China’s rise, America’s pivot, and India’s Asian ambiguity


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THE year 2012 began with the U.S. President Barack Obama formally announcing the so called ‘pivot to Asia’ that involves rebalancing America’s global military weight to Asia. The new U.S. strategy calls for deploying 60 per cent of all American naval forces in Asia in the coming years, strengthening its traditional alliances in the region and building new partnerships, including with India. This has opened simultaneously for India a rare opportunity to shape the Asian balance of power and the real danger of being drawn into the conflict between the world’s foremost power and the rising challenger.

The pivot is not just a new military strategy. It is complemented by a more active American economic and political engagement with Asia, which saw Obama embark on the first American presidential visits ever to Myanmar and Cambodia at the end of 2012. Although the Obama Administration insists that the pivot is directed at China, Beijing is quite convinced that the new policy is about preventing it from reclaiming its rightful place as the pre-eminent power of Asia.

China, which had its own leadership transition in 2012, is unfazed by the American pivot and signalled its determination to strengthen its own military capability and readiness to face up to potential confrontations with the United States. Meanwhile, the United States has declared that India is a ‘linchpin’ of the new Asian strategy and is urging Delhi to take a larger leadership role in Asia. Many countries of East and Southeast Asia want India to do more in providing security to the smaller states and promoting a stable regional balance of power. Beijing, meanwhile, would like to prevent Delhi from aligning with Washington and is teasing India with the promise of a stronger partnership. Is Delhi ready to join Asia’s new power play?

Delhi, like the rest of Asian capitals, has been surprised by the rapid turn of events and is utterly unprepared to cope with the strategic consequences of China’s rise and America’s response to it. Willing to believe that the rise of China will most likely be peaceful or betting that small nations can socialize a rising giant, Asia is scrambling to cope with the evolving dynamic between Beijing and Washington. The United States, which encouraged its Asian allies to accept Communist China as a legitimate power after the rapprochement with Beijing in the early 1970s and facilitated its economic growth, now confronts a compelling rival on Asia’s horizon. India, which was deeply uncomfortable with the western and Asian embrace of China in the past, now finds itself in a very different quandary as relations between China and America begin to deteriorate.


One reason for the sense of strategic surprise in Asia and America at China’s rise has been the severe and prolonged nature of the global financial crisis. The economic slowdown in the West since 2008 and continued high growth rates in China have accelerated what would have been a slower but inevitable shift in the Asian balance of power in China’s favour. While some current linear projections – of China overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by the end of this decade – might not necessarily turn out right, the nature and direction of the Asian power shift is undeniable. So long as China hangs together as a purposeful state, its aggregate military weight and strategic impact on Asia will dramatically rise in the coming years despite its low per capita income and what that number implies about the unstable nature of its domestic politics.

A second reason, arguably, is the nature of international, essentially American, scholarship on China. Like those who devoted their lives to the study of the Soviet Union could not predict its fate in the 1980s, the army of China experts in the United States could not anticipate the kind of foreign policy that Beijing has recently adopted towards its neighbours in Asia. If India is near China-blind, thanks to the absence of a critical mass of national expertise on China, the American view of China seems cluttered by a surfeit of it. If the instinctive basis of India’s engagement with China could turn out to be dangerous, American scholarship too has suffered from biases of its own. If America’s Russia scholarship always exaggerated the threat from Moscow, both in the Soviet phase and after it, Chinese studies in the U.S. have tended to ‘explain’ away controversial actions of Beijing and downplay the strategic challenges from the PRC. Cleaning the lens through which we view China is as important as marrying technical expertise with a sense of political judgment on Beijing’s future course.

More broadly, barring for a short period in the early weeks of the George W. Bush Administration, the prospect of a potential peer competitor threatening America’s global and regional primacy has not animated U.S. policy making or its vast foreign and defence policy communities. Two decades ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the national security strategy of the George H.W. Bush administration declared that the main objective of the United States was to prevent the emergence of a rival power or a coalition of powers dominating the Eurasian landmass. This did not need any American follow through given the belief in the durability of the ‘unipolar moment’ reinforced by the Russian weakness and Chinese unpreparedness to contest the U.S. hegemony.


