Indian diplomacy has become one of the focal points of international public opinion of late. U.S. Defense Secretary Austin arrived in India on March 19 after a visit to Japan and South Korea, and as the first Cabinet member of the Biden Administration to visit India, the visit also generated a certain amount of heat in public opinion.
Since the U.S., Japan, India and Australia just held their first leaders’ meeting shortly before this visit, many media in the U.S. and India interpreted Austin’s special trip to India as an indication of the importance the Biden Administration attaches to New Delhi, and Washington’s intention to further promote close U.S.-India defense ties and India’s partnership with the U.S. to “counter China’s influence. In addition, the United States, Japan, India and Australia are drawing up a plan to expand the production capacity of new corona vaccine in India. According to the U.S., the plan is expected to enable India to provide 1 billion doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Asia-Pacific countries by 2022, which will undoubtedly benefit India in terms of global anti-epidemic influence and in building the “Made in India” brand.
At the same time, some media commented that India’s remarks in a series of multilateral gatherings such as the US-Japan-India-Australia Leaders’ Meeting, were relatively mild as far as (the objective of) stirring the pot against China was concerned. And according to the Indian media recently, India is preparing to speed up the approval of some investment proposals from China to resume economic engagement between India and China. This is part of 150 investment proposals from China, with a total value of more than $2 billion, that have been put on hold. So what to make of India’s current attitude toward China in the wake of a new round of diplomatic co-optation set off by the United States?
Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, Sino-Indian relations have gone through two roller coasters in six years. The two troughs were the Doklam standoff in 2017 and the Galwan Valley conflict and border confrontation in 2020. The development and changes in Sino-Indian relations over the past six years have made India’s ambivalence in its diplomacy towards China more and more evident: on the one hand, it hopes to achieve strategic cooperation; on the other hand, it continues to deliberately provoke strategic competition and suspicion, wanting to use the United States to check Chinese influence to realize its dream of great power strategic autonomy. It is this ambivalence that has brought huge uncertainty to the China-India relationship, which has continually affected the cooperation between the two countries.
The main factor causing this ambivalence in India’s approach is the rapid rise of Hindu nationalism and the change in India’s strategic perception of China’s rapid rise. Hindu nationalism has now become the dominant force in Indian politics and will occupy a dominant position for a long time in the foreseeable future. And its long-term stance of “curbing and containing China” is destined to impact the Indian National Congress Party’s strategic orientation of “common rise of China and India”. At present, Hindu nationalists continue their long-standing anti-China stance, unilaterally positing a “hostile identity” for China in their strategy toward our country, highlighting competition and rivalry in their China policy and weakening tolerance and cooperation. All these have brought about uncertainty in each other’s strategic cognition and intentions for the (idea of) joint rise of China and India, and have shaped India’s strategic logic of curbing and containing China and the characteristics of “limited cooperation” and ” oscillations” in its China policy.
In the face of China’s rapid rise, India fears that while cooperation with China might yield absolute gains, it will also lead to more relative gains for China, further widening the power differential between the two countries and thus enhancing China’s influence in India’s sphere of influence. When India shifts its focus to relative gains rather than absolute gains, cooperation between the two countries becomes a bumpy prospect. In this context, the second-best option for India’s diplomatic strategy is to strengthen security cooperation with the United States to balance Chinese influence.
In terms of strategic logic, India has been seeking regional hegemony in South Asia due to its “great power mentality” and traditional geopolitical thinking, and persistence with the idea of a “Greater India” federation. So India has long seen China as a “threat”. On the economic front, some Indian political elites believe that, given India’s industrial structure in its current stage of indigenous economic development, the more China and India expand cooperation, the greater the damage to India: on the one hand, there is the growing trade deficit, on the other hand, China’s expanding investment and trade in India has led to dissatisfaction in India’s domestic monopolies. At the same time, Chinese products have impacted Indian small and medium-sized enterprises and businesses, affecting the development of India’s indigenous industry. All these are related to the voter base of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Now that the new corona pneumonia epidemic has accelerated the restructuring of the global landscape and system, India sees this as a historic opportunity to realize its dream of becoming a great power. Influenced by traditional geopolitical thinking, India’s strategy towards China has never gone beyond the “security dilemma” mentality. In India’s view, it is the most advantageous “backup base” for the deeper adjustment of China’s relations with the U.S. and the West (that might get underway) as a result of the impaired space for (US’) economic and trade cooperation with China. The ongoing U.S.-China game has led to new changes in the global industrial chain, supply chain and value chain, but it is very difficult for the U.S. and other Western countries to achieve industrial re-onshoring. Multinational companies have been augmenting their presence in the Chinese market while also putting their eggs in multiple baskets. India, with its huge population and low labor costs, is undoubtedly one of their priority choices. UNCTAD released the latest edition of its Global Investment Trends Monitor, “Global Investment Trends and Prospects 2020-2021”, which says that FDI in India rose by 13% in 2020 to reach $57 billion. This contrarian growth has further encouraged the above-mentioned ideas of Indian policymakers and the public.
Of course, Indian political elites also know very well that if they allow themselves to be tied to the “chariot” of the United States, apart from losing strategic autonomy, it may also cause further diminution in India’s status as a major power and in its dominant position in the Indian Ocean, which India will not not want to see. Therefore, India’s aspirations for strategic autonomy and great power consciousness will be the determinants of (an orientation of) India maintaining limited cooperation with China and not deviating too far from the track of strategic cooperation between the two countries.
(The author is a former Indian correspondent of the Huan Qiu Shi Bao)