One Year On, Should India Rethink Its Reset with China?

April 17, 2019

A year ago, China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged in a closely choreographed series of photo-ops and exchanges at their summit in Wuhan, China. The serene images of Modi and Xi – gazing at pink blossoms and enjoying tea on a boat – telegraphed a return to normalcy after a tense period in ties between the two Asian rivals.

But the honeymoon phase in the “new” India-China relationship might be over. Last month, China blocked for a fourth time a U.N. Security Council effort to blacklist the leader of an anti-India terrorist group, which set into motion tit-for-tat airstrikes between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan in February.

China’s decision to privilege its ally Pakistan over the struggle against terrorism and India’s cautious efforts to improve relations contrast starkly with the steadfast approach of the United States during the confrontation. The episode underscores the limitations of the India-China “reset.” As Tanvi Madan remarked about the bilateral relationship before Wuhan, “serious underlying structural issues remain that defy speedy solutions and will prevent a strategic shift.” The fallout over the Jammu and Kashmir attacks should also serve as a stark reminder as to who India’s real friends are on the issues that matter most. Rather than cultivating a neighbor that sometimes can’t resist lording its leverage and refuses to reciprocate New Delhi’s gestures, India is better off continuing to quietly but steadily hasten cooperation with the United States and other powerful democracies in Europe and Asia.

Was There a Wuhan Reset?

Before the Wuhan summit, a diplomatic course correction was arguably overdue after several years of tense developments in India-China relations punctuated by a 73-day border standoff at Doklam. Beijing had begun to feel unprecedented heat on trade and other issues from Washington. Backed into a corner by a superpower and perhaps seeking to consolidate their domestic position, China’s leaders may have felt the urge to smooth relations with its regional neighbors.

For its part, New Delhi could ill afford to make an enemy out of a more powerful China, with whom India has progressively become more economically enmeshed. Not as often articulated, the White House’s inward turn and habit of nickeling and diming even close allies, likely also led India to hedge its bets and exercise greater patience with China. Finally, the Indian government may also have preferred more placid relations with Beijing in the period leading up to nationwide elections (much as China appeared to seek out calm with President Donald Trump’s administration in the period preceding sensitive leadership changes in 2018).

To be clear, India likely understood that any potential reset would be tactical, not strategic — an opportunity to refresh the rhetoric, improve dialogue, explore common ground, and re-sensitize to each other’s interests. Indian policymakers would have grasped the obstacles to a broader sea change in relations: sizeable power asymmetries, the unresolved border dispute, and the longstanding China-Pakistan partnership, not to mention the overarching question of who will be Asia’s alpha as the second half of this century approaches.

Nevertheless, a not insignificant recalibration has unfolded in India’s China policy. New Delhi has adopted a more cautious and conciliatory approach on Tibet, maintaining official distance from the Tibetan government-in-exile. The government toned down its rhetoric on the Belt and Road Initiative and on China’s efforts to keep India out of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Most recently, India even muted its official response to Chinese intransigence over Masood Azhar.

But India’s more nuanced stance is most apparent in high-profile international forums where natural allies such as the United States are present — and China is likely to be watching intently. Last summer, after the United States and Japan worked behind the scenes to reintroduce a “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (the members are apparently dropping that nomenclature and adopting a broader agenda so as not to stir up sensitivities related to Chinese suspicions) comprised of the region’s four large democracies, India once again rejected Australian participation in high-profile Malabar military exercises, even after the band had gotten back together.

At Asia’s signature annual security dialogue last June, Modi mixed in the milquetoast lexicon of nonalignment alongside some more pointed messages in his keynote address. Then, the following month, in response to criticisms of an overly militarized approach to the region, the Trump administration announced an economic strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Yet India opted out of a joint project launched by the other Quad partners that seeks to offer countries high-quality infrastructure alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Similarly, in November at the G-20 in Buenos Aires, Modi showed off some fancy diplomatic footwork in the world’s tango capital. The scant Western media coverage focused primarily on his first-ever trilateral with Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But the gathering also featured another Indian “first” — a trilateral with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

More recently, press reports have chronicled India’s efforts to stay largely agnostic in the 5G race, despite America’s singular global effort to sideline China’s Huawei Technologies. The world’s largest democracy isn’t yet convinced that Huawei’s equipment upgrades pose a sufficient cybersecurity threat to forego the firm’s cut-rate prices, even though incorporating Huawei technologies into its future 5G backbone could limit U.S. military and intelligence sharing.

India’s renewed efforts to meet China in the middle need to be put in proper perspective. They are not unlike the hedging strategies being quietly pursued by others in the region, nor have they visibly resulted in a significant disconnect with Washington on security issues, despite tetchy moments due to U.S. sanctions on Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.

