Inordinate focus on the military threat obscures the larger political impact of China’s rise, which will have a bearing on India’s interests and even security.
By Rajesh Rajagopalan
There is greater recognition today in India of the growing power disparity with China and its impact on Indian security and interests. While this much-delayed recognition is welcome, there is still insufficient appreciation of the full effects of China’s power. Far too often, this disparity is seen only in the context of military security. Though the military power China can bring to bear on India is considerable and it is a real threat to the security of India’s borders, the international political consequences of China’s growing power is less often recognised.
At some level, this focus on military security is understandable. India does have an unresolved border problem with China and the possibility of a military clash cannot be ruled out. The Doklam crisis last year, which is yet to be fully settled, highlighted the possibility of the two sides stumbling into an actual shooting war. India’s military inadequacies, especially its poor border infrastructure, the glacial pace of its military modernisation, its continuing difficulties with generating both inter-service jointness and strategic coordination, contrasts sharply with the rise of China’s military capabilities in general and in the Tibetan plateau in particular. China has always been better at strategic coordination (even if the objectives of its strategy were sometimes short-sighted), and now has far better infrastructure in the area than India does, and the growing sophistication of China’s military forces has eliminated whatever limited technological advantage India had. There is no question that these are reasons for worry.
But inordinate focus on the military threat obscures the larger political impact of China’s rise, which will also have a bearing on India’s interests and even security. There are at least four ways in which this can happen.
The first is that China is likely to garner much greater international political support, especially from the developing world countries of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. These regions, many with recent experience of colonialism, have traditionally seen multilateral forums as an arena where they could exercise at least a limited amount of influence against the West. The UN General Assembly, for example, was well-known for being both dominated by the developing world and being anti-American in its orientation. This diminished after the end of the Cold War because these countries lost support that the Soviet Union and its allies provided. Consequently, many of these countries were also seeking to curry favour with the US, thus reducing their fervor for symbolic and useless anti-Americanism.
China will find ready and willing support among these countries both because it is now strong enough to stand up to the US and because developing countries now hope China is rich enough to provide the kind of aid and assistance the US is no longer seen as willing or able to provide. And the farther away they are from China, and the less they are subject to direct Chinese pressure, the more likely such sympathies will be. This will quite possibly lead to a new era of activism in multilateral forums, based on China’s support, with the flipside being an overwhelming pro-China coalition in such multilateral forums. The world may not yet be fully bipolar in material sense yet, but its effects may anticipate its actual emergence. Of course, these are instincts that closely tracks with the Nehruvian foreign policy approach in India but even Nehruvians will recognise the dangers for Indian interests when China leads such a developing world coalition. In any disagreement or dispute between India and China, New Delhi’s erstwhile friends in the developing world will either hide under the parapet or side with China. Think of what these “friends” did during the 1971 war, but consider what the consequences will be when this becomes the rule rather than being limited to one episode.
The second political effect, which we are already witnessing but refusing to acknowledge, is that Russia is increasingly beholden to China. This is not India’s doing, not the consequence of any disloyalty to an old friend, or the consequence of India warming up to the US. It is, rather, the consequence of a combination of a number of other factors: most importantly, Russia’s own weakness, but also the effect of Putin’s policies that is leading to greater tensions with both the US and Europe, and of course, China’s rise, which provides Moscow a way to counter the pressures on it from the West. Whatever the combination of these factors, New Delhi needs to recognise the fact that China’s rise provides Russia a necessary friend, and a value that India cannot hope to match. Moscow and New Delhi have shared a relationship of mutual strategic empathy and that makes it difficult for Indian strategists to see the obvious diplomatic trends. There is a whistling-in-the-dark quality to India’s refusal to look at the change in Russia’s orientation but the danger of continuing to depend on Russia is only going to grow.
A third political effect will be on the various multilateral political groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), RIC (Russia, India, China) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) that India has invested in. These are already dominated by China, and this will only increase in the coming years. New Delhi should not be foolish to expect that countries like Brazil or South Africa or Russia will side with India in any disagreement that it has with China. India should expect to be increasingly isolated within these bodies, as China seeks to use these to shape its own hegemony. India can, of course, push back either by standing alone and letting the consensus rule scuttle anything unpalatable or by convincing others to stick to non-controversial areas, though the latter would also require China’s acceptance.
A final political effect, though one that has gained greater attention than the above three, is China’s capacity to influence India’s neighbours. This should not be a surprise: India’s dominance within the region represents a latent security concern, if not a threat, to the smaller states in the region, much like China’s power is a threat to its neighbours and to the rest of Asia. There is little that is unnatural about such concerns — or about these countries trying to balance it by seeking the help of powers from outside the region. This will not be the first India is facing this: much to New Delhi’s resentment, most of India’s neighbours have attempted to do so in the past, though they have rarely been able to attract any consistent partners, with Pakistan being the only exception. India should expect much more of this now because China will be interested in exploiting the natural concern of India’s smaller neighbours in a more consistent manner than other extra-regional powers have been until now.
What these effects suggest is that the question is not just of the disparity of power between India and China but of the consequences of China’s global power too. Disparity of power is a security issue: the greater the disparity, the greater the security problem. But even substantial disparity in power does not necessarily have to lead to wider political effects if the stronger power is not a significant global actor. But China is, and even without becoming a hegemonic actor, the global effects of its power can impact on India (and China’s other neighbours) in a manner that needs to be better recognised.