RUSI Commentary, with Tanya Sen, 24 May, 2018
Nearly eight months after the Doklam border stand-off, the leaders of Asia’s two largest powerhouses met for informal diplomatic talks, in what seemed to be an attempt to reset their bilateral relationship. Thus far, media in both countries has presented the meeting as a great success, citing new diplomatic beginnings and lauding the pragmatism of their respective leaders. The apparent thawing of diplomatic ties echoes the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai narrative of the 1950s and comes after the two countries reached a record trade value of $84.4 billion in 2017. Yet despite the public hyperbole and the evident enthusiasm of China’s state-run media, it is not clear that one meeting can overturn the structural drivers of Indo-Chinese competition.
China and India are both focused on restoring their status as great regional and even global powers following periods of imperial predation by European states over the past two centuries. They are both heavily influenced by social, economic and political theories that are rooted in Western intellectual trends. Still, such similarities are trivial in the face of structurally-driven competition. With large territories, massive populations and expanding economies, both have the ability to shape their regions along with areas further abroad. Consequently, their rivalry is fed by the desire for dominance over the other – something that is best explained through a realist lens. The deeper explanation is the status of insecurity that results from the security dilemma, whereby both countries are constantly looking to gain a competitive advantage in terms of regional accommodation, and the future global order. This justifies the fears of Indian leaders that they may be lagging behind China in this grander global race.
The old non-alignment orientation is falling out of favour with Indian policymakers for this very reason. While this decades-long policy has been a defining model in Indian politics in the past, Prime Minister Modi’s state visits and multilateral engagements point to a departure from India’s non-aligned ways, towards multi-alignment that better fits today’s global order. Yet despite this shift, India’s grand strategy seem to lack clear direction. For, while India might be equipped with the resources, it lacks the strategic mobilisation needed to rival China’s own assertive vision.
The concerns and suspicion have steered India towards the adoption of an odd hedging relationship with Beijing that is by now familiar with scholars of Chinese foreign policy. Nearly every country must determine the trade-off between economic reliance on China and concern over its ambitions; Australia’s prime minister summed up this dilemma last year, by saying that Canberra’s China policy was based on ‘fear and greed’. In response to this conundrum faced by many others, Indian policymakers are identifying key partners to offset Chinese power. The most notable of these is Japan; after all, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the pioneer of the Indo-Pacific concept. His proposal for the creation of a Quad – an informal four-nation strategic dialogue encompassing Japan, India, the US and Australia – was revived in 2017 after laying dormant for around a decade. India’s efforts seem to be overshadowed by the setbacks in its way, many of which have been present for a large part of its political history.
As the two powers rise in the same region, attempts by China to secure its energy supplies by land and sea inevitably involve Pakistan. This competing set of regional interests can also be seen in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ relationships with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even the Maldives, all of which traditionally lie within India’s sphere of influence. China’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with Pakistan is a continual irritant to relations with India. The truncated power asymmetry acquired by Pakistan, with immense support from the Chinese, has ensured an enduring rivalry and the encirclement of India. The Indo-Pakistani conflict has long dominated India’s foreign policy, and constant contestation in India’s immediate neighbourhood has prevented it from taking on a leadership role in South Asia. Finally, the lack of an alternative Indian grand strategy to non-alignment works against its own power ambitions. On one hand, India is keen to be taken seriously as a world power. On the other hand, Indian foreign policy elites seem stuck between contrasting narratives of India as a developing power or India as a superpower. This confusion over India’s power acts as a drag for its policymaking elites in reshaping a new grand strategy for dealing with China.
China, by contrast, has been quick to identify its rival’s weaknesses and even quicker to develop and realise its foreign policy ambitions. Such has been the rate of China’s successes in its Belt and Road initiative, that India’s lack of organisation means that it seriously risks adversely affecting its primacy in its own back yard. While this hedging approach might be the most politically expedient method for dealing with Chinese manoeuvres, it is holding India back from creating its own alternative vision for the region. So, while the rapprochement with China may be part of this hedging approach and might appear to be enough to relieve short-term tensions, structural factors will continue pushing the two Asian giants in opposing directions. And none of this will substitute for India’s need to wake up to the perils on its periphery, by developing a more robust foreign policy community and seeking a clearer strategy for its region.