India Must Raise Its Asian Game

FEATURES | June 17, 2013     

India Must Raise Its Asian GameThe recent border tensions with China have underlined the fragility in Sino-Indian relations and the problems with Delhi’s search for ‘strategic autonomy’ between Washington and Beijing

There is much interest in the kind of contribution that India can make to the rapidly evolving balance of power in Asia. Whereas it was not too long ago that India was seen as marginal to both Asian economic growth and the region’s political order, the present interest in India’s approach to the Asian order is based on the nation’s rapidly expanding material capabilities. In nominal terms, India today has the world’s 10th largest economy, and the third largest in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. India has one of the world’s largest militaries, and is the seventh largest spender on national defence. Thanks to continuing high economic growth rates – in comparison with the Western world – India’s emergence as a major power is inevitable over the coming years. While the country’s recent economic slowdown has raised doubts over the international expectations concerning its rise, even a modest growth rate of six percent per annum is likely to lend itself to a steady accretion of the nation’s power potential.

Three important factors are today shaping Asian geopolitics: first, the end of the long regional peace and the rise of Chinese assertiveness; second, the imminent displacement of the US by China as Asia’s dominant military power; and third, the refusal of many smaller Asian states to abide by the possible emerging rules of a bipolar geopolitical framework to be set by Washington and Beijing. How can India shape the future regional order with special reference to great-power relations in Asia? What is the underlying worldview of Delhi in this regard?

Asia has, since the late 1970s, enjoyed a prolonged period of relative political stability. There have been few major regional conflicts since the end of the Cold War. The relations among the continent’s great powers have been relatively harmonious. Asia’s regional institutions, led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), are certainly not as strong or as effective as those in Europe. However, ASEAN and its offshoots – the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea), and the East Asia Summit – have gained institutional traction. They are actively promoting the continent’s economic integration, as well as political and security cooperation. This relatively benign period, in which the region has seen rapidly expanding prosperity, appears to be drawing to a close. New fissures within Asia – fissures that have surfaced in recent years – threaten the long peace and stability in the region. The first such fissure is the re-emergence of territorial conflicts – especially in the maritime domain between China and its neighbours (most notably Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines in the East and South China Seas). Beijing’s increasing naval assertiveness and its reluctance to accept the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in resolving the maritime territorial disputes have shaken the region to the core. The odds on the Asian bet that China’s rise will be peaceful have suddenly become longer.

Second, the last few years have seen the rapid growth of political and military tension between China and the US in Asia. The source of this tension is a material shift in the balance of strategic power within Asia. The rise of China has begun to threaten US primacy in the region – until recently, a geopolitical fact of life since the end of WW2. Having replaced the US as the principal economic power in the region some time ago, China may now be on the cusp of complicating US military preponderance in Asia. Washington, in response, unveiled a policy of ‘pivoting’ to Asia in 2011. This policy involves strengthening traditional US military alliances in Asia with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia; deepening partnerships with emerging powers like India and Indonesia; more active participation in regional efforts toward economic integration; stepping up the US’s forward military presence by moving more of its military assets to the region; and devising a new military doctrine to preserve its access to the waters of East Asia. Washington has repeatedly affirmed that the pivot to Asia is not aimed at China, and is eager to build a strong cooperative relationship with Beijing. China, however, has seen the shift in the US policy as a quite conspicuous attempt to constrain its emergence as a great power.

Third, as China and the US circle each other in Asia, the region’s responses have been diverse. While many have welcomed American determination to remain engaged with Asia, there is also a deep concern at being caught in the crossfire between the US, which is seeking to sustain its primacy, and China, which is seeking to reshape the region to suit its interests. Many Asian countries are unwilling to submit themselves to the discipline of a bipolar framework in Asia. That Asia’s large nations want a say in the future regional order is not surprising. Consider the Cold War era, when Asia, because weak, was a theatre in the global rivalry between the US and the USSR. And still, the region, unlike Europe, would not accept the basic regime of the Cold War. China switched from a treaty-based alliance with the USSR in the 1950s to a strategic entente with Washington during the 1970s and1980s. It later proclaimed an independent foreign policy, and is now obviously seen as threatening US primacy in Asia. India emphasized non-alignment, but drew closer to the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s. Delhi has warmed to Washington since the end of the Cold War. Many others, like Indonesia, refused to join the US Cold War military alliances in the region or to support Soviet proposals for collective security in Asia.

