India’s China policy: getting the framework right


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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.


Thus, to supplement geopolitical interaction between two states, it is also necessary to identify the self-images and roles that shape state preferences and behaviour. That states can have multiple role conceptions for the international system and its subsystems is widely accepted.3 A state can conceive of multiple roles and these can vary according to issues or regions where the state’s interests are at stake. With this brief conceptual backdrop let us explore the India-China dyad in three specific realms.


With the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) entry into Tibet in 1950, China became India’s largest neighbour in the subcontinent. Despite an ambitious normative quest by Nehru to subsume Indian and Chinese nationalism into a post-colonial vision of Asian solidarity, the turn of the 1950s saw the reversion to traditional self-help modes of statecraft.

Since the 1960s, China gradually assumed the role of an offshore balancer via its security relationship with Pakistan. By the 1980s, with the tacit support of Washington, China godfathered Pakistan’s nuclear weapon ambitions. By the 1990s, China had transferred the delivery systems to ensure a credible Pakistani deterrence. China-Pakistan relations, in fact, underscore the modus operandi of Beijing’s South Asia policy. Eschewing a formal alliance that might entrap China into an India-Pakistan conflict, China’s strategic culture placed a premium on transferring the primary burden of security onto Pakistan itself by buttressing the sinews of the latter’s strategic capabilities.

At a more general level, China’s South Asia policy has been subtle but abundantly clear. It can be summarized as follows: While China’s principal objective in South Asia is avoiding a military confrontation with India, it has sought to enhance the autonomy of the smaller South Asian states. Hence, while China does not accept an Indian sphere of influence, it is neither willing to get entrapped in a conflict with India over another South Asian state.4 Since China’s troubled minority provinces (Tibet, Xinjiang) share their borders with multiple South Asian states, for Beijing, peace on its southern periphery is an important regional objective. And given this geographical contiguity, China is also interested in stability on the subcontinent.

Such an interpretation of China’s role suggests a traditionally negative posture aimed at counteracting any adverse spillover onto its periphery or hold over Tibet and Xinjiang. More recently, there are indications that China is modifying its role in South Asia. This can be traced to the development of China’s non-Han minority regions, and a more active interest in regional stability after the withdrawal of western troops from Afghanistan.5 The Xi Jinping regime has signalled a renewed focus on China’s entire periphery, and this is likely to imply a deepening political-economic and even military engagement between China and India’s neighbours.


How does such an overtly detached but, in substance, deeply interested China in South Asian affairs, interact with India’s role conception? India’s self-image as a regional power underwent significant change in the post-Cold War period. During the bipolar era, India had crafted a role in South Asia that was aimed at countering external involvement and interference on its periphery. By the mid-1990s, India had redefined its role and interests in the subcontinent. By choosing to engage with the great powers on bilateral terms and not on the nature of their relationships with other South Asian states, India ensured that China’s (and indeed US’s) preferred mode of a de-hyphenated South Asia policy remained in play and was no longer seriously contested.

While a critical analysis of India’s regional policy is outside the scope of this article, it is becoming apparent to the strategic community that India’s unidimensional role in South Asia centred on a neo-liberal economic vision has not yielded the strategic benefits envisaged in the early 2000s. As India modifies its role in South Asia to reassume more of its historical responsibilities to shaping a friendly periphery, it is likely to involve a role friction and perhaps even role conflict with China.


In the Asia-Pacific, it is China’s role that is undergoing a dramatic evolution, and this is producing a region-wide response. Since the 1990s, China’s role conception for Asia had been driven by economic interdependence. China defined itself through its domestic modernization effort, and its unique position as a global manufacturing hub that connected Asia with the West. China also defended a narrow conception of national interest where its concern for regional geopolitics was relatively ambivalent and muted. Since 2009, there is a growing consensus among leading Sinologists that the Deng Xiaoping worldview of a low profile and passive China absorbed in capital accumulation has been displaced by the self-image of a great power. China’s new role conception is manifesting in an assertive discourse and behaviour across China’s periphery but especially in the Pacific.

India’s role in the Asia-Pacific is also in flux, evolving from a detached engagement of the region toward a growing interest in the balance of power. In recent years, there have also been external attempts at diffusing a more ambitious security role for India in East Asia.6 Indian policymakers, however, have been more cautious in their role conceptions and Look East policy, lest Delhi is entrapped in intramural disputes involving China and the West or its neighbours. Nevertheless, India is gradually developing an Asia-Pacific role that cultivates multidimensional ties with all major stakeholders on China’s periphery – Japan, Vietnam, Russia, South Korea, Indonesia, and the US.

What this suggests is that India perceives the burden of managing China’s rise as a collective endeavour, and India’s role conception is evolving to play an independent part in this process while avoiding the binaries of integrating into an anti-Chinese security bloc or opting out of a regional role altogether.


