India’s China Policy: The Ambling Elephant Needs To Reassess – Analysis


In the past few years India has been trying to emerge as a regional power with sufficient individuality of its own with partial and sporadic success. It is attempting to recalibrate its foreign policy into a more proactive one than the non-aligned philosophy has followed in the past 60 years or so.

However, its bilateral relations with China is a key determinant, a central factor that has to be taken into account in the formulation of India’s foreign policy. As a corollary, it is true that China cannot afford to ignore or sideline its relations with India on the broader world stage. China offers India a double-edged sword.

On the one hand it promises great economic opportunities while on the other it presents equally significant strategic challenges. Like dealing with any other double-edged sword, this too requires nimbleness of action to ensure that its benefits are accrued.

Challenges to Formulating a Coherent China Policy

There are five major challenges that face India—randomly explained below—which will make it extremely difficult to formulate a viable foreign policy in relation to China: economic disparity, geo-strategic competition, growing Chinese assertiveness, military imbalance and China-Pakistan alliance.

First is the necessity to address the economic disparity between the two nations. India cannot hope to catch up with China, even though the Chinese economy has now slowed where the growth rate is slightly less than that of India. The economic gap between the two economies, which might increase into the future, will remain a distinct disadvantage for India. This is further exacerbated by China restricting Indian access to its domestic market.

Even so, bilateral trade has increased by 7.9 per cent for the three years from 2013. The total bilateral trade in 2015 was US $ 71.64 billion and at the same time India had a trade deficit of US $ 44.87 billion. This trade deficit is continuing to increase and is not a compatible situation for India. China exports to India 3.5 times more than it imports from India. Within these skewed trade relations, formulating a strategic China policy that will be in India’s favour will be a herculean challenge.

The second challenge is to mitigate the geo-strategic competition between the two nations, especially in the maritime domain. China has been acquiring naval facilities all along the choke points in the Indian Ocean Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) for the past decade. This has increased its strategic presence in the region. This ‘string of pearls’ strategy has almost completely encircled India, even though India has a distinct geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean; an ocean that bears its name.

In order to overcome this inherent disadvantage China is enhancing its ability to project power in the Indo-Pacific region through concerted efforts. For example, Chinese submarines have been replenishing in both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, although the Chinese government has brushed aside any suggestions of their berthing in these ports.

One of China’s major initiatives in the Indo-Pacific is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a concept of building a ‘maritime highway’ that will also involve building new or upgrading existing port facilities in the region. This initiative will see a series of agreements linking China to Europe by sea and is a direct challenge to India. The initiative is meant to enhance the economic capabilities of the less developed nations along a predesignated route, which will be in turn enhance Chinese interests. It will ensure that trade and resources flow in a predetermined manner.

The most affected countries will be China, Japan and India. The SLOC in the Indo-Pacific will be critical for successfully implementing this concept. It will also lead to China being able to create a dominant and continuous presence in the immediate maritime region of India. Viewed in a purely altruistic manner, this is a laudable concept and will benefit all the participants.

India does not have the strategic weight to counter this initiative with an alternate proposal of equal or higher advantage for the region. It is therefore caught in a cleft stick. It will definitely benefit from joining the group as a member of the Maritime Silk Route. However, China will not permit it to join as an equal partner. For India, joining as a ‘regular’ member will be tantamount to accepting Chinese leadership of the initiative, which is being played out in the Indian Ocean, which it considers its own backyard. This is an unpalatable situation for India, but one without any solution.

The third challenge is the growing Chinese assertiveness in the region that directly brings into question India’s status amongst the regional nations. China uses economic diplomacy to great advantage. It deploys extensive resources aimed at increasing strategic cooperation with the recipient nation. Further, this initiative is oriented towards India’s immediate neighbours. For example, as early as 2005, China replaced India as the largest trading partner for Bangladesh and is rapidly closing the gap in the case of Sri Lanka.

China’s support for the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its negotiations with Sri Lanka for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement is also part of the broader narrative in the economic arena. These initiatives bring into focus the reliability or otherwise of India as a security and economic partner of the smaller nations.

India seems to be unsure about using its growing economic muscle to improve relations and entrench its influence with its neighbours. Indecisiveness in instituting noteworthy initiatives in this area of contention is clearly visible in the Indian discomfort. India’s traditional non-aligned policy could be adding to this discomfort as it lacks experience in engaging with smaller nations in the security sphere.