As a result the U.S. had the luxury of focusing on non-proliferation, terrorism, failed states, nation-building, promoting democracy, and the so-called non-traditional security threats in the last two decades. The U.S. military, with a sense of unchallengeable superiority, began to devote energies to such tasks as counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and counter-proliferation. The objective here is not to run down the importance of these issues; it is to highlight the point that this agenda was premised on the absence of a threat from another great power. America’s exhaustion from the two wars in the Middle East and the rise of China, however, might be bringing the recent episode to a close.

At this juncture it is not unreasonable to assume that China is well on its way to becoming a great global power. Whether it is the material sources of power that are accruing to China or the unambiguous political will in Beijing to exercise power, it now has the upper hand in defining the evolution of the Asian balance of power. China does not have to match America’s military strengths to alter the Asian balance of power. Beijing knows that with sufficient capabilities and an asymmetric strategy it can significantly limit Washington’s ability to dominate its land and maritime peripheries. China’s rise is likely to strain the nature of great power relations in Asia, stress the existing security arrangements, compel a modernization of military forces and doctrines, and undermine the current regional institutions. The following section outlines a few broad scenarios that help frame the debate on the nature of China’s rise and its regional implications. The final section looks specifically at India’s new policy challenges in dealing with a rising China and collaborating with the United States in structuring a stable Asian balance of power.


As we look ahead it is possible to imagine at least eight possible ways in which the rise of China could affect Asian regional security politics. The first is the prospect of a Sino-centric Asian Order. Many scholars including some in the United States have argued that there is something natural about Asia being reorganized around Chinese primacy. After a couple of bad centuries, we are told, China is reclaiming its place at the heart of Asia. China’s new role as Asia’s largest economy and the engine of its economic growth would provide the foundation for this Sino-centric order in Asia. While the economic logic seems convincing, it is not clear if many of the large countries of Asia, like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan are politically prepared to accept such an order.

A second possibility is the reinforcement of American primacy, which has been the source of order and stability in the region for decades. Even if the United States gets its economy up and running, and successfully sustains the pivot strategy, there is no certainty that the old order in Asia can be restored. For the scale and scope of China’s power is such that America must either prevail over China in a costly confrontation or share power with Beijing. That brings us to a series of other possible outcomes.


The third, fourth and fifth possibilities are about different forms of accommodation between the United States and China. Before announcing the pivot, the Obama Administration signalled its willingness to accommodate a rising China if it was willing to play by the (American) rules. While many in Asia characterized it as the G-2, the fact remains that Beijing had no time for it and rejected it out of hand. Many leading lights in the U.S. strategic community like Henry Kissinger have warned that a confrontation with China will be disastrous for America and insisted that there is no alternative to their ‘cooperation and coevolution’. The Chinese leaders have called for an entirely new type of a relationship with the U.S. that is different from the past pattern of conflict between rising and declining powers, and have set their own terms for accommodation with America. The problem, then, is about the price the U.S. is willing to pay for Chinese willingness to join the condominium, not the principle.


Besides condominium there are other forms of accommodation between China and the United States. The fourth scenario on our list is the prospect of an arrangement for separate spheres of influence. Much like Spain and Portugal agreed not to compete with each other, it is possible to imagine America and China demarcating their primary areas of interest and agreeing on the principle of no-contest in agreed spheres of influence. Another variant of this is the prospect for ‘offshore balancing’ by America. Similar to the British policy towards continental Europe, America could step back from its current role as a hands-on manager of the regional order, promote an ‘in situ’ balance of power in Asia and intervene only to restore when the shift in the balance threatens its interest. Many American scholars dismiss the possibility of the U.S. ever adopting such a role by citing the nature of Washington’s strategic culture.

The sixth option is to consider the regional balance of power from a perspective that goes beyond the bilateral dynamic between America and China. After all Asia has many large nations with a massive power potential of their own and middle powers that shape the regional balance. The idea of a concert of Asian powers, including America, China and India, has gained some traction in recent years but faces many practical obstacles. Beijing has been resistant to the idea of a trilateral dialogue with Washington and Delhi, and there will be enough actors opposing any grouping of major powers that presents itself as a self-selected Asian concert. In the post-Napoleonic era, the Concert of Europe was formed by a set of roughly equal sized powers, all of them located within the old continent. In Asia, the varying size of the powers, the problems of limiting geographic scope and the pitfalls of excluding key players could complicate the challenge of constructing a concert of powers.


