Will India Play the “China” Hand?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 2

A convergence of events in 2007 has prompted some policymakers to suggest that a warming of relations between China and India is only a matter of time [1]. In December 2007, the first-ever joint military exercise euphoniously code-named “Hand-in-Hand 2007” was held in Kunming, in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The exercise involved approximately 200 soldiers in a counter-terrorism exercise that was hailed by Chinese media as a “landmark development” in Sino-Indian relations (China Daily, December 20, 2007). On top of that, in an apparent show of solidarity and leadership among the developing countries, India and China “hand-in-hand” jointly objected to a draft 2009 climate deal at the UN talks in Bali (The Hindu, December 18, 2007). Indian Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal said that China and India cooperated by leading the Group of 77 (G-77) and “took care of the concerns of the various shades within the developing world itself” (The Hindu, December 18, 2007). These events, culminating in Indian Prime Minister Singh’s first visit to China in five years, taken together, have led some to think that 2008 will be the start of “spring” for Sino-Indian relations. A deeper probe, however, into the history of Sino-U.S. relations provides insights for how India might manage its increasingly complex and strategic relations with China.

Although it has now become conventional “unquestioned” wisdom to regard President Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s as a geopolitical masterstroke, the reality was very different—there was almost zero prospect of the USSR and China once again acting in concert, at least the way they did while Joseph Stalin was still alive. Both the ideological and personality differences between the Chinese and Soviet leader would have played out to ensure that the tension between the two remained—and to the benefit of the United States. A case can be plausibly made that a more even-handed U.S. policy of playing Beijing and Moscow against one another through switching preferences between them would have yielded higher geopolitical returns for the United States. In other words, whenever a situation developed where the USSR could assist the global or regional goals of U.S. policy, a movement in Moscow’s direction away from Beijing may have ensured the action needed from the USSR to achieve U.S. objectives—instead of linking the United States to the PRC in a manner that became apparent at least since the 1980s.

With the benefit of hindsight, the U.S. strategy of using the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which gave rise to the Taliban that later provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda, created a blowback that over time became greater than the gains from tying up the Soviet armed forces in a primitive theatre. Washington’s use of the Beijing-Moscow rivalry to motivate the USSR toward a withdrawal of forces by using the bait of a tilt towards China in the Sino-Soviet matrix of tensions may have proved effective—in conjunction with the setting up of a neutral Afghanistan. While much has been made of the policy of detente, the reality is that policy toward the USSR was much more circumscribed in its range and possibilities than was the case with the PRC. From Nixon-Kissinger onward, U.S. policymakers lavished attention and benefits on the PRC out of all proportion to both the country’s then-geopolitical weight and the benefits secured. Even in such an intangible relationship, few would deny that the overwhelming advantage has gone to China.

Some argue that the U.S. policy of strategic alignment with the PRC helped significantly in dealing with the Vietnam War; however, the recorded course of that conflict does not encourage such a hypothesis. Beijing continued to supply North Vietnam with munitions and other requisites of war, and acted energetically only to defend its own interests, rather than those of the United States [2]. Moreover, had the United States not acted in the acquiescent manner that it did, and instead given backing to elements in Cambodia less oppressive than the Khmer Rouge, it is plausible to assume that greater geopolitical rewards may have been secured in place of the meager returns received from the policy of tiptoeing around the PRC and its surrogates. It was only after the United States and its allies’ retreat from Vietnam that Beijing changed from its policy of substantial assistance to North Vietnam in its conquest of the south. In contrast, both in the development of its economy as well as in the development of its technology, U.S. assistance to the PRC has been generous and critical for the development of the PRC as an emerging superpower.

The dominant tendency with which policymakers in the United States get fixated on a threat—and then search for allies to meet it—often leads to the lavishing of help on countries erroneously seen as beneficial. One salient example is the reliance by the United States on the Pakistani army for counter-jihad operations. Despite the steady worsening of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and the rise in capabilities of the Taliban, this policy continues without significant modification [3]. The relationship between Washington and Beijing is very similar to that of Washington and Islamabad, in that both cases show a one-sided bunching of benefits, to the PRC and Pakistan, respectively. In the case of the 1980s Afghan jihad, a present by-product is the creation of a trained and motivated cadre of zealots who have the will and, in some locations, the ability to inflict harm on major U.S. allies, and sometimes on the United States itself. In the case of the PRC, it has been enabled in large part by U.S. policy to emerge as a significant geopolitical competitor. Whether in South America, Africa or Asia, it is clear that the policies of the United States and the PRC have often collided and will continue to diverge more than converge in the long-term. For example, Beijing’s close links with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, General Than Shwe in Burma as well as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, apart from equally close links to a range of other countries that are opposed to U.S. interests, such as Sudan and Iran. Moreover, the provision of missile systems to more than a dozen states, and nuclear know-how to North Korea and Pakistan are a further demonstration of the one-sided nature of the U.S.-China strategic relationship.

The triumphal nationalism that followed the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the PRC generated the first symptoms that caused a rethink in the U.S. defense community of the policy of providing strategic ballast to China. The ascendance of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the ruling power of the government in Taiwan has raised the probability of military action by the PRC across the Taiwan Straits. This would almost certainly result in the involvement of U.S. forces, together with those of Japan. In such an eventuality, the role of India in this final scenario would be of value in locking up a significant chunk of the PRC’s military capability along its southern border. The possibility of India joining with the United States and Japan in hostilities against China would necessitate a distraction in the concentration of the PRC’s military on the Taiwan Straits. Moreover, India’s naval and other assets could take over several maritime commitments of the United States in the Indian Ocean, thus freeing a much larger force for the Chinese theatre. There is also the value of a close strategic link with another country of a billion-plus people, one that is, moreover, a democracy that hosts more than 220 million people who speak the English language.

