China’s rise, and especially, its growing strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region has provoked policymakers India to come up with appropriate policy approaches to counter its northern neighbour. However, India’s policy towards China so far can be best described as a somewhat confused and uncertain one. India in recent years has shown signs of cultivating closer ties with the US, moving away from its tradition of seeking strategic autonomy, it continues to remain cautious in potentially alienating China due to the importance of its bilateral economic relations with China. Some analysts have made much of India’s strengthened ties with the US, dominating the security architecture in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions. The US designated India as a “major defence partner” in June 2016 in the hope that India will play a key role in complementing its own strategic shift towards the region. A senior Obama administration official has said that this partnership will mean that India will be the only country outside Washington's formal treaty allies that will gain access to almost 99 per cent of the latest American defence technologies.
Furthermore, there are trends that point towards growing US-India military cooperation. The signing of the Logistics and Supply Memorandum of Agreement with the USA in August 2016 is one such indicator. India now also carries out more joint exercises with the US than with any other nation, including the annual Malabar maritime exercise that in 2007 was broadened to include Japan, Australia and Singapore.
However, such developments can equally be viewed as a sign of India’s relative weakness vis-à-vis China rather than a pronounced long-term shift towards the US. While there are ambitious plans to enlarge the Indian Navy, including the building of three Aircraft Carriers fielding a combined 120-130 aircrafts, these will not be ready until at least 2030. Until then, an alliance with the US can amplify India’s strategic impact in the region.
Interestingly, much of the hubbub over this bilateral defence cooperation has been coming from the US itself as part of its long-term effort at wooing India to align with the US Pivot to Asia. The US Department of Defense’s strategic guidance released in 2012, which set out its expected shift towards the Asia-Pacific, highlighted the importance of a strategic partnership with India to “support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”
With the US Pivot aimed at curtailing a rising China, India faces a conundrum as it has been forced to pick sides. By hitching its wagon to the US, India is aware of the possibility of provoking an adverse Chinese reaction.
India’s hesitant policy towards China is evident from its approach towards the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While some commentators have attempted to depict India as hostile to the project, there is little actual evidence to support this. India’s development of the Chahbahar Port in Iran, located just 72 kilometres from the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, is perhaps the only direct response and challenge to the Chinese project. However, while India may not be comfortable with the project, outright hostility would be anti-intuitive due to the tacit understanding that if CPEC turns out to be a true game changer for Pakistan’s troubled economy it would bolster the civilian government in Islamabad thereby opening up possibilities of greater engagement with India. Improved economic regional integration would, in turn, benefit India’s national security as well.
It would then be wrong to view these developments as a zero-sum game. Despite, at times, a jingoistic tabloid press in India, there are many influential people who advocate for deeper engagement with China. India’s former Petroleum Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, suggested that an envisaged gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan should be extended to India and then onto China, thereby creating further interdependencies and avoiding competition. India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and UAE, Talmiz Ahmed, has also said that “there is no need to fear the OBOR – both the OBOR and China need India as a partner”.
Indeed, Narendra Modi’s government has shown a commitment to deeper engagement with China. During Modi's visit to China in May 2015 trade agreements worth $22 billion were signed. Such deals indicate the confidence with which both party’s view the future of this relationship.
India response to China’s rise has so far been muddled and somewhat contradictory. While partnering with the US more closely is seen by some as a clear evidence of India picking sides, this seems more of a case of US courtship than the other way round. India, to a certain extent is free-riding on the US security architecture until it has augmented its own military strength. Currently, it is not in India’s interests to compete with China. Despite Indian economic growth and a Chinese slowdown, India is still far behind in terms of its ability to challenge China. Economic interdependence -trade between the two is valued at $70 billion - perhaps further explains India’s muted reactions regarding regional and international disputes involving China. Given Modi’s history of close interactions with the Chinese during his tenure as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, further engagement, barring any unexpected negative developments, can be expected.