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The future of India-China relationship is now all about the flux in US-China ties

As the prospects for armed conflict at LAC recede, Indian strategists must now begin the process of making sense of the troubled India-China relationship.

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The disengagement process with China is the beginning of the end of a major regional crisis. It was only the even more devastating impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic that overshadowed the almost year-long India-China standoff in Ladakh, which resulted in military casualties at the Line of Actual Control for the first time since the 1970s. As the prospects for armed conflict recede, Indian strategists must now begin the process of making sense of the troubled India-China relationship.

In my latest book, Powershift: India-China Relations in a Multipolar World, I focus on three central themes that I believe will define the future of India-China relations – contested territory, the tumultuous but inevitable transition to a multipolar world order, and managing an uneasy rivalry in a common neighbourhood. Each theme has its own history and context, and reveals a part of the India-China puzzle. Finding a settlement or agreement on any one theme, however, requires an understanding between Delhi and Beijing on another issue. So fashioning a compromise on the seven-decade-old border dispute is impossible without a common understanding on Asia’s future. Or, the geopolitics of the subcontinent – where China’s footprint looms larger than at any point in the past – cannot be regulated without a stable and settled India-China frontier. This is what makes the relationship challenging for policymakers and befuddling to public audiences. There is no quick fix or straightforward solution.

It is disconcerting to see India’s contemporary discourse mystify China. After all, we have been living with the People’s Republic of China as a neighbour for more than 70 years and the fact that we are constantly trying to reinvent the wheel is something that needs to be set aside.

Policymakers during the Cold War soon recognised that dealing with China requires a framework that is tailored to India’s circumstances. This means an advantageous realpolitik where India leverages the international environment to augment its power potential and cultivate a network of partners. It also implies a sophisticated understanding of what it means to live with China in a common Asian and South Asian neighbourhood with overlapping peripheries extending to thousands of kilometres with many small nations sandwiched in between. India has struggled to find that equilibrium between shaping not only a balance of power but also a balance of interests. The emerging multipolar world order will call upon Indian leaders to strike that balance.

Also read: Modi shouldn’t echo Xi’s policies because India isn’t China on so many levels

Realpolitik, not any allied framework

The central theme in Powershift is that realpolitik engagement and managing competition is the most realistic and prudent option for India. The alternatives being propagated are unconvincing and unsustainable. At least, for the foreseeable future.

A popular prescription is to advocate that India should shed its inhibitions and actively participate in an allied security framework built on a common ‘China threat’. But this is unviable for two reasons.

First, the range of challenges China poses and is likely to present to its various neighbours and the major powers like the US are all vastly different and occur in distinct geographies and geostrategic settings. Coordinating a NATO-style strategy is extremely difficult, if not impossible, because there will always be disagreements on the security priorities among the group and even less cohesion in the event of an international crisis.

Second, any allied or semi-allied framework means India giving up on its independent geopolitical identity and pretensions of being a great power in the future. Although we keep hearing that India has changed, it is not clear how easy or beneficial it would be for India to abandon its basic identity, which is inevitable if India cedes authority to a US-led alliance structure. Neither is it apparent why India cannot intelligently navigate the multipolar world that is coming into being to advance its interests – in a stable and prosperous region, a reformed world order with a globalisation that works for many and not just the few, in advancing inclusive security ideas as opposed to bloc-based systems that have proven to cause more conflict than stability as attested by the past 100 years of experience.

Another alternative that has been suggested is an ideological alliance where India teams up with other democracies in some sort of a coalition of the free. This is equally unlikely to produce a stable Asian order or security architecture. This is because India’s own identity is an amalgam of several facets, particularly its civilisation tradition of pluralism and inclusiveness, its geopolitical independence and a sense of manifest destiny as a future great power among others. Further, India does not even possess a proselytising tradition. Above all, using democracy as a glue to bring states together is more likely to divide Asia than unite it and is more likely to play into China’s hands because that space to win over middle powers and other post-colonial States – the Global South in general – would have been vacated by India.

Also read: India’s challenge is to avoid two-front war, but can Modi put politics aside for strategy?

A new equilibrium

Most agree that India and China need a new or renovated framework to stabilise their relationship. There are three reasons why a new modus vivendi has not been forthcoming: a growing power asymmetry, uncertainty of future intentions, and a fluid geopolitical context that surrounds the relationship. Let us explore each of these.

India lags behind on every major material indicator – or comprehensive national strength as the Chinese call it – by a margin that is not surmountable in the foreseeable future. This differential of power has actually widened in the past decade, which might explain a part of the crisis in the relationship and China’s reluctance to adopt a different India policy in the absence of any compelling reason to do so.

At any rate, there is probably no international example of a modus vivendi under such circumstances where one rising power has raced substantially ahead of another rising power. It is for this reason that India’s policymakers have been attempting to draw bargaining leverage from the international environment to re-orient China’s policies. But that process has not been able to compensate for the power gap. After all, narrowing this gap is ultimately a domestic endeavour for India.

On geopolitical intentions, we have historically seen a basic sense of apprehension, particularly from China but also from India, on what will be the nature of their relationship after the resolution of the territorial dispute and the end of India’s political involvement on the Tibet issue. This sense of uncertainty and lack of confidence in the other side’s future roles and security policies have led to a hedging policy where there is an innate reluctance to reach an accommodation or even a limited geopolitical understanding. If we look at what Chinese strategists say, there is an unwillingness to make a bet on what will be India’s future foreign policy. The dominant belief among Chinese scholars seems to be that India has already chosen the other side or has crossed a tipping point. And, a similar conservatism or risk aversion shapes Indian thinking too.

The power differential and fluidity of geopolitical intentions seem difficult to overcome in the short and medium term.

It is the geopolitical context that can, however, disrupt or stabilise the India-China relationship. This is true for the foreseeable future too. In Powershift, I highlight the enormous significance that changing geopolitical contexts have had on India-China relations. One could go as far as to assert that the phases of détente and rapprochement, as well as the phases of heightened tension and conflict, would not have ensued had the geopolitical setting not unfolded in the fashion that it did in each decade since the 1950s including over the past decade. In other words, the India-China relationship has never really been a bilateral affair. It was always a piece of a large world order puzzle, almost always for the Chinese but also for India.

Also read: India keeps focussing on a future China threat. But just looking east is bad security policy

Impact of US-China ties

Today, the US-China relationship is a key factor shaping India-China relations. The extent of geopolitical investment made by the Narendra Modi government and a basic continuity in the India-US relationship, means that India’s China policy will be shaped by how the US approaches its turbulent relationship with China. And, here it is by no means certain how the Joe Biden administration will respond and adapt to China’s rise. Strategic competition might be inevitable but it can unfold in numerous ways and not all of these futures preclude a level of US-China engagement, cooperation and tacit geopolitical understanding across different issues and regions. Indeed, US-China relations might not go the way of major power competition as we have come to visualise or remember it either from the first Cold War or the early 20th century-style violent clashes of European nationalisms. In short, a US policy adjustment on China will impact India-China relations by changing the calculus and thinking in Delhi and Beijing.

For the moment, the new administration in the White House is still grappling with re-defining America’s role in a multipolar world. China policy, while likely to be competitive, is not poised to descend to a Cold War. US domestic politics and a fractured body politic have substantially reduced the manoeuvre for a US president to engage in ambitious international policies. With its power and authority diminished in the eyes of allies and rivals alike, Washington cannot restore its unipolar footprint. Ironically, Biden, like his predecessor, recognises this basic reality even if it manifests in a different approach to Donald Trump’s “impatient unilateralism and decoupling”.

Before Trump began the tariff war, US-China annual trade had reached nearly $750 billion in 2018 and accumulated two-way investment had touched $386 billion as of June 2020. Corporate America does not wish to rip apart this interdependence or the international value-chains that underpin it anytime soon. Biden’s recent two-hour long phone call with Xi Jinping was important less for its tough posturing than its symbolism that neither side seeks confrontation. “I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people,” Biden later tweeted.

The winding down of the border standoff in Ladakh might not be unrelated to the flux in US-China relations.

Zorawar Daulet Singh is a founder of the Northcap University in Gurgaon, and is an adjunct fellow with the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. He is the author of, most recently, Powershift: India–China Relations in a Multipolar World. Views are personal.

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  1. India and China are like chalk and cheese. China has a centralized, one-party, totalitarian regime, and does not have any opposition to contend with, so it gets on with fulfilling its agenda. Meanwhile, India, which has democratic federal structure, cannot even build a road without people protesting and filing PILs. But the biggest obstacle to India’s economic rise, are the opposition forces, who see their role as opposing and obstructing all govt polices, just for opposing sake. So nothing gets done; that, and refusing to open-up the economy to foreign investments, when China did, are the major reasons why China’s GDP is now five times that of India’s….and growing.

  2. Dragon has already won by India culturally. Whether it’s shaolin Kung fu, green tea or Buddhism. Just ask them about Bodhi.

    In present context culturally enslaved dragon has to be defeated militarily one step at a time.

    The defensive mindset of Indian babudom is shackling the strategic thinking. Need to come out of this.

  3. “India lags behind on every major material indicator … by a margin that is not surmountable in the foreseeable future”. They can be surmounted and will be. Xi knows it and the rest of the world believes it. In the long term, India will be the only country in the world that can and will stand up to China!

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