By B R Deepak*
The rise of China triggered a regional power shift that has been felt across East Asia and into the Himalayas. As China changes the status quo of the Indo-Pacific, it talks of promoting a multipolar world. But in practice it has a problem with multipolar Asia and is unwilling to accommodate India’s interests. In response to this, India is aligning itself more closely with the United States and its allies.
When evaluating India’s policy choices in East Asia, history cannot be overlooked. India–China rapprochement in the late 1970s, amid the Cold War and the rise of globalisation, saw the two countries grow closer. Their budding relationship found common ground in being at the same stage of development.
It was through this parity that a series of confidence-building measures (CBMs) were signed, enabling India and China to normalise and diversify their relationship into other areas. They became part of various multilateral mechanisms such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, East Asia Summit and the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
Trade flourished and Chinese investment in India’s telecom, electronics, solar and, most notably, digital sectors increased by leaps and bounds. While India had a twinge of envy for China’s rise, it saw opportunities for win–win cooperation. Yet over the past two decades, India has become increasingly wary of the dangers of widening economic, military and technological asymmetries between the two countries.
The power shift in Asia has resulted in Chinese behavioural changes. With its growing regional power, China has felt less compulsion to abide by the CBMs. It has started flexing its muscles along the disputed border regions between India and China, resulting in bloodshed and prolonged standoffs.
Until very recently, India acted like a ‘swing state’ between major powers in the region and avoided taking sides. This can be gleaned from India’s initial lukewarm reception to the idea of the Quad. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s keynote address at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore wished for India and China to ‘work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests’.
Many believe it was the 2017 border standoff in Doklam that pushed India to rethink its involvement in the Quad. If that is the case, the 2020 border clash in Galwan likely played a decisive role in India’s move to incorporate the Quad and the Indo-Pacific Strategy into its military and foreign policy.
It is unsurprising that Chinese scholars now see India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and other sub-regional and multilateral mechanisms as subservient to the Indo-Pacific strategy. These multilaterals include the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, the Security and Growth for All in the Region vision and the Indian Ocean Rim Association — many of which are designed to counterbalance China’s growing influence.
Whether or not these mechanisms serve the goals of the Indo-Pacific strategy, India has indeed shifted its gaze away from China and towards Southeast Asia to initiate connectivity projects. One of them — the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway — has been extended to run through Cambodia and Vietnam and is expected to be completed by 2023
India supports the idea of ‘ASEAN centrality’ and envisages a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region built on a rules-based international order. This obvious rebalancing has enhanced India’s security cooperation with the United States and other regional middle powers. The institutionalisation of the India–US 2+2 dialogue, the Quad, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the US–India Malabar exercises point to this growing cooperation.
The growing India–US partnership has riled China. Some Chinese scholars have claimed that India refuses to support the ‘One China Policy’ over the Kashmir issue, which is home to a long-standing territorial dispute between India and China. But the late Indian minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj has also called upon China to respect its own ‘One India Policy’.
Compared to China, India is relatively weak in economic and political power. In 2021, China–ASEAN trade accounted for US$878.2 billion, outstripping India–ASEAN trade, which stood at US$78 billion. But East Asian countries have always been positively inclined towards India’s engagement in the region, though most do not support India’s self-proclaimed role as a ‘net security provider’ — a role that they believe should be reserved for the United States.
China believes that India’s Act East Policy ‘will allow India to intervene’ and ‘warm up’ to other countries on issues surrounding the South China Sea. This may become a drag on China–ASEAN relations in future. But China will not cede the space it once did before its rise.
Similar anxieties have been expressed by India over China’s attempts to increase its footprints in the Indian Ocean. The docking of the Yuan Wang 5 — a Chinese ‘spy ship’ — at Hambantota, Sri Lanka, was particularly concerning for India.
In the face of a prolonged standoff on the India–China border and the growing US–China rivalry, India finds itself leaning more towards the United States and its allies. India sees this as best for its economic and technological advancement and for the realisation of its larger global aspirations.
*About the author: B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum