JPRI Critique Vol. XIX No. 9 (November 2013)
Sino-Indian Strategic Relations: What Should India Do?
by David Arase



It is a perhaps surprising that Sino-Indian relations have descended into an era of strategic competition. After all, for at least two millennia since the dawn of their respective civilizations, China and India have had peaceful relations and cultural exchange. This historical legacy was much commented upon when Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-lai first set a formal framework for bilateral relations between modern China and India with their joint statement of 1954. At the start of a new era as modern nation-states, India and China enumerated the so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that they hoped would banish the fear of war and cultivate the spirit of peace and cooperation not just between India and China, but also in the wider international community, especially in surrounding Asia.

However, by 1962 the good feelings dissipated after the two sides came to blows over disputed territory. Today, with this militarized territorial dispute still unresolved, their growing numbers of nuclear weapons pointed at each other, their diplomats quietly competing for influence throughout Asia, and their business interests vying for energy, trade, and foreign investment opportunities around the world, that early optimism in Sino-Indian relations is clearly gone. Military, diplomatic, and economic competition defines their relationship in a widening range of areas.  Rather than describing this competition, I will focus on the fundamental causes and how India should respond to the present situation.

A shrinking world can mean more competition

It used to be that geography and ancient modes of transport prevented any kind of strong and continuous relationship between these two great civilizations. The Himalaya, Hindu Kush, and Pamir mountain ranges, not to mention the intervening deserts, the high Tibetan plateau, and Southeast Asian jungle, severely limited the potential for overland war, trade, or migration between India and China. As for maritime intercourse, the geography and monsoon seasons of Southeast Asia made it no less difficult than overland relations. Moreover, located between the cultural heartlands of India and China were proud and independent cultures, e.g., the Central Asian nomads, the Tibetans, and Southeast Asian peoples, competent in war and inhabiting difficult to conquer lands. Thus, in premodern times India and China grew up back-to-back, as it were. If they met at all, it was indirectly at overlapping peripheries in Southeast Asia or Central Asia where neither side had a permanent vital stake, and where their respective cultural influences mingled with native traditions without inspiring concern, much less jealousy.

Today, however, within a single lifetime revolutions in the technologies of war, trade, and production have shrunk the world and redefined global relations. These developments have brought India and China abruptly face-to-face, and each now jostles the other for room to breathe and freedom to grow.

China’s rise and South Asia’s descent into strategic competition

Mountains along its northern border once provided India with a natural land defense against the threat of invasion. But China’s incorporation of Tibet and recent assiduous efforts to politically assimilate it and build military infrastructure along Tibet’s borders have radically changed the situation. For the first time in history, India faces a potentially hostile army with superior tactical capabilities and rapid reinforcement potential encamped on its mountainous northern border overlooking the Indian Ocean. Moreover, China’s own advancing nuclear ballistic missile and air force capabilities give China’s offensively configured land army even greater potency.

With respect to India’s most immediate security threat, i.e., neighboring Pakistan, China gives generous military, economic, and diplomatic support that allows Pakistan to continue its hostile nuclear, conventional, and “freedom fighting” policies toward India and resist Indian efforts to settle their deadly dispute in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, in the maritime environment, China’s naval capabilities with respect to potential bases and emerging fleet characteristics have grown to the point where it is possible to contemplate a permanent Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean within a decade. Certainly, the importance of maintaining the flow of fossil fuels to China across the Indian Ocean and through Asian pipelines, as well as the fervor of China’s ambition for enhanced global stature, could justify this kind of plan.

China’s expanding ability to project military power into India’s home regions, as well as China’s expanding economic and political influence with neighbors like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, compel India to balance against these Chinese inroads—or acquiesce to Chinese predominance. As a great civilization committed to preserving its strategic independence, it is unlikely that India will accept a role as a secondary power in its own home region. However, it is equally unlikely that China will forego its own ambitions for security and global preeminence.  China will do whatever it believes is necessary to achieve its goals.

Obviously, India’s goal today is to preserve its traditional sense of self and security in its home region, but this outcome is not foreordained. The ultimate outcome in South Asia and the Indian Ocean will be determined by strategy and political will. So what should India do?

India’s choices

By some accounts, India’s fractious democracy is a strategic liability, especially when viewed in comparison to China’s highly centralized, technocratic, and authoritarian decision making system. “Getting things done” even when they are of the utmost importance is never an easy and simple task in India. For this reason, it is probably better for India not to bet on things like a head-to-head arms race with China in which technocratic planning and efficient implementation determine the outcome. Nor is it appropriate or possible for India to divert excessive resources from economic and social development concerns to wasteful military end uses.