The fourth challenge is the existing and growing military imbalance between the two nations. This imbalance impinges directly on the activities across the long border between the two countries. China has assiduously cultivated and maintains a studied strategic ambivalence in terms of territorial claims and disputed areas. The ambiguity regarding their stance, especially in the North-Eastern sector of the border, is kept in a slow boil by periodic assertions of Chinese sovereignty over India territory to ensure that the issue is not put to rest.

India for its part has never been able to crystallise a coherent counter-argument against these claims—at times vague and at other very precise—that are made and withdrawn with equal facility.

Historically China has played this game with India with great élan. Since 2003, there have been no less than 19 rounds of talks between Special Representatives of the two countries to sort out the border issues, with absolutely no progress. China continues with cross-border incursions with impunity, a standard modus operandi for the Chinese to up the ante at will.

India on the other hand ardently holds on to international norms and hope—a combination that is not a good strategy to achieve assured national security. India can perhaps learn by taking a leaf out of Chinese actions, which are all—from the tactical to the strategic—statements aligned to achieving grand strategic objectives. An overview of Chinese border management indicates the areas where it will not negotiate, since those are the areas where consolidation is taking place. This is a proactive policy.

On the other hand India accepts whatever is being thrust at it by the Chinese government. There is no decisive action or even reactive push back, just staid diplomatic ‘protests’ that are lodged and readily ignored by China. In the current global security environment a ‘protest’ being lodged is simply ignored by all.

India is strategically on the back foot. On all counts of national power—diplomacy, economy, military and information—China is streets ahead; and the gap is widening on a daily basis. In an unbiased assessment it would seem that Indian policy makers have no idea how to react to the border provocations—both physical and virtual—that China manipulates regularly. In the final analysis it is seen that, the fundamental dictum that national security policy cannot be built on reactions to the adversary, but that the adversary should be made reactive, has not fully sunk into the Indian security establishment.

China-Pakistan Alliance

Noting that independent India has fought wars against both China and Pakistan, the fifth challenge is the growing China-Pakistan alliance, which is decidedly anti-Indian in its concept and functioning. Further, it continues to evolve to ensure that this orientation is always maintained.

The recent Chinese ‘gift’ of US $ 46 billion as an aid package to Pakistan is only the latest form of ratification of the long-standing relationship.

Further, China has been the primary source for Pakistan to have achieved nuclear status. This has done irreparable long-term damage to India’s geo-political stance in the region. The concerted efforts by its two major neighbours have forced India to move towards the US to create its own strategic security architecture. Even so, the move is tentative from the Indian side, since it is still unsure of the ambiguous stand that the US adopts in regard to Pakistan.

India clearly understands that becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council and being an active member of other prominent global groups such as the G-8 and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) are important steps to counter the China-Pakistan anti-India stance. However, India’s efforts have almost always been thwarted by the Chinese veto.

Under these circumstances, the US is an automatic choice for support for India. Even so, the answer to the China-Pakistan nexus to destabilise the nation is for India to develop ‘stand-alone’ capabilities, while creating a bilateral working balance with China that also includes security discussions. To achieve this effectively, it will need to enhance its own power and regional influence, something that is currently lacking.

To date China, mostly encouraged by Pakistan, plays an anti-Indian role in most of the international forums. The time for strategic restraint that India has so far exercised is over and it needs to assert its position as a responsible regional power. The non-alignment that India has preached and practised for most of its independent history is a sensible policy for tranquil times. However, volatile geo-strategic times, like the present, need pragmatism, independent judgement and a national power structure that can be forcefully applied. National security cannot be placed at risk through blind adherence to traditional values and harking back to an ancient culture.

Times, and the world order have changed.

Pragmatic China – Esoteric India

Modern China is pragmatic in the extreme and realises that other than India no other Asian power has the potential to challenge its rise to global status. In this race for primacy, economic and military power are the two elements that China banks on to lead. China’s ambition is to replace the US as the ‘Number One’ state in the world and to re-establish itself as the historic ‘heavenly kingdom’. This is the dream around which all Chinese strategies are formulated, fine-tuned and actioned.

Keeping India constrained is vital to achieving this focused objective. The collective Indian ethos is nowhere near being this focused and it also suffers from the disadvantages of being a dissonant democracy as opposed to the ‘non-participatory’ democracy that China practices. India in its own inimical fashion continues to enunciate its ancient and rich culture and esoteric values, essentially based on a ‘live and let live’ tradition. It was for this reason that India succumbed to foreign invaders and their rule for more than a millennia and it seems as if no lessons were learned from that part of Indian history.

