How India Will React to the Rise of China: The Soft-Balancing Strategy Reconsidered


Editor’s Note: This is the 23rd installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.

Recent developments in China-India ties have suggested two potential future pathways for the bilateral relationship. First, from June to August 2017, China and India were embroiled in an intense militarized standoff in Doklam, a disputed area at the tri-junction of Bhutanese, Chinese, and Indian territories. Though the countries ultimately found an “off-ramp” from the immediate crisis, ongoing military activity in the tri-junction’s vicinity and lingering misperceptions among Beijing, New Delhi, and Thimphu suggest future clashes are possible. Second, in April 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to put Doklam in the rearview mirror and “reset” the Sino-Indian relationship at the Wuhan Summit. The critical question going forward is whether a managed relationship will become an intense Sino-Indian rivalry akin to the one between India and Pakistan — with more militarized conflicts and crises like Doklam — or will the two rising powers manage and transform their rivalry into friendly competition and mutual accommodation?

China’s provocative behavior in the South China Sea and increasing economic and naval presence in the Indo-Pacific are among the reasons the United States has recently characterized China as a “strategic competitor.” Some analysts seem to assume New Delhi is a natural partner and will join the United States in this struggle as China becomes more powerful and threatening. However, while these analysts do acknowledge the constraints, they nonetheless tend to overestimate India’s willingness to serve as a counterweight to China, while underestimating internal and external constraints on such explicit balancing behavior. My contention is that India is likely to form both a soft-balancing coalition, relying on diplomacy and institutional cooperation, and a limited hard-balancing coalition, that is, strategic partnerships short of formal alliances. But an outright alliance with the United States is very improbable. The recently concluded U.S.-India “two-plus-two” meeting of foreign and defense ministers and secretaries suggests that the path toward a limited hard-balancing coalition may be opening despite many remaining hurdles. Whether a limited U.S.-India hard-balancing coalition progresses toward an outright hard-balancing alliance will depend heavily on China’s behavior, especially the threat level it poses to India in the years to come.

A Widening Yet Managed Rivalry

It may well be possible to manage the China-India rivalry, but with each passing year, India’s challenges vis-a-vis China are becoming more intractable. Until recently, the rivalry centered on the territorial conflict over the un-demarcated Himalayan border. But there has been relative calm since Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988, when both sides agreed to set up a joint working group to settle the border dispute. The mechanism of regular border talks resulted in some level of pacification until the Doklam standoff in 2017. Although war was averted, the crisis continued for 73 days.

Beyond the territorial dispute, today the rivalry encompasses competition over water sharing (especially due to China’s efforts to dam the water that flows from Tibet into the Brahmaputra River), trade imbalance, membership in international institutions, and China’s foray into India’s traditional sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean as well as India’s own increasing interests in the Asia-Pacific and Africa. As discussed in my new volume The China-India Rivalry in the Globalization Era, crisis escalation has been averted in recent years thanks to the willingness of political leadership in both countries to pull back. However, the continued buildup of forces by both sides near the border as well as in the Indian Ocean signify that they have not yet fully made the compromises necessary to avert a future conflict from erupting.

Meanwhile, the smaller states of South Asia are increasingly playing smart games to hedge between China and India: They obtain high levels of economic and military assistance from China, forcing India to offer them increased aid as well. But the amount of Indian economic and infrastructure aid is nowhere near China offers. The Indian Ocean littoral is fast emerging as China’s ocean too, with a military base operational in Djibouti and one planned in Pakistan, and commercial ports under construction or planned in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Small dependent states such as the Maldives are breaking away from India in a rare display of independence. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, although largely built around economic and infrastructure development, has immense geopolitical significance. India is one of the most affected countries, especially given its unwillingness to join as a junior partner.

In the face of these challenges, India appears to have devised multiple strategies toward China, some ad hoc and others more long-term and deliberate. As outlined in my new book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era, the Indian strategy has been to engage in limited hard balancing by obtaining asymmetrical military capabilities, as well as soft balancing by forming limited coalitions with the United States, Japan, Australia, and some ASEAN countries. These informal coalitions of like-minded states have pressured China to respond more aggressively. Its intermittent belligerence and occasional olive branches toward India are partly an effort to forestall more active Indian efforts at soft balancing and to prevent even limited efforts to form hard-balancing coalitions. At the same time, in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s maverick policies, India is currently seeking to “reset” relations with China.

It is unclear what India’s strategic options are if the U.S.-China rivalry becomes too intense. There are already signs of this happening with increasing trade tension and military activism in the South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean. More importantly, if China engages in higher levels of hostility, what kind of response can India afford to make without provoking war?

A New Non-Alignment Plus?

One option is to develop a reformulated nonalignment policy, something a group of experts proposed in 2012 as a way of maximizing Indian strategic autonomy. However, some policymakers feared this would preclude India from seizing strategic and economic opportunities and responding to an unpredictable security environment characterized by an increasingly powerful China. Today, might India rethink the non-alignment strategy in a different format, given America’s turbulent relationship with allies and adversaries, including India?