Will India pull a “China” on Beijing and garner geopolitical benefits by offering itself as a counterweight against the PRC, in much the same way as China secured gains for itself by professing to serve as a counterweight to the Soviet Union? Should India become a U.S. ally, the strategic situation for China would worsen not simply in Asia but across other continents as well, for India too has a large footprint, reaching across most parts of Africa and Asia, as well as selected countries in South America. Such a pairing of the world’s two largest democracies seemed an unlikely prospect until the advent of President George W. Bush. Since that time seven years ago, the White House has made relations with New Delhi a priority, and there have been many who have seen the developing U.S.-India partnership as a hedge against the PRC. Certainly, an alliance between the United States and India would give the PRC pause in challenging the security interests of either the United States or India in a manner that could lead to a situation of conflict. A strategic nightmare for Beijing would be for India to become the southern prong of the pincer that has Japan as the northern prong. Small wonder that the new president of China, CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, has given a much higher priority toward better relations with India than his predecessor Jiang Zemin.

While Beijing tries to woo New Delhi away from an embrace with Washington, the Chinese leadership has tried to ensure that India does not gain significantly from any PRC concession. The reality is that the relationship between India and China is more competitive than complementary. While the PRC needs to overcome India’s current advantage in computer software and in other fields of the knowledge economy, India will have to become a manufacturing platform that can rival China if the country is to ensure a high level of blue-collar employment. In short, both will ultimately poach on the other’s turf as they are competing for the same markets and sources of technology. Thus, there is a limit to the distance China will go in seeking to convince New Delhi that it has morphed into a close friend. There will need to be much more atmospherics than substance, and the CCP leadership will be hoping that India takes such intangible “gains” or, as some Chinese experts call it, “sweet water.”

In the WTO as well as in talks on climate change, any linkage with China would prove self-defeating for India, and the fact that these exist at all is testimony to the influence of the Communist partners of the present United Progressive Alliance government, and to their devotion to the interests of the PRC. In the case of the WTO, while India is moving away from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, and thus has a different basket of needs from China, in the case of the talks on climate change, for example at Bali, the now-automatic linkage of India with China disguises the very different contributions of both towards affecting the climate. While the PRC is fast catching up with the United States as the polluter par excellence, India is far behind in the quantum of emissions that is spewed out of its territory. Should the government ever become independent of its Communist parties—as may take place after the next general election—there is little doubt that New Delhi would seek to distance itself from China in matters where the two no longer share a common interest. Today, subservience in official policy to a perceived ideal such as Third World solidarity will eventually give way to a more rational approach that places the country’s interests first, and then it may be evident that very few of these follow the same trajectory as those of the PRC.

Opposition from the Pakistani army, which would be the loser in case India and China came together, will most likely derail any early settlement of the border, even one as obvious as the alignment of Indian and Chinese maps across the Line of Actual Control between the two. As for the military cooperation, the reality is that China has much less to offer India than the United States.

According to sources within the Indian strategic establishment, some have begun discussing a possible transfer of the USS Kitty Hawk to India after the ship is decommissioned from the U.S. Navy in less than a year’s time. The induction of this ship would mean the opening of the substantial Indian market for military aircraft since the carrier would need a complement of U.S. aircraft to give it strike capability. Such an induction may open the door for U.S. aircraft such as the F-18 to be commissioned into the Indian Air Force, to replace the French and Russian aircraft that the IAF is using. In contrast to the one-off military exercises with China, those between the services within the Indian military and their U.S. counterparts are expanding in scope and number, with India to join NATO forces in the upcoming Red Flag exercises. Should the United States free itself of its earlier policy of relying on Pakistan to the exclusion of India, ground realities and mutual needs would together work to ensure a warming of military-to-military ties.

China’s dilemma is not only that it is not in its interest to offer India any substantive concessions. The reality is that it has few to give, except the negative ones of—for example—stopping assistance to Pakistan in its nuclear and missile programs, a situation that seems unlikely at best. In contrast, the United States comes with a much more attractive dowry. The odds are that in the contest for the strategic affections of India, it is the United States that will emerge as the preferred choice, rather than the PRC. In brief, even as economic ties deepen between India and China and thereby its strategic partnership, India may within the next decade “do a China” on the PRC, by linking up with Washington the way Beijing did with the world’s most powerful country in the 1970s.


1. See, “India, China relations getting better and better” by Sheela Bhatt on Professor Ma Jiali at


2. Between 1965 and 1968, Beijing provided extensive assistance to Hanoi in weapons, equipment as well as support troops. See, “China’s Attitude Toward Vietnam Peace Talks, 1965-1968” by Qiang Zhai, Auburn University, Montgomery.

3. This assertion is backed by facts such as (a) continued U.S. reluctance to enter Pakistani territory (even the “lawless” parts where “central writ does not run”) to pursue and eliminate jihadi nests and (b) the reliance on information from Pakistan sources for identifying just which “former Taliban” elements are now friendly.