China’s changing perceptions of the post-1991 global order are perhaps the key driver in its new role conception as a great power. Since 2009, and especially since the transfer of power to the Xi Jinping regime, the strategic discourse in China is resolving around one central message: China no longer perceives the international system as unipolar, or that its economic development demands a unilateral accommodative posture to the West. The Xi Jinping regime is attempting to project a new image of great power interdependence, which has become Beijing’s philosophy since Xi’s February 2012 speech calling for ‘a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century.’7

While India also perceives the end of unipolarity, Indian elites are yet to explicitly articulate a role for a multipolar world. Despite such a role flux at a global level, Indian policy-makers have generally welcomed a new balance of power, in part because it increases the freedom of action for Indian foreign policy and potentially enhances India’s bargaining power to reform the post-1945 order.

In the 2013 Munich Security Conference, the NSA remarked: ‘I do not hear emerging powers calling for a revolution. Presumably that would come if the emerging powers felt that the international system no longer responded to their needs of domestic development and transformation. That could actually vary from sector to sector.’8 Elsewhere, the NSA has argued that ‘the trend towards multipolarity and the financial crisis have actually increased the opportunity and need for India and China to work together on global issues.’9

At a global level, both India and China have been straddling between system-maintaining and system-reforming roles (or between status quo and revisionist roles), and as the benefits of the Bretton-Woods order diminish, both Delhi and Beijing will adopt the latter role conception. On Westphalian norms too, China more overtly and India more subtly subscribe to a similar conception of sovereignty and territoriality. Recent crises in West Asia underscore a common perception even if both Delhi and Beijing are unable to coordinate policy responses.

In sum, Indian and Chinese role conceptions at a global level appear to be compatible and on some issue areas, even complementary.


The preceding analysis suggests that India-China relations defy a simple image for a policymaker. The India-China dyad can be competitive, cooperative, or both depending on the geopolitical dimension, and, the roles that Indian and Chinese elites project for their state in these three realms.

In South Asia, a progressively stronger India will rub against China, especially in the ‘overlapping peripheries’. For most of the post-Cold War period, India had retreated to its territorial shell and more or less accommodated external power activity on its periphery. If India does redefine its role in South Asia to once again become a system-shaper and sub-regional security provider it is possible that India and China will discover more issues of contention.

But even in South Asia there are issues where India and China can find common ground. Terrorism, stabilizing failed states (i.e. Afghanistan), ecological security, and economic interdependence are areas where Indian and Chinese interests converge. For example, despite an asymmetric trade relationship, India is discovering opportunities to leverage Chinese investment capital to finance Indian development.10


The maritime commons connecting the Indian and Pacific sea lines of communication (SLOCs) is one issue where cooperative and competitive images are contending for policy space. The geopolitical reality is that China’s SLOCs traverse near Indian naval deployments with more than 85 per cent of Chinese oil imports flowing through Indian Ocean sea lanes. Similarly, more than 50 per cent of India’s trade now goes through the Malacca and Singapore Straits. What is also arguably clear is Indian and Chinese maritime power is likely to maintain a relative strength on their respective peripheries for the foreseeable future. This assertion is derived from the notion of ‘loss of strength gradient’,11 which suggests capabilities are eroded as a state projects power outside its core region.12 Perhaps, such parity could underpin the logic of a collective approach to managing the maritime commons so vital for India and China’s economic growth.


Can India leverage its relationship with the US to constrain China’s expansion in South Asia? This is a curiously understudied question and Indian responses are not always informed by history. Ironically, both US and China have historically converged on their South Asian policies, and have pursued similar roles as offshore balancers in the subcontinent. US’s historic acquiescence of China’s nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan suggests a tacit convergence between Washington and Beijing on Pakistan.13 More recently, since the Obama-Hu joint statement in November 2009 that referred to South Asia as a theatre of common interest, both sides have been holding an annual ‘US-China sub-dialogue on South Asia’.14 Despite competition elsewhere, there is an apparent unwillingness of the US and China to pursue a zero-sum rivalry in South Asia.15

What the US can do is offer capacity enhancing options for India’s military and economic modernization. But the defence of core interests, promoting subcontinental stability, and the onus of strengthening of friendly regimes will primarily fall upon India. Plainly put, as all aspiring regional powers, India must plough a lonely furrow in South Asia.

In the Asia-Pacific, China is the geopolitical heart of the region in that it finds its periphery overlapping with every sub-region. This is not true for Asia’s other major powers. However, this also implies that China has to contend with at least one capable power in every subregion. Much will depend on China constructing a sustainable role in the Asia-Pacific that does not provoke a counter-balancing coalition. The Chinese leadership is aware of its predicament, and the geopolitics of the region will not enable Beijing to restore a ‘Middle Kingdom’ style hegemony in the foreseeable future.