The history of nonalignment as a soft-balancing mechanism is relevant here. In the 1950s, facing the intense Cold War rivalry between the two superpower-led blocs, India, under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, took the lead in organizing the Asian-African nations. The Non-Aligned Movement and its precursor, the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung in 1955, were examples of materially weaker states using institutional cooperation and diplomacy to soft-balance great powers immersed in rivalry.

The Non-Aligned Movement attempted to delegitimize the threatening behavior of the two superpowers and other imperial powers, particularly through their activism in the United Nations and other forums. They worked as promoters of new norms in the areas of decolonization and nuclear arms control and disarmament. In particular, the nonaligned declarations on nuclear testing and nuclear nonproliferation helped to concretize the Partial Test Ban Treaty, several nuclear weapons-free zones and, most importantly, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The tradition of the non-use of nuclear weapons or the nuclear taboo, as some would call it, was strengthened partially due to the efforts of the nonaligned countries’ activism at the United Nations.

With great power rivalry once again heating up, renewed activism by leading global south countries seems a possible way to prevent intensified competition and even military conflict. Non-great power states could be the first victims if war between China and the United States breaks out.

Theoretically, India could support smaller states in their refusal to make formal alliances with China or the United States, as it did during the early Cold War era, although changing strategic circumstances and India’s own great power ambitions make that only a remote possibility. In this scenario, regional states could work to develop a code of conduct vis-a-vis the two rival powers stating that they would not offer military support to or permit the use of military bases by either the United States or China in the event of a conflict. They have an interest in making sure the support for economic and infrastructure development from China and its competitors does not lead to excessive debt traps and new forms of imperialism. ASEAN is spearheading this movement toward a code of conduct in the security arena, but Chinese responses have been slow, although negotiations are continuing.

The small states can also demand that China and the United States abide by fair trade practices and support the creation of regional free trade mechanisms and security institutions. India could join the ASEAN states in their efforts to negotiate a code of conduct with China in the South China Sea and extend that to the Indian Ocean. All these points are contained in India’s occasional statements on regional and world order, but they have yet to be codified or articulated as Nehru did in the 1950s.

The challenge will be to confront the wedge strategies China employs to divide the ASEAN states and its use of salami tactics to gradually gain territorial control in the South China Sea. China’s deep pockets and India’s limited economic support have made many small states hesitate to join any coalitions yet. This could change if China’s strong-arm tactics and the potential high debt burden become too unbearable . A few, such as Malaysia, have already shown willingness to cancel infrastructure contracts with China that they consider against their national interests.

New Delhi’s non-alignment option is constrained by its desire to become an independent center of power with military and economic heft, including nuclear weapons and naval capabilities. It has unsteadily played limited balance-of-power games to hedge against both Beijing and Washington, notwithstanding recent signs that it is forming a limited hard-balancing coalition with the United States. These policies have not done much to reassure potential partners in the developing world about following a non-aligned path. For these reasons, India is unlikely to lead a new non-aligned movement against the United States and China, as some have suggested.

Alignment as a Strategic Option

The opposite of non-alignment is alignment. In the face of intense rivalry with China, India could opt for a quasi-military alliance with the United States and Japan, as it did with the Soviet Union during the 1970s.. Indeed, some who are skeptical of soft balancing would like India to cooperate more actively with the United States, Japan, and Australia, in addition to building its own military capabilities. This possibility is the one China dreads the most, as such a coalition would form a powerful counterweight to Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region. This could occur if China raises the level of the rivalry to unacceptably high levels and begins to encroach more directly on India’s strategic and economic interests as well as territorial boundaries.

India and the United States are already showing some signs of limited hard balancing, and there probably would be more if not for the careless policies of the United States under Trump. Using each other’s naval facilities for repair work of naval craft, the transfer of high-tech weapons, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and the number of joint naval exercises such as Malabar all suggest greater military cooperation is taking place.

However, for India to seriously consider a formal alliance like the one the United States has with Australia or South Korea, China would have to seriously threaten India’s core security both on land and at sea. Such an alliance isn’t likely unless some major crisis occurs such as the 1970-71 East Pakistan/Bangladesh conflict: A border clash in which India faces an imminent defeat could be the watershed moment that leads to a formal alliance. That same possibility forced Nehru to consider alignment with the United States during the 1962 war with China, although he quickly abandoned the idea as the China threat receded. Similarly, if China engages in naval clashes with Indian naval forces in the Indian Ocean or in an encirclement operation with the help of Pakistan, it could push India into the arms of the United States. But the chances of these scenarios developing  in the foreseeable future are low, partly because Chinese naval capabilities are limited in the Indian Ocean and India can offer a strong defense against any Chinese naval attack. Also, India’s possession of nuclear weapons could reduce the possibility of a massive defeat — and therefore of an alignment with the United States, assuming India is willing to assume the risks of escalating conflict to a nuclear level.