India and America continue to build defense ties through so-called enabling or foundational agreements, new consultations (such as last fall’s “2+2” summitry normally reserved for U.S. treaty allies), and skyrocketing arms sales. Building on the efforts of its predecessor, the Trump administration describes India as a centerpiece of its Indo-Pacific strategy, irrespective of New Delhi’s relations with Beijing.

The Limits of ‘Resetting’ With China

In so meticulously managing ties with its giant neighbor, India may or may not have expected China would respond in kind. The recent confrontation between India and Pakistan illustrates why hopes of continuing the Wuhan reset for much longer are wishful thinking. China’s use of Pakistan to tie down India to the subcontinent in perpetuity remains a major obstacle to New Delhi’s legitimate great power aspirations. Other evidence similarly points to what increasingly looks like one-way traffic favoring Beijing.

Temperatures have cooled since Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir that killed at least 40 Indians. Yet while the international community’s attention has shifted to dealing with the extremists, China is working to relieve global pressure on Pakistan. Last month, Beijing blocked an effort to blacklist Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, which the United Nations and the United States have designated a terrorist organization. Chinese leaders claimed they required “more time” to reach a decision.

Just a few days later, China engaged in an inaugural strategic dialogue with Pakistan where the friends solemnly pledged to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation. China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has blocked previous attempts to designate Azhar in 2009, 2016, 2017, and now, in 2019. Still, a number of China watchers in India were baffled by the latest rebuff – a sign that India’s efforts to thaw relations may have created false expectations that China would reciprocate in some camps.

But as long as the violence doesn’t affect it, China is reluctant to hold its “all-weather” ally accountable. Since 2005, Beijing has poured nearly $52 billion in investments and contracts into Pakistan (almost double the amount of Chinese investment in India over this period). The pair also launched a new consultation mechanism last month to shore up the economic centerpiece of their collaboration, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Most problematically for India, the military-to-military relationship represents the “backbone” of China-Pakistan ties. Beijing may also have opted to avoid causing embarrassment for Pakistan’s influential security establishment, which has longstanding links to Azhar.

New Delhi can continue to make the case that Pakistan-based terrorism jeopardizes China’s own investments in that country. But it shouldn’t hold out for any significant changes to Beijing’s policy given the enduring strength of the China-Pakistan friendship. After the pair’s foreign ministers met last month in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi left little doubt about the matter: “No matter what kind of changes take place in the international system or the region, we will always resolutely support the maintenance of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

Even when the “Wuhan Spirit” was flowing more freely, Pakistan was not the only place in the neighborhood where China sought to thwart India’s ambitions. China continues to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplies Group, while reaffirming its claims to Arunachal Pradesh. The testy exchange occasioned by Modi’s February visit to the Indian state points to the real possibility of the dormant border issue erupting from time to time.

The military dimensions of the rivalry may lie beneath the surface, but the Indian defense establishment knows they are very much there. At this year’s Raisina Dialogue, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba commented on the six to eight Chinese warships in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean at any given time, as well as the presence of Chinese submarines for ostensible anti-piracy operations (an unobvious choice of platform, Lanba noted) in the area.

Perhaps most importantly, China continues to overtly exert greater economic influence in South Asia – where India has traditionally sought to maintain a sphere of influence over its smaller neighbors. Chinese pressure continues unabated in Nepal and Bhutan, where Beijing seeks favorable terms to settle its boundary disputes. To be sure, recent political developments in the Maldives and Sri Lanka offer hints that South Asian countries are worried about being crushed by China’s economic embrace. Still, thus far, India, like a number of other democracies (notably excepting Japan), has struggled to offer better choices on infrastructure development and trade.

Other than a few trade concessions and perhaps gentler rhetoric, China has not been reciprocating India’s gestures and is in fact continuing to thwart India’s ambitions on the regional and global stages. China’s interests at the border, in the Indian Ocean, related to the Belt and Road Initiative, and with Pakistan simply do not align with India’s. And Beijing is in a better position to act on those interests than ever before. China’s explosive rise over the past four decades has outpaced India’s own impressive growth story, and Beijing is eager to flex the country’s new muscles overseas.



India’s Dilemma

With China growing more confident in the region and America’s role in the Indo-Pacific in some doubt, Delhi may feel a compulsion to continue treading carefully in its diplomacy with Beijing, as it has done since Wuhan. But it should think hard about whether it has erred too far in this conciliatory approach, and inadvertently sent the wrong signals to China.

The stark contrast between China’s reaction and that of the world’s democracies to the latest Pakistan-based attack on India should provide clarity in Raisina Hill. Dating back to the 1999 Kargil crisis, Washington has gradually shifted from a “neutral arbiter” in India-Pakistan conflicts to one that stands decisively with the world’s largest democracy and against violent extremism. This shift accelerated after the attacks on Mumbai in 2008, and was recently evident in the Trump administration’s reaction to the Jaish-e-Mohammed attack, after which the United States largely stood shoulder to shoulder with India. National Security Advisor John Bolton backed India’s right to self-defense, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for mutual restraint – but only after India’s retaliatory strike. He also first demanded that Islamabad take “meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil.”

