Saturday, March 18, 2023
HomeOpinionWhy China is the Kautilya of international politics

Why China is the Kautilya of international politics

While the disengagement in Ladakh is apace, China is well placed in the rajamandala to carry on its hostility towards India by means other than war.

Text Size:

The gameplay on the chessboard of global politics continues to cast its shadow on India’s relationships with the United States, China, nations of the sub-continent, and within its own federal units. For the skeptics of Kautilya’s continued relevance, the contemporary geopolitical chessboard underlines the chief tenets of Kautilyan rajamandala, or ‘circle of states’ – a concentric, geopolitical conception of the inter-state realm typifying friend-foe relationships.

Ironically, if there is one country that eminently exemplifies the Kautilyan template in international conduct, it is China – who was till the Ladakh episode, the quintessential madhyama (middle king) of the inter-state realm. A middle king is defined as “one with territory immediately proximate to those of the Ari (enemy) and the conqueror (hypothetically Pakistan and India respectively), capable of helping them when they are united or disunited and of suppressing them when they are disunited.” True to this definition, China had skilfully calibrated its dynamics with Pakistan and India. It had entered into a negotiated agreement (samdhi) with India (roughly co-equal then) through the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 and several other agreements of 1996, 2003 and 2012, at a time when a stable neighbourhood was vital for its economic growth.

Creating confidence by means of peace, it has enticed countries away from India’s circle of allies and has created hostility, potentially ruining the success of India’s undertakings. After Ladakh, China seems to fit the role of the Ari.

China’s playbook has been an ode to Kautilya.

Also read: New book details how China is eyeing Ladakh for its ‘new silk road’ — the CPEC

India’s internal balance

After more than two decades of consolidation, China has leveraged its strategic advantage and has potentially moved away from samdhi to samdhiyayana (marching after entering into peace pact) with its Ladakh escapade. With India successfully countering China’s aggressive moves, it may, perhaps, settle with what qualifies as asana – a transient phase of remaining quiet when the conqueror and the enemy are unable to outdo each other. While the disengagement apace is mutually beneficial, China is well placed in the rajamandala to carry on its hostility towards India by means other than war. The authoritarian regimes in Pakistan, and now Myanmar, flanking India on its western and eastern borders, a seemingly pro-China government in Sri Lanka to its south, perhaps, are calculated attempts to offset India’s centrality in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) – the one area where India has had an upper hand.

India’s twin goals of raksha (security) and palana (welfare) guide its international conduct. As ninety per cent of India’s international trade passes through waters of the Indo-Pacific ocean system, the region is critical for India’s prosperity and by extension, its security. So what are the options for India?

The most preferred Kautilyan policy measure is to maintain balance internally. Good health of the first six prakritis (state factors) i.e. ruler, ministers, territory and population, fort, treasury, and armed might is the surest way to guard one’s interests in the rajamandala. Realistically, while attempts at internal balancing are underway, the treasury, which represents the economy, may take considerable time to recoup its growth and may consequently deepen the internal socio-economic fissures. The legacy of these fissures could outlast the return to a stable economic growth path. The pace of military modernisation could be slowed down unless fiscal allocation is reprioritised. Internal balancing, though necessary, may not be feasible to cope with the pace at which pieces are currently moving on the global and regional geopolitical and geoeconomic chessboard.

Also read: Don’t rush to give clean chit to China. Mumbai power grid failure is a strong warning

The bigger picture

In the wake of a less optimised state capacity, securing allies is the prescribed way for outwitting (atisamdhana) the enemy. This, however, has to be done with caution. On the one hand, strategic partnerships (samavaya) provide enhanced opportunities to weaker states to balance the rise of an enemy, and on the other, they can be used as a nuanced tool for political domination and manipulation. Strength and reliability are key parameters to finding the right partners, and negotiation skills are given a premium in striking partnerships. With the rise of China, the US has been explicit in making efforts towards getting India to be its partner, with a view to counter China’s increasing influence in the international system. India has been hedging on this issue for long and it is still difficult to discern the impact of the Ladakh episode on altering its fundamental stance in any profound manner. India’s stance on the Quad could be an indicator. However, the February meeting at the foreign ministers level and India’s subsequent Minister of External Affairs (MEA) statement is anodyne with the repetition of homilies. However, recent reports indicate that a meeting of QUAD leaders is on the cards. If so, it is perhaps reflective of India moving away from the reservations of being seen as ‘ganging up’ against China in the maritime domain where it has leverage. The hesitancy could also be fuelled by apprehensions of being drawn into conflicts and confrontations that may serve purely the interests of the US.

Kautilya’s advice in dealing with such situations is revealing. Kautilya prescribes the dual policy of dvaidhibhava, which means making peace with one to fight war with another — alternatively interpreted as diplomatic duplicity, which advises a concurrent pursuance of contestation and competition with one country. Kautilyan prudence also prescribes a nuanced approach through the dual policy. This employment of a mix of policies is reminiscent of the four upayas – sama (conciliation), dana (compensation), bheda (dissension) and danda (force), a vibrant theme in the text. Importantly, its tactful application allows simultaneous pursuance of all policies stated above.

