test is a rather straightforward one — smart balancing China in Southern Asia and beyond must form a key element in India’s grand strategic planning and decision making.