Modern India’s core value of conflict avoidance is not compatible with the pragmatism of China. The thinking in the policy-making circles is still stilted as demonstrated by a recent article that was written by a political advisor who has a military background. This article tries to prove that the unmitigated military humiliation and defeat that was inflicted on India by China in 1962 was actually a ‘victory’ for the non-aligned policy that was pursued by the then Nehru-government. This kind of obfuscation of reality continues to cloud strategic thinking in India. The world has moved on, the value chain has changed irrevocably and a nation that does not or cannot adapt with agility will be left behind. India is on the cusp of achieving such a dubious distinction.

India suffers from a sense of under confidence on the world stage, as a people and as a nation, because it is beset with historically generated doubts. However, more recently there are clear indications that the younger generation are overcoming this cultural cringe. Currently the policy-making institutions continue to struggle under self-imposed doubts and the legacy of a failed non-alignment policy.

The current government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to rectify these legacy mistakes. There is also evidence of small steps being taken to change the traditional defensive crouch in foreign policy and national security initiatives to a more proactive and offensive stance. The open statement regarding Baluchistan and the so-called ‘surgical strikes’ are recent examples of this new-found confidence.

The Indian government is also being more pragmatic in its dealing with China. The need of the hour now is to be engaged with restraint, especially in matters of security and to get the balance between the two right. The Chinese initiatives to isolate India have to be assertively countered. India has to make viable overtures to its smaller neighbours, not in an overt manner of which it has been previously accused, but in a transactional manner, providing economic and security assistance. The current relations have to be improved and this will pose considerable challenge.

India has, at least in its own eyes, always taken a principled stand on matters of international importance. It now has to decide the balance that it wants to maintain, and perhaps more importantly, is acceptable to the body politic, between power, influence and principle. The world is a dynamic entity, a fact that China clearly understands and adapts to very well.

India seems to have a less than optimum understanding of the inconsistencies of the real world and is still attempting to get a clear view of the strategic necessities that constitute national security. Further, the strategic thinking at the national level has not kept pace with the reality of its rapidly increasing economic success. The agility of a state to recognise and accept the global dynamism and then to turn it to its advantage is a litmus test for the veracity of state policies and development processes.

India-Japan Partnership and the Chinese Discomfiture

China has been extremely wary of the growing closeness of India and Japan and with good reason. A partnership between the two nations stands directly in the way of China achieving hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, even without the US underpinning their strategic efforts. It is clearly possible that the nations of the region would prefer the overarching influence of an Indo-Japanese combine to that of China. And China is acutely aware of this.

It was also indicative of Chinese arrogance and sense of power that it warned both the Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers to ‘keep off’ the South China Sea (SCS) issues in their bilateral meeting. It is also indicative of both these nation’s attitude to China that there was a joint statement made that explicitly referred to China flouting international conventions in the South China Sea.

Japan has moved away from its long-held position on nuclear deals to sign the Civilian Nuclear Deal with India. This indicates the premium that it places on improving relations with India, which has been labelled a ‘Special Strategic Relationship’. The Indo-Japanese nuclear deal has been a blow to China’s stonewalling India’s entry into the NSG. As a repercussion India should expect renewed effort to keep it outside the ambit of the Group.

Along with the reference to the SCS, the joint statement also referred to state sponsored terrorism, albeit without naming Pakistan, and the North Korean missile threat, both of which are tacitly supported by China. This was a direct political statement and could not have made China ‘happy’. Japan has clearly and unequivocally supported India’s strategic initiatives to counter Chinese manoeuvres in the Asia-Pacific.

India must move forward very carefully in the domestic arena. There are far too many China apologists in the policy making apparatus, the political entity, as well as in the so-called intelligentsia who would be more than happy to muddy the waters and drive a wedge between Japan and India. India should also be aware that China would have started to trigger such moves within their sympathisers. India will do well to further strengthen its relationship with Japan in the overarching strategic reckoning, especially as the US is being buffeted by uncertainty following the recent Presidential election.

The elephant in the room is the Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative in which India is the only non-signatory South Asian nation. The OBOR is probably leading the smaller Asian, and South East Asian nations into a ‘debt trap’ with China not expanding on the strategic intention of the initiative. China persuades the partnering countries that the projects are in their interest while in actuality it helps China invest its surplus foreign exchange reserves. Further, it also secures contracts for Chinese companies that are facing the problem of surplus capacity in a slowing domestic market.

Only a US-India-Japan collaboration will be able to create a viable alternative to present to the regional nations. The joint India-Japan statement advanced this vision through emphasising the role that Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) has so far played. China is further discomforted by the joint declaration that the two nations believed that the ODA had a ‘shared and principle regional vision’. This could be implicitly construed as indicating that China’s vision of OBOR was neither ‘shared’ nor ‘principled’.

