So, what strategic options does that leave India with? A continuation of current low-key balancing is not a bad strategy, as hedging will allow India a certain kind of maneuverability in the short and medium term. However, India needs an alternative to the BRI, and this is where New Delhi may have a chance to build or rebuild its links with neighboring countries and beyond. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor initiated by Japan and India in May 2017 has yet to take off. This was supposed to be an answer to China’s BRI by focusing on quality infrastructure, digital connectivity, and improvements in health and agriculture as well as human skills development in countries in Africa and Asia. There is also a plan supported by Japan to develop infrastructure in India’s Northeast, connecting the region to Southeast Asia and China. The latter may also allow linking with select BRI components if China is willing to collaborate in a selective fashion. Not allowing all neighbors to fall into a dependent relationship with China is in India’s interest, though New Delhi still needs to keep the United States, Japan, ASEAN and Australia as potential allies in case Chinese nationalism and expansionism turn sour.
Strategic autonomy or a form of nonalignment may be another option, but this will not necessarily bring security to India in the current atmosphere, as China is unlikely to respect India’s autonomy. Instead, it may expect reverence and allegiance to its expansionist schemes. In order for China to meet its strategic goals, it needs to weaken India as a challenger in the Asia Pacific region or otherwise mellow India’s possible objections.
China’s tactical signals of friendship are unlikely to last. Today or tomorrow, China will likely turn against India, unless it is willing to bandwagon or remain neutral in China’s expansionist policies. This is because China’s goals under Xi Jinping are ambitious: it seeks to replace America as the next hegemonic power, which India will have a tough time reckoning with. As China pursues this, it will have to expand its naval footprint in the Indian Ocean as its economic investments under the BRI projects increase, which will leave India will leave feeling threatened.
Does India have a Strategic Vision?
The absence of a proper strategic vision in Washington today limits India’s strategic options. The question is: does India also lack a strategic vision? Are the Indian elite and society at large aware of the challenges India faces in the ongoing strategic competitions in the region? What can India do to avoid being subjugated once again by powerful actors, if not directly this time? Will the East India Company syndrome repeat itself? The Chinese BRI has many elements of East India Company syndrome, such as opening trading posts and then converting them to naval bases—a process that would leave the oceans under Chinese control. Chinese policies are turning smaller parties into overly dependent clients, and they will have to make substantial territorial and economic concessions to China, as happened to Sri Lanka in the leasing of the Hambantota port for ninety-nine years to China in December 2017. This is a bit akin to the British acquisition of Hong Kong and Macau from a weak Chinese empire in the 1800s. China has also brought in large number of its workers to the construction projects and encouraged its citizens buy the houses and real estate it has developed on these island states. It is increasingly involving itself in the domestic politics of the client states, tactics that East India Companies adopted as well.
Grand strategy may not offer all the answers, but strategies that leave a nation ready to face different contingencies is necessary to survive and prosper in a highly competitive international environment. Linking domestic performance and international performance is critical as well. This is where India lags. Despite an impressive economic growth rate, now above 7 percent, it faces all the challenges of a weak state, such as being unable to provide basic public goods, be it in infrastructure, water provisions, education, electricity or health services. Urban planning and development are archaic, while India’s hygienic standards look medieval at best. India’s political and bureaucratic class is yet to imbibe the need for becoming strong developmental agents to transform their country on an urgent basis. Many of them seem more interested in the acquisition of private wealth at the cost of the state and its agencies. Even if they are supporters of development, their slow pace in approving and implementing developmental schemes is in effect hurting India’s larger goal of emerging as a global power that can withstand challenges coming from China and others. This also affects India’s possible emergence as a lead power to emulate and follow. Indian electoral politics are generating many of the tendencies of a fragile democracy, with communal forces increasingly shaping the agenda. An intolerant political dispensation will hurt India’s soft power substantially and its claim for a global leadership role. There has to be something others can imitate or value in the governance and politico-economic structures of a global power. Effective grand strategy must thus begin at home.
The strategic challenges the twenty-first century brings into India are multifarious. New Delhi needs much more nimbleness in diplomacy and to develop different instruments for balancing and engagement. Soft balancing using international and regional institutions, limited alignments and economic instruments such as denial are crucial components—even when the country develops strong defensive and deterrent capabilities for hard balancing purposes. Diplomatic engagement is equally important, but summit level meetings and agreements need to be followed through and the decisions made must be carried out in a timely manner. Tactical moves by the leaders ought to be translated into coherent grand strategic policies. Avoiding an intense rivalry with China is necessary for India to grow economically, although its rise may be hampered by increasing international, regional and domestic pressures.
T. V. Paul is James McGill professor of international Relations, McGill University, Canada. A former president of International Studies Association (ISA), his edited volume: The China-India Rivalry in the Globalization Era was just released by the Georgetown University Press. His forthcoming book, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), discusses the different soft balancing and hard balancing strategies states have pursued, including by India.