Instead, India should put a premium on security strategies that maintain a clear and realistic defense perimeter using deterrence, defensive sufficiency, strategic depth, and interior lines of communication. If implemented with appropriate military doctrine, force posture, and public education, this strategy will economize on fiscal resources. And due to its easily understandable and clearly defensive nature, it can mobilize lasting political support across elite sectors as well as at the popular level, thus minimizing the disruptions caused by national elections and changes of government. This kind of strategy and military posture will require an opponent to expend multiples of resources to have any hope of making lasting inroads against India.

With respect to negotiating with China, in rational material terms it should be possible to accommodate China’s interest in economic security through cooperative means such as security guarantees, security partnerships or communities, and arms limitation agreements. After all, India and China are entwined in mutually beneficial and growing bilateral and multilateral economic relations. However, the basic premise supporting the success of this kind of collective and cooperative approach to security requires all parties to give up an ambition for a kind strategic primacy in Asia that gives one party a perfect sense of superiority and security at the expense of everyone else. Thus, China’s ultimate intentions and willingness to compromise must be pressed on this score.

However, it may be that strategic primacy in Asia is about more than guaranteeing access to energy and markets for China; it may really be about rectifying historical grievances, satisfying political ambition, and affirming a cultural identity. This begs the question whether China can be rationally persuaded by win-win economic arguments to sacrifice its dream of strategic primacy in Asia, especially if Beijing is convinced that it is stronger, faster, smarter, and better than all its Asian neighbors.

In this case, a continuing descent into strategic competition—rather than cooperation—will be Asia’s future. But as previously indicated, India’s democratic institutions handicap it in any resource-intensive, one-on-one strategic competition with China. Therefore, in addition to a robust national security strategy, India may have to resort of diplomatic strategies that seek to shift the field of competition to other regions, diplomatic venues, and functional issues through formal and informal linkages.

Of course, China will be alert to any such strategy, and will seek to defeat it by applying direct pressure on India in tit-for-tat fashion.  China may, for example, respond to an Indian attempt to build security cooperation with another power by increasing aid to Pakistan or upping military pressure along the border. Here is where a sound national security strategy built on deterrence, defensive sufficiency, strategic depth, and interior lines of communication can pay off. If done correctly, any such aggressive Chinese move on India’s security perimeter can be neutralized with an economy of Indian effort. Moreover, it is possible that in threatening and using force in an aggressive posture, China will overplay its hand and alienate the international community.

Alternatively, China may seek to counter Indian diplomatic linkage strategies with retaliation in non-military areas and organizational venues. However, here is where Indian democracy, which is ordinarily a liability in military strategic competition with China, may actually become an Indian strategic asset. India is respected as the world’s largest democracy, and as a member of the world’s community of law-respecting democratic nations, it can marshal wide international sympathy and support. To the extent that Chinese hostility toward democratic India is perceived to be hostile to the wider democratic community, India will benefit and China will pay a cost in its relations with other key countries in terms of “soft power”, political stature, and strategic trust.

In conclusion, as India seeks to deal with the current descent into strategic competition with a rising China, it must have a clear conception of strategy based on a realistic appraisal of the situation in Asia as well as of the relative strengths and weaknesses of itself versus China. India needs a militarily, economically, and politically sustainable security strategy for the long term. It should be based on deterrence and defensive sufficiency, rooted in a strong domestic political consensus and supplemented by active diplomacy. India must hope for the best (a cooperative security settlement) but prepare for the worst (further descent into strategic competition). In case of deepening strategic competition, India will need to develop a supplementary diplomatic strategy based on linkage politics to create solidarity with other democratic nations. This could convince China that the pursuit of strategic primacy throughout Asia may not be worth the cost, and thereby preserve India’s own security and independence.


David M. Arase is Resident Professor of International Politics at the SAIS Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China. He is the author of many journal articles and policy papers, and has produced four books—most recently The US-Japan Alliance: Balancing Soft and Hard Power in East Asia, co-edited with Tsuneo Akaha (Nissan Institute & Routledge), which won the 2011 Ohira Foundation Special Prize for work advancing the idea of Pacific Community. This JPRI Critique was originally published as “Sino-Indian Strategic Competition,” Indian Military Review, September 6, 2013, pp. 47-48. Please quote only with the author’s permission. Professor Arase can be contacted at <darase@hnc.nju.edu.cn> and <dma04747@gmail.com >.


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