Still, a manifold increase in China’s regional naval presence or even a simultaneous two-front war with China and Pakistan are not beyond the pale of imagination. In this way, it is up to China to prevent India from opting for a formal military alliance. Any major military escalation on the border or in the Indian Ocean would put tremendous pressure on New Delhi to join a counter-coalition. It will not be a repeat of 1962 as India has sufficient asymmetrical military capabilities, but short of nuclear escalation, China can indeed threaten India with much damage, especially if Pakistan opens up a second front in Kashmir. The deepening strategic and economic relationship between Pakistan and China suggests that a balancing coalition already exists on India’s western front.

Outright alignment with the United States is further constrained — at least for now — by India’s longstanding strategic partnership and arms relationship with Russia. According to the 2018 SIPRI report, during the past five years, nearly 62 percent of India’s weapons imports were from Russia. This historical relationship has proven to be in India’s interests. Moscow rarely imposes the same stringent conditions that Washington does, especially on end-user controls and technology co-production. India has, in fact, diversified its weapons import sources — the United States and Israel are now more important suppliers — but the chances of abandoning Russia in the near future seem quite low.

India’s Likely Path: Soft Balancing and Limited Hard Balancing

For the foreseeable future, India will likely pursue soft balancing, limited hard balancing and diplomatic engagement with China. The limited hard balancing involves asymmetrical capability acquisition and the building of additional strength on the border and naval assets in the Indian Ocean. India is currently augmenting its nuclear capabilities and placing them on different platforms to create a triad, while also strengthening its conventional capabilities. Some of these weapons, especially the aircraft-based nuclear systems and Prithvi short-range ballistic missiles, are meant for deterring Pakistan, though they also contribute to a triangular deterrent relationship among China, India, and Pakistan. These capabilities could form a powerful asymmetrical deterrent and defense capability, though they wouldn’t constitute a force equal to China’s in an all-out conflict. However, a full spectrum of nuclear deterrent deployment is  delayed by the slow pace at which India develops and deploys its indigenous missile capabilities.

On the diplomatic front, possibilities exist for further strengthening the soft balancing coalition with the United States, Japan, and ASEAN countries, despite a short-term hiatus in the development of the coalition caused by U.S. policies under Trump. India and Japan have initiated an Asia-Africa economic growth corridor to compete with the Belt and Road Initiative, but progress has been limited thus far. These mechanisms offer a convenient stopgap between active military balancing and doing nothing in the face of China’s expansionist policies. In addition, diplomatic engagement through institutional forums and regular summit meetings are likely to be the preferred option for both. China in particular seems to use these venues to reduce the intensity of Indian opposition and to mitigate the possibility of India forming anti-China coalitions.

Why is it difficult for India to engage in full-fledged hard balancing, whether it be internal balancing through military capability or external balancing via formal military alignment with other major powers? The first obstacle is the capability discrepancy. In 2017, China spent some $150.5 billion on defense, while India spent around $52.5 billion. Second, even though trade relations favor China, they are important for India’s economic progress as well. Third, it’s hard to find reliable alliance partners, and the formation of hard-balancing alliances could push China to step up border clashes, encourage Pakistani support for the insurgency in Kashmir, and increase China’s activities in the Indian Ocean. Finally, a strategy of soft balancing gives India some diplomatic freedom to hedge and bargain with potential allies such as the United States and Japan as well as with China itself. Soft balancing may be the least objectionable way to avoid intense security competition with China and an arms race that will disproportionately hurt India. However, the ball is in Beijing’s court in terms of whether or not India goes for intense hard balancing in the years to come.

Policymakers in Washington should not expect a radical realignment by India involving a hard-balancing coalition with the United States, given that India prides its strategic autonomy so much. Indian elites also have ambitions to become “the next China,” or at least a leading power in the 21st century, and a close military relationship with Washington would not fulfill that objective unless the United States is willing to accommodate India more than it has done so far. Moreover, India’s strategic and economic relationships with Russia and China make hard and fast alignment with Washington a difficult proposition.

What policy planners in both New Delhi and Washington should work toward instead is pursuing as much cooperation and coordination as possible. They should seek to promote soft balancing and institutional mechanisms to restrain China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. This will require more strategic subtlety and an effective counter to the Belt and Road Initiative. To counter China effectively, the United States, India, and Japan need to use economic and diplomatic instruments more than they are doing now, because military power cannot substitute what the smaller states in the region are yearning for: economic and infrastructure development without too many preconditions.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to an operational Chinese military base in Pakistan. The article has been updated to clarify that the base in Pakistan is planned, not operational.

an T.V. Paul is a James McGill professor of international Relations, McGill University, Canada. A former president of International Studies Association (ISA), his new book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), discusses the different soft-balancing and hard-balancing strategies states have employed from the Concert of Europe to the contemporary era, including the strategies of nonaligned states during the Cold War era. His newly published edited volume, The China-India Rivalry in the Globalization Era (Georgetown University Press, 2018) discusses the different dimensions of the rivalry and the reasons for it remaining a managed one.

Image: PMIndia