India’s Chinese Conundrum
Vivek Sugandh

“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world” (Xinran, 2011). This quote, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledges the unprecedented change the rise of China will bring about in the world. In the field of international politics, Offensive realist scholar John Mearsheimer argues that all great powers will strive for hegemony as power itself is the end basis for guaranteed survival. And China is acquiring power and showing signs of assertion in the global space (Steinsson, 2014). Under Xi Jinping, in these COVID times with its origin in China itself; the aggression shown in the South China Sea, the crisis in Hong Kong and Taiwan; and now kick starting border disputes with India on multiple points underscores what we always knew, that the Chinese rise will be unnatural, non-peaceful and contested.

The world has allowed China to rise, especially the United States, which surprisingly remained oblivious to this Chinese challenge which will have a direct bearing on its superpower status. Barack Obama’s presidency saw the rhetoric on China’s peaceful rise and a tacit acceptance of a G-2 (Group 2) framework for the world order (Jha, 2019). This is in utter disregard to the semantics of great power politics and understanding of China’s strategic culture and history; its philosophers like Sun Tzu’s writings, the middle kingdom complex and so on, and so forth.

On the other hand, the Chinese establishment has stuck to its reformist leader Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”. It emerged as the manufacturing powerhouse with huge trade imbalances in its favour against other countries especially the USA and under the hubris of developing status, built its core hard power with favorable terms and conditions within a multilateral globalized framework. Now, as China is sure of its accumulated power, it is taking calculated steps towards creating its mirror image in the world (Heydarian, 2014).

This USA policy failure to check China’s rise was realized in Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy (2017) and further in its National Defense Strategy (2017), which labeled China, for the first time as a “strategic competitor” seeking “regional hegemony in Indo-Pacific in the near term and displacement of the US to achieve global preeminence in future” (WhiteHouse, 2017). However, apart from the Trade War discourse and typical Trump’s rhetoric against China, nothing substantial has come out. In fact, Trump has disturbed the loose balance of power in the international system through reverting against Obama’s Asia Pivot Policy, transactional approach towards its allies and partners, and non-commitment to the globalized world (Mctague, 2020).

The Chinese grand strategy towards achieving hegemony in Asia has several pillars. Geo-strategically, China has entered into partnerships with pliable countries through cheap money and projects and initiated grand projects and initiatives like OBOR and Asia Investment Infrastructure Bank. It has also embarked on coaxing its neighbours to accept its expansionism and changing the status quo in border issues which forms another important pillar of its strategic design. It also includes exposing the inadequacies of the liberal world order and presenting China as the champion of the globalizing faith (Padmanabhan, 2020).

As the Chinese path towards hegemony would run through subduing its neighbours through coercion or consent and India with its own principled claim of an emerging power would resist any such event as seen in Doklam standoff and the recent Galwan valley episode, the stakes for India are high. For China, the rise of India, despite the power difference is a pincer to its claim for non-contested continental dominance (Bhattacharya, 2017). Similarly, under a decisive leadership, India has started playing its cards well through tangoing with Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai rhetoric exemplified in Wuhan Spirit, Chennai Connect, etc. but at the same time working towards improving the border infrastructure, altering the Jammu and Kashmir arrangement and giving strong responses to the Chinese incursions.

However, in International politics, “Nations are prisoners of structure” and owing to the emerging geo-dynamics, India finds itself in a bit of bother. The changing geopolitical alignments in its extended neighborhood does not bode well for its long term strategic interests. Our friends, especially the US have been non-committal and at times adversarial to our interests like in peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, while on the other hand, a loose coalition of countries led by China is emerging (especially Pakistan), who are inimical to our interests. India’s centrality in the South Asian region is coming under scanner owing to the desires of its small neighbours to balance India with China and Chinese activism through OBOR, String of Pearls, and so on (Kwatra, 2020). The recent Indo-Nepalese crisis bears testimony to this.

There should be no doubt that China’s superstardom status will affect India’s interests deeply and our strategic establishment, despite all the diplomatic niceties in public of a combined Asia’s rise is well aware of it. However, despite this we have allowed ourselves to be absorbed into the Chinese scheme of things as seen in burgeoning trade deficit with China, dependence on China for strategic sectors like pharmaceuticals and telecom, investments in startups, etc. This has to change and it calls for a complex strategy built on cooperation and competition with China.

India needs to further qualify its China’s policy to secure its national interests in the backdrop of increasing Chinese aggression in the world system. The key to unlock the Chinese challenge lies in reducing the power differential, which has only widened over the years. Initiatives like Quad, Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), and a hypothetical Concert of Democracies and so on are welcome but to pin hopes on outside powers to compensate for India’s own vulnerabilities and concerns is wishful thinking (Mehta, 2020).

Only a multi-pronged approach on a priority basis can serve as an effective antidote to this lurking Chinese danger in our neighbourhood. Our Prime Minister’s clarion call for “Atmanirbhar Bharat” is the way forward (Baruah, 2020`). It should include strategic decoupling from China’s manufacturing web by building our core competency in multiple sectors. This needs to be supplemented with increased awareness of our security interests and working on indigenous solutions like effective border management, industrial-military complexes, etc. Internationally, India needs to assert as the largest democracy in the world rather than keep guessing from the margins. It needs to evolve consensus by articulating its concerns and perspectives on alarming issues like COVID crisis and investigation, China’s expansionism, and waning multilateralism. We should strive for credible assurances from our partners with regard to our concerns in order to realize the true meaning of strategic partnership. Projects like Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) remain in limbo and call for fresh plans and investments. Our own initiatives like Act East Policy and SAARC await a renewed push.

India has perfected playing this multi-vectored foreign policy game in an increasingly multi-polar world order but the time has come for India to take a leap in this direction. All such strategic wisdom exists in our ancient texts like Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Kamandiki’s Nitishastra, which needs to be put in use.

All these are long term solutions and are part of India’s vision but the need is to implement them on a priority basis looking at the challenges and opportunities. Most importantly, we the people need to build what realist scholar Hans Morgenthau saw the biggest internal source of power i.e. the national character and morale, which has lifted many countries like Japan and South Korea in the past and maybe India in the future. How India tackles China will be a test of wisdom and resolve of its leadership, diplomacy, and people at large.


(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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