Can India Balance Between China and America?

Washington wants stronger ties, but New Delhi must remain a swing state.

Some in the Indian strategic community believe that recent moves to enhance defense cooperation with the United States could make India, among others, an element in American strategy to limit Beijing’s rising power to the inevitable detriment of India’s relations with its powerful neighbor. Others consider that the “benefits outweigh [the] costs”—especially for India to meet the threat of Chinese maritime ascendancy in the Indian Ocean—and that “Delhi must not let commonsense with Beijing turn into a policy of self-denial with Washington.” Can India find a space in which it can positively engage with both a rising China, and a United States pursuing a “pivot” to Asia to remain a global power?

While the answer is yes, India will also find itself in a position, as it forges strategic ties with the United States, where it must also keep its relations with China from worsening. Contrary to the comparison that China has solid relations with Pakistan despite its close military relationship with the United States, the growing Indo-U.S. strategic partnership must account for China—particularly since both share a geopolitical objective to prevent any Chinese dominance in the Asia-Pacific, and as strong like-minded states in Asia like Japan could also attempt to contain its rise.

From its beginning, the Modi government has sought to engage deftly all the principal actors in the Asian balance and thereby build India up as more than a “balancing power”—making it instead “a leading power.” That means directing India’s foreign policy not only to preserve, but also to increase, India’s relative power. In world politics, while states—mainly great powers—join together to stop “overpowerful” states in order to maintain their relative power, they also aspire to increase their own national power. Becoming a major global power is a deeply rooted traditional objective of Indian foreign policy, and not just as part of a contest with China. With an economy that is the world’s third largest in terms of purchasing power parity, a population of more than 1.2 billion, a continent-sized landmass, the world’s third-largest armed forces and a nuclear capability, India is already a major power in Asia.

India has been building partnerships with the United States, Japan and other middle powers in the Asia-Pacific to balance China as it grows in strength—a policy shaped by India’s own objective conditions, rather than American designs, considering India’s adjacency to China, their power asymmetry, unresolved territorial disputes that erupted into full-scale conflict in 1962, China’s growing strategic partnership with a nuclear-capable Pakistan (which remains a “national obsession” for India) and Chinese maritime ascendancy in the Indian Ocean. “Adjacency” between two states is, according to the ancient Indian principle, a “fruitful source of rivalry and differences.” This principle appears relevant in the case of India-China relations. Both are simultaneously rising with divergent aspirations in the Asia-Pacific, increasing their mutual security dilemma. The proximity of China and Pakistan to India, and their strategic alignment, would require India to forge close ties with the United States and other outside powers to preserve balance. Are circumstances not more complex than, and different from, the Cold War, when India could pursue nonalignment and keep “all big powers at bay while getting close to this or that major country on a contingency basis”?

At the same time, India’s growing economic, political and military relations with actors in the Asia-Pacific are doing more than balancing against China—they are serving its great-power ambition. Therefore, India has many reasons to cooperate and coordinate with entities in the Indo-Pacific, including motives that are not directly related to China. Such partnerships now assist India to position it more seriously as a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific, having already facilitated its membership in the East Asian Summit. The United States has ended India’s “nuclear apartheid” in return for a strategic partnership. Fear of China was just one element.