India’s China policy: getting the framework right

India Seminar, 22 June 2014

In a recent speech, India’s national security advisor (NSA), Shivshankar Menon, noted: ‘Since 2008, the post-Cold War world that we had got used to is metamorphosing into something very different, as different from the previous two decades as those two decades were from the four decades of the Cold War.’ Menon further observed that, the ‘unipolar moment… came to an end with the global economic crisis of 2008. And now a fundamental reordering of the international economy appears to be underway.’1

Indian perceptions of a changing international environment suggest Indian foreign policy as a whole, and in its parts, is poised for change. This article confines itself to one dyad (India-China) in the search for a policy-relevant understanding of bilateral relations.

Unfortunately, India-China relations have not been conceptualized holistically, and from the Indian viewpoint. This article contends that in order to comprehensively analyze India’s relationship with China, the bilateral equation must be located and analyzed in three geopolitical realms: the sub-regional or South Asian realm, the Asia-Pacific realm, and the global realm. Further, this article uses the concept of roles to identify and illuminate the conflict-cooperation mix in each of the above-mentioned geopolitical realms based on whether India and China’s conceptions of their evolving roles in each of these realms are in conflict or compatible or even complement each other.

Mainstream international relations analyses has not adequately addressed the notion that the character of inter-state relations is shaped as much by geography as it is by ideas and roles that condition a state’s foreign policy. For example, bilateral relations in the geopolitical conditions of East Asia imply a very different dynamic to a bilateral dyad in the classical European continental arena. The reasons for the difference lie in the nature of geography where contending states pursue their interests. The geography of the Asia-Pacific, some opine, lends itself to a stable geopolitical environment where states can pursue security goals without provoking a costly zero-sum dynamic.2 In contrast, the intensely competitive European arena of the pre-1945 era witnessed recurring security competitions that escalated to costly hegemonic projects by one or the other great powers of Europe.

Yet, geography by itself does not predispose states toward any particular modes of behaviour. All it does is make certain geostrategies more viable or costly than others. Recent scrambling for power and influence in the Western Pacific underscores that state agency and strategic choices matter.