Thursday, February 2, 2023
HomeDefenceWhy India can no longer afford an ambiguous policy vis-à-vis China

Why India can no longer afford an ambiguous policy vis-à-vis China

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Deterring China has been a gradual work in progress since 2014, with concern replacing fear as the primary driver in strategy formulation.

Two extremely thought-provoking articles on the trajectory and ramifications of India’s response strategies vis-à-vis its principal adversaries, China and Pakistan, merit some reflection.

Many commentators have argued that recent government directives on restricting officials’ attendance at festivities associated with 60 years of his Holiness the Dalai Lama’s exile in India is tantamount to “rolling over to Chinese pressure”.

The apprehension, however, is that the lack of consistency in playing the Tibet card reveals only one of two things. First is that maybe there is a realisation from the Indian side of its diminishing value in terms of deterring China, and a desire to assess for one last time whether there were any tangible pay-offs in reducing the coercive element of the current Chinese build-up on the Doklam front.

The second is that it could be an interesting contest within the strategic community — between those who posit that there may be value in reassessing the ‘collaborative and partnership’ potential, and those who insist that, irrespective of any reconciliatory moves by India, China will not address India’s core security concerns (the build-up at Doklam, Arunachal, Eastern Ladakh, CPEC, and aggressive maritime posturing in the Indian Ocean Region). One hopes, however, that it is merely a reciprocal response to China’s withdrawal from backing Pakistan in its bid to stay off the financial action task force (FATF) blacklist, and not a reversal of the robust strategic posture that India has recently adopted in multiple domains.

Deterrence by denial, accompanied by robust diplomacy, has for long been the pivot around which Indian responses to national security challenges have been offered. These have been interspersed with stray coercive expressions of resolve (you can call them surgical strikes, or punitive strikes, Doklam, or whatever!) and depending on which government has been in power, these expressions have either been kept low-key, or offered to the people of India as a measure of state resolve.

The problem with the strategies of deterrence by denial and diplomacy is that they work differently with rational and irrational actors. Consequently, in India’s multi-spectral strategic milieu, they must be bolstered with the necessary tools of coercion that can be applied in a ‘horses for courses’ kind of strategy and not the ‘either or’ policy that India seems to embrace.

Deterring China has been a gradual work in progress since 2014, with concern replacing fear as the primary driver in strategy formulation.

I am looking at fear here not as a derogatory or weak emotion, but as a stated objective or result of strategies of both denial and punishment.

A deeper analysis of many of India’s decisions vis-à-vis China following a relatively strong and resolute response to a provocation or coercive attempt reveals an apprehension of further consequences, which is exactly what China seeks.

It also forces India to revisit some of its strategic aspirations and review its decision-making process with knee-jerk course changes that do not reflect its growing power-potential.

India must realise that Doklam-style incursions are part of an accepted strategy that has gained traction in recent times, to coerce an adversary and keep below the thresholds of deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial vis-à-vis China must include recognition of India’s core security concerns; and it must include a solo strategy of robust deterrence along land frontiers that promises a consistently heavy cost to be paid for upsetting the mutually accepted peace and tranquility along the LAC till a comprehensive political settlement is reached.

Concurrently, India must continue to enhance its strategy of deterrence across maritime spaces by deepening the security dimension of its relationship with partners like Vietnam, Japan, US, France and Australia.

The argument of repeatedly asking ourselves, while discussing the pros and cons of deepening our strategic partnership with the US, whether Washington DC would intervene in a limited high-intensity conflict between India and China of the Kargil kind is a facetious one, and reflects the diffidence and excessive caution that marked our sharply parallel yesteryear policies of deterrence and diplomacy vis-à-vis China.

The last few years have seen some convergence between orchestrators of diplomacy and hard power, and one hopes that we are not about to see a change in strategy.

China is a highly rational strategic player with clear choices and objectives (revival of the ‘middle kingdom’ syndrome, undo the century of humiliation, close the gap with the US militarily, no sharing of strategic space with equals. and creation of vassal states). Ambiguity may have been the hallmark of the Chinese grand strategy in the Deng and Hu Jintao era. However, it is no longer so, and if it is ambiguity that India is offering by mixing it up, it will not work with an exponentially stronger China. A synergised, consistent and increasingly robust policy of deterrence by denial complemented by sophisticated diplomacy is the only way forward.

Arjun Subramaniam is a visiting fellow at Oxford University’s ‘changing character of war’ programme. This is the first part of his two-part ‘deterrence series’

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  1. Don’t you have a sub at to edit this officers article and put it into some read able shape.
    He is trying to say something important no doubt, but his article is a difficult read, some of his paragraphs do not make sense.
    I give up.

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