Using Uncertainty as Leverage: India’s Security Competition with China


In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated a vision for India’s place in the Indo-Pacific region. This role embraces a form of security competition with China, but in a way that applies India’s own unique form of leverage. India seems to calculate that uncertainty about its strategic intentions, and especially its relationship with the United States, helps to keep competition with China at a manageable level.

In the speech, Modi leveled veiled but pointed criticisms of China, arguing for a rules-based regional order that values sovereignty, international law, and freedom of navigation, and rejects impossible debt burdens. But, equally, he abjured a future based on rival alignments, rejecting the notion that India should ally with the United States in a bloc to contain China. India would compete — “competition is normal,” after all — but on its own terms, not as part of an American agenda. More recently, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao, Modi conspicuously abstained from supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative and instead trumpeted “inclusive, sustainable, and transparent” connectivity projects.

Rather than joining in a compact with the United States against China, Modi was staking out a an authentically Indian position: standing up to China on its own terms, as a champion of the rules-based order. Modi thus gave coherent voice to a pattern of policies that have already emerged in practice. In 2017, India boycotted the Belt and Road Initiative conference, resisted territorial encroachments at Doklam, and resuscitated the informal consultative mechanism between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia, known as the Quad. The Shangri-La speech codified Indian policy as a defense of an inclusive, rules-based order, rather than a self-aggrandizing contest with China.

Competition, But Not as We Know It

Earlier this year, some critics fretted that Modi had gone soft on China — but they were mistaking diplomacy for appeasement. His government made a series of purported concessions, peaking with the informal Wuhan summit between Modi and Xi Jinping in April. Some Indian commentators considered the summit a capitulation. But in fact, Modi did not trade away any tangible concessions. India’s refusal to allow Australian participation in Exercise MALABAR, leaked just before the Wuhan summit and portrayed in some quarters as a win for China, was probably motivated more by outdated Indian perceptions of Australia’s unreliability than by deference to China. Notably, India did participate in the second meeting between officials of the Quad earlier this month. Some analysts lambasted the very fact of a high-level dialogue, suggesting it was an undue reward for bad Chinese behavior — but Xi Jinping is not Kim Jong Un. India and China are neighbors with burgeoning economic links who have suffered months of elevated tensions. Maintaining open channels between their leaders is not only appropriate, but wise.

The summits in Wuhan and Qingdao cooled tensions, but structural factors will continue to fuel India-China competition. China is converting its ballooning economic power into political influence across the region, including in South Asia, long India’s presumptive strategic backyard. Its strategic alliance with Pakistan heightens direct security threats to India. And most directly, China’s continued military modernization and troop incursions along its disputed border with India increase the risk of direct conflict. For these reasons, India has shaken off the hobgoblin of maintaining “equidistance” between the great powers.

India has been accelerating its security competition with China, albeit gradually. On the border, India is raising a massive new mountain strike corps, and revitalizing its road and air-strip infrastructure. At sea, India is publicizing an aggressive tempo of “presence patrols” in the Indian Ocean, leading the development of a new multilateral network for maritime domain awareness, and striking deals for new port access in Oman, Indonesia, and possibly the Seychelles. Across domains, it is gradually expanding its slate of military exercises and other cooperation with partners, including the United States. And it continues to develop longer-range ballistic missiles, and is even introducing new joint military organizations to run special forces, cyber, and space operations. Many of these changes are incomplete and proceeding at a glacial pace — a function of India’s ponderous bureaucratic inertia and limited resources — but the competitive direction of security policy is unmistakable.

But that does not mean India will mimic America’s security competition with China or coordinate closely with the United States against China. Washington hardened its position by branding Beijing a “revisionist” power in its National Security Strategy, and unveiling a comprehensive new strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. And it backed up declaratory policy with a more aggressive tempo of maritime patrolling, for example.

Despite echoing the goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” India has not mirrored this U.S. escalation. The Indian Navy remains hesitant to participate in joint freedom of navigation patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea. India will drag its feet on signing technocratic instruments of defense cooperation. And Modi may seek out summit meetings — like the one in Wuhan, and others to come in India next year — to ease tensions.

This Indian approach to security competition — more complex and uncertain than some critics would want — is rooted in powerful strategic impulses. Close strategic coordination with the United States would be ideologically anathema; an affront to the freedom of action, unencumbered by entangling alliances, that India has always prized. More tangibly, accelerating security competition with China would generate strong resistance, both from domestic political opponents in India and from China. This is not a matter of kowtowing to Beijing’s wishes. India simply cannot afford to wage an escalating arms race or scramble for regional influence against China. India is a weaker power than the United States, increasingly encircled by a burgeoning Chinese economic and military presence in the South Asia, and must modulate its security competition carefully.

Uncertainty is Leverage — But Not an Excuse

India’s refusal to quickly escalate security competition with China or to bind itself too closely to the United States may seem like frustrating ambivalence. But it carries at least one key advantage. The uncertainty over India’s intentions — and specifically, the extent to which it cooperates with the United States — is India’s greatest leverage over China. More than any geographic, material, or ideational advantage New Delhi can muster in its asymmetric balance with Beijing, its potential but as-yet unrealized partnership with Washington concerns Beijing the most. In this light, the ambiguities of Indian policy are a feature, not a bug.

Uncertainty over India-U.S. relations has probably already moderated Chinese behavior — including Beijing’s willingness to de-escalate the Doklam stand-off, and to adopt a more solicitous tone in recent months. China’s strategy is focused on preventing and disrupting counter-balancing coalitions — hence its stern opposition to the Quad. A brash declaration of a “hard-balancing” U.S.-Indian compact would likely elicit much more aggressive Chinese actions on the Himalayan border and across South Asia, designed to stress and break that compact. Less nuanced Indian security competition, then, would probably accelerate the expansion of inimical Chinese influence in the region, and elevate the risk of open war.

India’s distinct style of competition suggests its strategists may deserve more credit than they are often given. It should not, however, be a convenient catch-all excuse for moments of Indian prevarication or loss of nerve. Even more, it should not absolve India of the need to continue building national power. India can and often should do more – especially in military modernization and reorganization. At some point the current Modi-Xi bonhomie will pass and the pendulum will swing again, perhaps with another militarized crisis on the border or a contest of wills elsewhere in the region. At that point, New Delhi will be tested to ensure its careful escalation management does not devolve into submission to a stronger foe. India’s policies benefit from uncertainty, but the ultimate currencies of security competition — and the ultimate guarantors of a free and open Indo-Pacific — are military power and political resolve.


Arzan Tarapore is a nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) in Washington, DC. The views in this piece do not reflect the official position of NBR. He previously served for 13 years in the Australian Department of Defence and holds a PhD in war studies from King’s College London. He tweets @arzandc.

Image: Prime Minister of India