The big picture of the complexity in the global political landscape must not be allowed to shroud the perspective of India’s internal trajectory. Internal geopolitics has generated a stream of social polarisation and economic weakening that mitigates against agendas that promote what Kautilya refers to as yogakshema, or the welfare of the people, as the ultimate goal of governance. The imperative is to manage the domestic geoeconomic agenda while casting aside socially divisive ideological pursuits.

The moot question is whether India’s contemporary democratic polity will be able to reinvent and realign domestic priorities even as it grapples with its external challenges. Kautilya would have spotlighted the domestic agenda, even if it means casting aside for the short and medium term, contested ideological persuasions that drain energies and detract from the pursuit of Yogakshema.

Lt Gen Prakash Menon, is Director, Strategic Studies Program, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former, Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Dr Kajari Kamal is Research Faculty at Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. What a waste of an opportunity by India since BJP came to power. India was cruising economically, however, Modi and his ilks put a solid brake and did they not only stopped our progress, but also pushed us way back in the race.

    Modi’s idea of progress is to make everyone kneel in front of him and his party. To abide to his whip and whim. Unfortunately for him, India is more than just it’s Hindus. I am sure he’s realizing it in the last 1 year, after the CAA and now the farm laws protest.

    But right now, if not Modi, who else is going to lead us? Where is our next leader who is progressive and astute. Who will lead us in the 21st century?

  2. China is no Kautilya it’s the congrass and left which ensured India‘a defeat in 1962 war . The same gang kept India and Hindus divided to ensure India could never stand up in infrastructure and militarily against China. Of course analysts like you also played up the mythical China.
    However under BJP N MODIJI all Indians discarded the fake narrative of congrass and left and ensured India’s honour.

  3. It is not as if Kautilya’s principles are unique to India. Even western powers have arrived at these principles without reading Kautilya or Sun Tzu. The British used sama, dana, bheda, danda as part of colonial policy in various nations. They kept the french influence at bay through various means. The point is Mr. Galande, that this thinking is not unique to us.

  4. Good article, initially I had doubts as it sounded like usual Hindutva spin.

    You have left it to the end to state India’s problem under the BJP : ‘Internal geopolitics has generated a stream of social polarisation and economic weakening that mitigates against agendas that promote what Kautilya refers to as yogakshema, or the welfare of the people, as the ultimate goal of governance. The imperative is to manage the domestic geoeconomic agenda while casting aside socially divisive ideological pursuits.’

    Indeed the ultimate goal of governance is yogakshema. You have explained that very nicely, and good to have a soldier explain it. Nationalism should be yogakshema only. This is how the concept of nationalism has evolved in advanced countries.

    However, it is better to spell out that India is driven now by the RSS and their interest is not welfare of people as in yogakshema. They have copied a defunct model of nationalism from the Nazis from the 1930s, and they want to stick with it. They want to apply the Nazi concept of nationalism to modern India in the 2020s, along with Manu’s laws. It is welfare of the selected few – the rich and the high caste people they regard as national. They openly talk about exclusion of non-Hindus. Dalits are there only for kar sevak duty and rioting.

    Their model for power is based on playing internal divisions. You obviously understand this but do not want to say it openly. But your message is understood and correct, but the bhakths will lambast you !

    The RSS-BJP is not going to ‘cast aside for the short and medium term, contested ideological persuasions that drain energies and detract from the pursuit of Yogakshema’. They are quite happy wallowing in polarisation for power. They don’t mind the country being destroyed.

    As for China, they have a dismal human rights record, and I cannot endorse them either, but I say they have a forward looking outlook, and they have already out played India. India would have been better having internal stability, building ite economy as MMS did, and using soft power to consolidate good relations with neighbours. Instead, the RSS-BJP went for muscular nationalism of the Nazi type : ‘see we are the new awakened, assertive Hindus who with Modi will conquer the world’. The result is the neighbours sought China, and India now has (China + neighbours) to content with (spend for two front war). Quad is a nebulous concept, and as you suspect, you may be fighting for the US interest. The west also has doubts about propping up India as a democratic bulwark. How can they if the Indian govt. gives the impression they want India to be Myanamar ?

    Modi and his RSS agenda is a comprehensive setback for India : with China, with all neighbours, with the west, and the economy.

  5. When our own people are ignorant of the enemy and how it thinks to act against the battle and the war could be lost with this self hit, which if one studies history of past will show up for our defeat at the enemy hand.
    One can caution but everything is on deaf ears.
    The enemy at the Gate, that is China is laughing towards the bank. You and I are not the discision makers. But the political class which can be made to bend by the enemy.

  6. India had seen best Producers and followers of Chanakya neethi. But still because of its own kings it surrendered to so many prior to indipendance. This must make a point to present india to take guard. But still today Regional parties are playing like previous kings role. Most of these seen by china and will be advantageous to it. Economic stabilization of its region and capturing surrounding countries is becoming its present Policy. It has two face one to attack and than try to smoothen the effect. Let it play any policy it must go with the wind

  7. It is so different to read the analysis of the situation the tactics and thinking based on the Kautilyan template instead of quoting the western thinkers just because the article is written in English.

Comments are closed.