India for its part has consistently advocated a vision of an Asian order that accommodates a rising China embedded within a set of shared norms that acknowledge the diversity and sovereignty of Asian states. However, Indian policymakers cannot simply rely on the wisdom or pragmatism of China’s leadership to advance such a regional order. But neither does the Indian elite endorse an expansion of a bloc-based Asian order with alliances and counter-alliances. As the NSA recently remarked, ‘It would be lazy to choose alliance, shirking responsibility for our own fate.’16

Therefore, it is essential for India to define a positive role for itself in the Asia-Pacific that is not simply a reaction to China’s rise. As India’s economic and military capabilities accumulate, its position to buttress the autonomy and security of several states on China’s periphery will increase. Independent but sustained engagement and partnerships with the major and middle powers of Asia will be India’s contribution to the regional balance of power.

Globally, the Indian strategic elite perceives the eclipse of the ‘unipolar moment’ and the emergence of a multipolar world. It is apparent that India’s relationship with China in a changing international environment cannot be pursued in isolation and detached from world politics. As the NSA observes, ‘the scope and nature of the changes that we see suggest that the answer is more multidirectional engagement with the world not less.’17

As deeply integrated states in the international political economy, India and China seek to both reform and preserve elements of the global economy, which is still stubbornly configured to privilege the advanced OECD economies. Since both India and China have conceived roles of system-reforming states, it is only natural for them to pursue greater coordination and cooperation on various political economy and governance issues to advance the bargaining power for emerging economies. Of course, the BRICS network is an epitome of such cooperation though it continues to punch below its weight.

To conclude, India-China relations are best understood in a competition-cooperation framework, and the scales of this duality vary depending on Indian and Chinese role conceptions in three geopolitical realms. But it will require perceptive and grounded policymakers to ensure that India’s China policy is formulated and implemented in such a conceptual backdrop.


* Zorawar Daulet Singh is co-author of India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond. Viva, Delhi, 2009.


1. Shivshankar Menon, ‘India in the 21st Century World’, Second Annual Lecture of the Indian Association of Foreign Correspondents, India International Centre, 14 February 2014.

2. Robert S. Ross, ‘The Geography of the Peace: East Asia in the Twenty-first Century’, International Security 23(4), Spring 1999, pp. 81-118.

3. K.J. Holsti, ‘National Role Conceptions in the Study of Foreign Policy’, International Studies Quarterly 14(3), September 1970, pp. 245-246.

4. John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001, pp. 369-70.

5. Mirwais Harooni, ‘Top Official Says Chinese Security Depends on Afghan Stability’,, 22 February 2014.

6. President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of the Indian Parliament, New Delhi, 8 November 2010; P.S. Suryanarayana, ‘US Move to Mentor India in New East Asia’, The Hindu, 22 February 2011.

7. Li Xiaokun and Zhang Yunbi, ‘Core Interests at Heart of New US Ties’, China Daily, 20 March 2013.

8. K.P. Nayar, ‘Rising Powers: The National Security Adviser’s Speech in Munich’, The Telegraph, 13 February 2013.

9. Keynote Address by Shivshankar Menon, National Security Adviser at a seminar on ‘India and China: Public Diplomacy, Building Understanding’ at ICWA, Sapru House, on 1 April 2010. Accessed at

10. Dilasha Seth and Yogima Seth Sharma, ‘China Offers to Finance 30 Per Cent of India’s Infrastructure Development Plan’, The Economic Times, 20 February 2014.

11. Kenneth E. Boulding, Conflict and Defense: A General Theory. Harper and Row, New York, 1963, pp. 230-232.

12. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Indian strategists monitor China’s attempts to forge long-term basing rights in the Indian Ocean littoral, as that would enable the PLA Navy to sustain itself for longer periods outside East Asia.

13. Zorawar Daulet Singh, ‘Benefactors of Pakistan’, The Tribune, 30 January 2009. Also see, John Garver, ‘The China-India-US Triangle: Strategic Relations in the Post-Cold War Era’, NBR Analysis 13(5), October 2002.

14. Ananth Krishnan, ‘In Talks, China to Press for U.S. Support on Pakistan Nuclear Deal’, The Hindu, 3 May 2010.

15. Bruce Riedel, ‘US-China Relations: Seeking Strategic Convergence in Pakistan’, Policy Paper 18, The Brookings Institution, 12 January 2010; Indrani Bagchi, ‘US Refuses to Talk China With India’, Times of India, 17 February 2014.

16. Shivshankar Menon, ‘India in the 21st Century World’, 14 February 2014, op. cit.

17. Ibid.