Today, of course, Asia is much stronger than it was during the Cold War. Washington and Beijing will find it quite hard to shoehorn the region’s states into easy categories of allies and adversaries. Whether America and China collude or confront each other, many in Asia will resist accepting the rules set by the two powers. After all, Asia is home to many large states that zealously – sometimes quite nationalistically – guard their freedom of foreign policy action.

India’s response to the new dynamic between China and the US is driven by at least five competing strategic imperatives – vectors that intersect with significant changes in India’s relations with China and the US, as well as with Delhi’s expanding economic and military weight in Asia. First, India sees its economic future and prosperity in greater integration with Asia. India is now a member of all ASEAN-led institutions. It has a free trade agreement with ASEAN, and is committed to a more comprehensive trade liberalization agreement with ASEAN and its other free trade partners. Second, while India sees China’s massive economy as the engine of regional growth, it is also increasingly worried about Beijing’s growing power and ambitions. Third, while Delhi is keen to see the US counterbalance China’s power in Asia, India does not wish to be a frontline state between the two powers. Fourth, India is also concerned that the US, which it and many analysts in Asia see as being on a path of relative decline, may not be able to sustain its historic commitments to its Asian partners. Finally, India is anxious about the possibility that a weaker US might be tempted to accommodate China’s rise at the expense of the rest of Asia.

To be sure, India’s potential role as a shaper of the regional balance is recognized by both Washington and Beijing. While US officials have often called India the ‘lynchpin’ of the American pivot to Asia, Chinese leaders insist that Beijing is no threat to Delhi, and are reaching out to India. In reacting cautiously to the new tensions between the US and China, India has neither endorsed the US pivot to Asia nor criticized it. Its focus is on deepening engagement with both Washington and Beijing, while retaining a much vaunted ‘strategic autonomy’ – a contemporary variant of non-alignment that calls for freedom of action in the foreign policy arena. Is this apparently prudent approach sustainable? Or might it lead to India falling between two stools?

To understand where India is headed, one must recall the complex story of India’s relations with both China and the US. Delhi’s relations with Beijing have been marred by a host of unresolved bilateral disputes since India and China became formal neighbours in the middle of the 20th century, as well as by an unending competition for regional influence. India’s hopes for maintaining peace and tranquility on the disputed border with China seemed on track – until recently. The spat over a Chinese incursion this past April into a territory claimed by India in the Ladakh frontier in the state of Jammu and Kashmir has cast a dark shadow over these hopes. India’s expanding economic engagement with China has provided some depth to the bilateral relationship, but the growing trade imbalance in Beijing’s favour has generated serious concern in Delhi. Meanwhile, both countries are rubbing up against each other in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. If Delhi is worried about China’s rising naval profile in the Indian Ocean, then Beijing is wary of India’s growing maritime engagement with its neighbours in the Western Pacific.

In contrast to its relations with China, India did not have any direct conflict of interest with the US during the Cold War. However, Delhi and Washington found themselves in opposition to each other for decades. Washington aligned itself with Pakistan and China – India’s longstanding regional adversaries. Delhi, in turn, aligned itself with the Soviet Union in order to structure a regional balance. The end of the Cold War provided a different template for bilateral relations. Over the last decade, there has been significant expansion of economic, political, security and defence cooperation between the two countries. Still, Delhi and Washington have significant differences on global and regional issues that cannot be mitigated in the absence of far deeper bilateral engagement.

India is acutely conscious of the growing strategic gap between itself and China. Beijing’s current GDP is nearly four times that of India, and its defence expenditures are three times as large. As China continues to rise much faster than India, Delhi can only bridge the gap with Beijing with a policy that combines internal and external balancing. An alliance with Washington, then, would seem natural for Delhi. That logic, however, is constrained by political opposition from those who point to India’s traditional policy of non-alignment. The logic of a de facto alliance with the US is also limited by Delhi’s concerns about the aforementioned inconstancy of American policy toward China – that is, concerns about the fiscal and political sustainability or credibility of the pivot to Asia in Washington. On the other hand, Delhi is acutely aware of the dangers of a potential Sino-US rapprochement that could leave India exposed. India, therefore, has sought simultaneous expansion of security cooperation with the US, and deeper political engagement with Beijing, as part of an effort to insulate itself and secure its long-term interests in the context of the many twists and turns in the China-US relationship.