As democratic nations, Japan and India share a number of common beliefs—they share the principles of peaceful dispute settlement and the rule of law; they are committed to regional institutions such as ASEAN and the East Asia Summit; and the concept of the Indo-Pacific as an interconnected geo-political and economic zone. There are also other commonalities—a high dependence on seaborne trade, especially to meet their energy needs, that emphasise the importance of SLOC; and the understanding that the safety and security of the SLOCs equates to freedom of navigation.

China interprets the SLOCs and allied issues in a different manner. It has unequivocally stated that freedom of navigation does not apply to military vessels and therefore views the sailing of US warships in the SCS as an offensive manoeuvre. China has also stated that it does not intend to abide by the recent ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal against its claims. India on the other hand attempts, at every opportunity, to leverage the ruling by explicitly mentioning the importance of the UNCLOS. The battlelines are drawn.
The fundamental fact is that both Japan and India want to maintain the current balance of power in the region. They are also pragmatic enough to accept that China is emerging as a power that cannot be ignored. The fear is that China’s rise to power will not be peaceful in the conventional sense of the term. While the amount and type of disruptions cannot be predicted, both India and Japan are preparing for the worst—a withdrawing, isolationist US and a belligerent China.


There is no doubt that China is acting according to a well-crafted strategy aimed at making it a ‘great power’. India on the other hand is still reactive to Chinese initiatives and its own funding projects in the region are not knitted together towards a common aim point. It has been suggested that Indian investment in South Asia has generated ‘good will’ for it. However such good will is almost always transitory when weighed against pragmatic national economic interests.

Currently China’s trade routes, both land and maritime, encircle India with unmistakable hard power overtones. The enlarged and increasing strategic footprint that China has in the Indo-Pacific region necessitates the development of an appropriate counter policy from India. This is compounded by the inherent distrust that India harbours against China. At the same time the bilateral trade with China is unbalanced in China’s favour, making the policy development for containment a fine balancing act. India’s gradual improvements in relations with the US is a cautious move being done without alienating or alarming China. China has exposed and taken advantage of India’s vulnerabilities in relations with its South Asian neighbours. India is still stumbling in the darkness, unable to formulate a cohesive move to retake the initiative.

Competition for strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region exists between India and China. This will only get further exacerbated as China seeks to establish its position as a regional hegemon and global power. China will pursue this objective regardless of any other nation’s ambitions and needs. India therefore perceives China as denying its rightful regional primacy, its place in the sun. With India’s reactive foreign policy, it is easy to see that at least for the moment China is in the driver’s seat in directing the bilateral relations.

India has to make a few decisions that will have a long-lasting impact on its foreign policy vis-à-vis China. First, it has decide whether to contain or confront. Depending on the decision to this crucial question, the rest of the policy development will take place. Either way, it will need concerted policy agreement within the political body of the nation, something that is still not achieved in India. It will also require careful nurturing of regional relationships and the building up of military capabilities.

India has to craft a policy of proactive employment of national power in a judicious mix that underplays its hard power for the demonstration of its soft power.

India has to develop the confidence to stand up for itself and to stand its ground. In doing so it must showcase its inherent strengths—its vociferous democracy, adherence to the rule of law and support for human rights; it must display to its smaller neighbours its belief in the concept of ‘non-interference in another nations domestic issues’. It has to demonstrate the innate ‘goodness’ of an ancient civilisation. Then, perhaps, the scales will start to balance.

Dr. Sanu Kainikara

Dr. Sanu Kainikara is a Canberra-based Military Strategist and a practising Historian. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales and the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Regional Security, Canberra.

4 thoughts on “India’s China Policy: The Ambling Elephant Needs To Reassess – Analysis

  • December 5, 2016 at 9:59 am

    China is enjoying a single Party ( Man ) ruling first as a Monarch and later as a communist country. There will be only one to be obeyed.
    In India, if we take our history, we had few emperors and we had a lot of small kingdoms divided by language. The only binding factor is religion and that is also fractured.Every one wanted to rule and will not allow others to rule. Unless a true patriot is allowed to rule India, we will continue like this for ever

  • December 5, 2016 at 11:44 am

    Wonderful analysis…makes excellent reading.

  • December 6, 2016 at 5:42 am

    Pleasure reading the well analysed article. Special pleasure since it’s author is an IAF veteran.
    Am Chhaya Sawney’s father- Kashi Nath Johry.
    Would be delighted to meet you.
    Till then take good care- you are precious to us.

  • December 8, 2016 at 5:01 am

    A good analysis. Hope the decision making process in India will change with times and present leadership.


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