The seventh possibility is the hope that the current efforts to strengthen regional institutions will help mitigate the great power tensions in Asia and set the stage for cooperative regional security. The reality, however, is that the very construction of these regional institutions, defining their membership and mandate, has been subject to contradictions among the great powers. The evolution of the East Asia Summit initiated by the Association of South East Asian Nations underlines this. While ASEAN sought to draw in most other powers, including India, Russia and America, into the EAS fold to broaden the playing field as it were, Beijing’s emphasis has been on limiting the scope of the EAS and refusing to let it interfere with China’s pursuit of its own national interests.

If the EAS has not done too well, neither the older institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum nor the newer ones like ADMM Plus (which brings together the defence ministers of the EAS member states) are likely to be effective in coping with the historic redistribution of power in Asia. Their current focus on soft-security issues in EAS only underlines its inability to address the larger challenges coming to the fore. Meanwhile, the attempts at regional economic integration are being pulled in different directions with the ASEAN calling for a new Asia-wide free trade agreement that excludes the U.S. and the American initiative on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Finally, the most likely scenario for the near future is the slow but certain build-up of the Sino-U.S. rivalry in the region. China’s assertiveness in the region and the U.S. response to it, in the form of military and diplomatic rebalancing of Asia, might have set the stage for a prolonged geopolitical contest in the region. It is a rivalry few in the region have wished for or can manage. The tension between the Chinese search for greater freedom of action in its Asian periphery on the one hand, and the American forward military presence and its long standing alliances on the other, is real and will have great bearing on Asia’s international relations for a long time to come. The search for a regional balance of power will be different from the Cold War experience in Asia. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was isolated from the economic flows in the region, China is at the very heart of Asia’s economic dynamism and is by no means amenable to a strategy of containment by other powers.


On the other hand, China’s power naturally complicates the credibility of traditional U.S. alliances in the region. The current debate in Australia, one of the most loyal allies of the United States and a major economic partner for China, on how to cope with the Sino-American rivalry, is indicative of a larger trend. Japan and the Philippines fear that the United States might not stand by them when their territorial conflicts with Beijing turn into shooting matches. Meanwhile, the ASEAN, which has seen itself as the driver of regional institution building, is finding it hard to stay united amidst the assertion of Chinese power.

The new divisions across the region are further reinforced by the deepening schisms within the political elites of all major countries on how best to deal with China’s assertiveness and how far their nations must go in working with Washington to constrain Beijing. These new dilemmas are clearly visible in India’s own policy response to the changing balance between China and the United States. In Delhi they acquire greater complexity given India’s own aspirations to play a larger role in Asia and its celebrated tradition of non-alignment.

On the face of it, the U.S. pivot to Asia is an extraordinary strategic opportunity for India. The unfolding Sino-U.S. rivalry has the potential to end India’s prolonged isolation from Asian geopolitics and offer Delhi a chance to insert itself as an indispensable element of the new regional balance of power. That India has long sought to balance Chinese power is not in doubt. India’s expanding security cooperation with the United States and its allies in the last few years and the attempts to raise its independent profile in East Asia points a clear Indian intent to balance China. Yet, at the very moment the U.S. moved to an explicit balancing strategy and is urging India to take the leadership role in Asia, India is sending ambiguous signals. Delhi has neither endorsed the U.S. pivot to Asia nor criticized it.


Nothing illustrates India’s urgent need to balance China and the problem of doing so better than the expanding strategic gap between Beijing and Delhi in favour of the former. At the turn of the 1990s, China and India were roughly equal in terms of aggregate economic size and per capita income. By the turn of the second decade of the 21st century, China looms nearly four times larger. China, which has become the second largest economy of the world, also spends nearly four times as much on defence as India. This huge gap is unlikely to close any time soon.