Then, it was Washington, along with the United Kingdom and France, who sponsored a U.N. proposal to list Azhar as a global terrorist. (In 2009 and 2016, India was the one that moved the same measure.) The Quad members, as well as other European and Asian democracies, all stood behind that effort. The United States worked hard behind the scenes to win China’s support. When the bid failed, Washington and its allies pivoted to other U.N. avenues to designate Azhar.

None of this is to suggest that India should use Azhar’s listing to trigger a confrontation with Beijing or as the basis for which to enter into an anti-China alliance with Washington or anyone else. China has sometimes played a role in restraining Pakistan in past crises. But is the present leadership in Beijing inclined to do so? Relatedly, will China conclude that its multi-billion dollar investment in Pakistan and its other regional interests are compatible with positively responding to Indian concerns?

India needs China to take a more balanced approach towards Pakistan and show greater appreciation for New Delhi’s core interests. After Wuhan, China may have misinterpreted India’s nuanced and careful diplomacy as outright accommodation. Finding a better balance will require India to occasionally hold its ground (as it did during the Doklam crisis), close the military and economic gap with China, further reform its economy, out-compete Beijing in South Asia, and solidify the state’s capacity to accomplish these steps.

These tasks will be, of course, daunting for a vibrant yet chaotic democracy that has spent the better part of its existence under the influence of Fabian socialism. Catching up will require continued progress in making the government more efficient and in building the enabling regulations under which the Indian and foreign private sectors can invest and thrive, including industries with strategic dimensions, such as defense, infrastructure, and telecommunications. In the meantime, as Paul Staniland has argued, Washington will need to manage its expectations about what India is realistically willing to take on, or can accomplish, vis-à-vis China.

India’s “to-do” list may appear Herculean. But with a greater sense of urgency, there are important things Indian diplomats can achieve right now: Unlike Beijing, New Delhi has plenty of like-minded friends to whom it can turn to for technology, capital, know-how, and infrastructure to accelerate its ongoing domestic transformation — starting with Uncle Sam.

Likewise, India can hasten the pace of external cooperation with democracies in various forums (including the Quad 2.0) on issues ranging from guarding against foreign information operations and cyber security to national resiliency. Steadily building India’s full range of capabilities and offerings in its immediate neighborhood and surrounding seas should remain job one for New Delhi and its partners.

Today, the United States is India’s most important partner on global issues, but this reality can sometimes be obscured by arguing over trade, burden-sharing in Afghanistan, and other “America First” staples. Even growing security ties should not be taken for granted. Officials in both capitals should not allow protectionism and fears of American retrenchment to supersede the strategic logic of their partnership. The two countries should take care to avoid a two-track relationship in which India aligns itself with the United States on security issues but instinctively edges closer to China on certain global trade and economic matters (such as at the World Trade Organization).


Domestic constraints and America’s unpredictability may make New Delhi feel like its least-bad option is to preserve its autonomy in foreign affairs – to follow an Indian variant of Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum to hide capabilities and bide time. As such Washington should take care not to turn the intensifying U.S.-China struggle into a binary choice for India. New Delhi’s statecraft with major powers over the past year reveals a lingering reluctance to choose that at its heart reflects a still-acute sense of vulnerability.

The rich, developing potential of the U.S.-India security relationship is without question. Yet that cooperation could be constrained if New Delhi were to modulate its China policy just as attitudes toward China harden in the Washington establishment. Daylight between the two partners over China could result in the United States imposing limits on diplomatic, military, and intelligence cooperation, as well as U.S. transfers of cutting-edge technologies.

If the last few months are any indication, however, the more likely outcome is that China’s policies will serve as a glue that binds India, America, and their democratic allies in Asia and Europe more closely together. Following the Azhar disappointment with China, India announced it will again boycott the high-visibility Belt and Road Forum. This week, the brand-new Indo-Pacific division in India’s foreign office went to work for the first time. Rather than waiting for these partnerships to grow organically, India and its fellow democracies should press down on the accelerator as Asia’s balance of power shifts.

India’s diplomatic gestures are simply not being reciprocated by China. Beijing’s kid-glove treatment of the man behind Kashmir’s killers shows as much. Rather than double down on a reset after this spring’s elections, New Delhi is better off investing in itself and its relations with its real friends.



Atman Trivedi is an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum and managing director at Hills & Company, International Consultants. He previously worked at the U.S. State and Commerce Departments, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You can follow him on Twitter @atmanmtrivedi.


Image: Office of the Prime Minister of India