Of course, amid the rise of China as a great power and the growing tension between Beijing and Washington, India has not found the pursuit of its objectives an easy task. The dynamic between China and the US, the complexities of India’s relations with both, and the domestic politics surrounding these relations have presented India with difficult challenges. On the positive side, thanks to the globalization of India’s economy, there are much broader domestic constituencies in India today for productive and broad-based relationships with both Washington and Beijing. (This disposition stands in stark contrast to that of two decades ago, when India’s elites deeply distrusted their opposite numbers in both capitals.) Indeed, there is widespread domestic consensus in India on three important propositions: first, India cannot become a junior partner to the US; second, it cannot accept a Sino-centric order in Asia; and third, it needs stronger political and economic cooperation with both China and the US.

Until recently, Delhi seemed confident that the new dynamic in Asia had put India in an advantageous position. Delhi believed that its role as a swing player in the Asian balance of power was assured, and that both Washington and Beijing would actively seek to partner with it. This assumption about India’s centrality, however, has taken a knocking at the turn of 2013. For one, India has been hamstrung by unprecedented weakness of the government in Delhi. Although the Manmohan Singh government in its first term (2004-2009) boldly sought to transform bilateral relations with both the US and China (as well as Pakistan), it has been far less purposeful in the second term that is due to end in 2014. As in the economic realm, so too in the area of foreign policy, the Singh government has been unable to promote new policy initiatives.

Having invested much energy into resolving India’s nuclear problems with the US, the Manmohan Singh government in its second term enacted nuclear liability legislation that has complicated the prospects for civil nuclear energy cooperation with Washington. Although he negotiated an ambitious defence cooperation agreement with the US in his first term, Manmohan Singh has been unable to realize the agreement’s full potential. If Delhi has let down some of its strongest champions in Washington, it is possible that it has emboldened Beijing to be more assertive on bilateral disputes. Having made bold moves toward the resolution of the boundary dispute with China in the first term, Singh now finds the border situation heating up. He seems to have underestimated Chinese assertiveness on territorial issues. In fact, his advisers appear to have bet that Beijing’s focus on its disputes to the East might make it more amenable to resolving the boundary dispute with India, and otherwise eager to deepen a strategic partnership.

Those premises are beginning to unravel in the context of the new standoff in Ladakh. Beijing continues to tilt toward Pakistan in its unending contestation with India, and seems determined to undermine India’s influence in the rest of the subcontinent. The lack of reforms, economic slowdown, and the political weakness of the Singh government in the second term have together begun to compromise Delhi’s capacity to engage meaningfully with both the US and China. Delhi’s preoccupation with its internal problems has also generated some disappointment in Southeast Asia, whose states had been eagerly seeking a larger Indian role in the region.

A stronger leadership at the national level would certainly help India to respond more effectively to the geopolitical opportunities coming its way in Asia. But this would not necessarily resolve the tension between the country’s competing strategic imperatives. To make the most of its new salience in Asia, India needs to redefine the notion of ‘strategic autonomy’ so dear to the Indian political class and the national security elite. This requires that India return to the original non-alignment conception of the 1950s. Unlike in the more recent past, where the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has found it difficult to deal with the dynamic between the US and China, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru won economic support and technical assistance from both the US and the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War. Nehru did not see non-alignment as ‘neutralism’ or passive foreign policy, as some of the current exponents of strategic autonomy in Delhi do. Nor did he imagine India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ as tantamount to ‘equidistance’ between the rival superpowers. What he emphasized was the capacity for independent judgement on world issues, simultaneous engagement with all of the great powers, building coalitions with middle powers, and a determination to elevate India’s standing in Asia and the world.

Nehru’s successors in this early new century have far greater economic heft. They are well positioned to influence the broader outcomes in Asia. For a decisive role in the region’s future, India must accelerate its economic growth, build a stronger security partnership with Washington, contain the boundary dispute with China, and strengthen ties with key Asian middle powers. In early 2013, Delhi is under pressure to demonstrate that it has the political will and strategic wits to pursue these objectives.


C. Raja Mohan heads the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and is a foreign affairs columnist for The Indian Express. His most recent book is Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press/AP/Tsering Topgyal)

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