Even if India produces its best historic economic performance of nine per cent annual growth rate – seen for a few years in the mid-2000s – it will stay behind China for a long time. Since 2010, the Indian economy has visibly slowed down to less than six per cent, and Delhi is perilously close to a macro-economic crisis amidst the widening trade deficit, falling rupee, high inflation and mounting burden of wide-ranging subsidies. The conditions for reducing the gap in the foreseeable future – a significant slowdown of the Chinese economy and a rapid acceleration of India’s growth rates – may not present themselves easily.


India, of course, has the option of accepting the widening power differential with China, eschew rivalry, and tailor its policies towards greater accommodation. Such a course would seem largely unthinkable for Delhi. Given its own self-image as a natural leader of the developing world, India will find it hard to settle for a secondary place in a Sino-centric Asian order and an international system where Beijing plays a larger role in setting and enforcing rules. This could, however, change if Beijing could tempt India with a reasonable settlement on the boundary, addresses its concerns on Pakistan and cuts some space for the pursuit of India’s own ambitions in Asia.

If China is not ready to accommodate India’s geopolitical interests, Delhi has no alternative but to balance China. Balancing a larger power is usually done in two ways – internal and external. Internal balancing involves the full mobilization of domestic economic and military resources to maintain a measure of strategic parity if not strict equality. The other is an external balancing of strong power through alliances and partnerships.

On all the three counts, India faces a challenging period ahead. Internal balancing requires an extraordinary political will and executive capability in rapidly building comprehensive national power. India’s chaotic internal politics naturally leads to much skepticism about purposeful actions to balance China. Despite the visible expansion of Chinese strategic capabilities across the spectrum – from transforming the border infrastructure to cyber warfare capabilities – Delhi’s response has been slow, inconsistent and unimpressive. Whether it is the construction of border roads or modernizing the Indian military, whether it is upgrading its human resource potential or investing in advanced research and development, Delhi has not shown the purposefulness of Beijing.


On the question of external balancing, India has made some interesting moves in laying the foundations for strategic partnerships with the United States, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and others who are all alarmed to different degrees by the rise of China. Yet, India finds itself hesitant to follow through the logic of external balancing. Self-doubt, fears about losing strategic autonomy, apprehensions about being a junior partner and domestic political concerns have significantly limited Delhi’s capacity for strategic cooperation with powers bigger than itself. If the ghosts of non-alignment impede India’s partnerships with the U.S., an ingrained reluctance to offend Beijing has constrained what India can offer smaller powers like Vietnam seeking to balance China.

It is not that India is alien to balance of power strategies. After all, its de facto alliance with the Soviet Union during the 1970s was a classic balancing act against Sino-U.S. rapprochement. Delhi’s problem today is not as much about the high principles of strategic autonomy or non-alignment but of finding the political skill to navigate the current regional turbulence, strengthen the partnership with the United States without courting a premature conflict with China and elevate India’s standing in the Asian balance of power. China’s emergence as a major economic partner for India adds a further wrinkle to the strategy of external balancing. India is the last one in Asia to recognize the benefits of deepening economic integration with China. As in Asia and the United States, finding harmony between economic and strategic imperatives in dealing with China is already a big headache for Indian policy makers.

Finally, the idea of an asymmetric strategy towards China has barely begun to figure in India’s strategic discourse. Delhi has seen the Pakistan Army implement the asymmetric strategy of cross-border terrorism during the last two and a half decades as a way to neutralize India’s superior capabilities. India is witnessing China’s similar approach to weaken the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. Despite the demonstrated virtues of an asymmetric strategy in dealing with a stronger power, India will take a long time in developing one, if at all.


In the end, it is not about choosing between the three options. India will have to move forward on all the three fronts even as it deepens economic partnership with China and explores a bilateral geopolitical settlement with Beijing. Internal balancing, alliances, and asymmetric approaches are as old as statecraft. They are not inventions of modern political thought from Europe or America, but date back to the era of Kautilya’s Arthashastra. China’s rise and America’s response to it have laid before India its greatest geopolitical opportunity and the biggest diplomatic challenge since independence. It is up to the Indian policy community to rescue the debate in Delhi from empty slogans, return to the first principles of statecraft and reconnect it to inherited strategic traditions.


* C. Raja Mohan is the author of Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2013.