Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

A strategy for India in a world that is adrift


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Distortions in the Global Order

This article discusses new situations prompted by the tectonic shifts in India’s internal and external environment to take another look at India’s path to power in a world between orders.

New global order: No Order

  • Multipolarity: The world is today adrift. We are neither in a bipolar Cold War nor in a multipolar world, though perhaps tending towards a world of several power centres.
  • Lack of cohesion: The lack of a coherent international response to the COVID-19 pandemic is proof of an absence of international order and of the ineffectiveness of multilateral institutions.
  • Climate ignorance: So is the ineffective international response to climate change and other transnational threats.

What are the major shifts in global order?

  • Secular stagnation
  • Retreat from globalisation
  • Regionalisation of trade
  • Shifting balance of power
  • Rise of China and others
  • Structural China-United States strategic rivalry

All above factors have shifted the geopolitical and economic centres of gravity from the Atlantic to Asia.

Major Concerns

  • Chauvinism: Inequality between and within states has bred a narrow nationalism and parochialism.
  • Existential threats: We are entering a new polarised information age, and face ecological crises of the Anthropocene, making climate change an existential threat.

Asia as the nucleus: With focus on China

  • Shift of focus by the US: Over the next decade we expect Asia to remain the cockpit of geopolitical rivalries, and that the US remains the most formidable power, though its relative power is declining.
  • China at the centre: China sees a window of opportunity but acts in a hurry, suggesting that she believes that window may close or is already closing due to push back from the West and others.

China’s expansionism

  • China’s crowded geography constrains her both on land and at sea.
  • Hence it expects her profile and power to continue expanding, particularly in our periphery.
  • The result is likely continued friction, some cooperation, and quasi-adversarial relations between India and China, which others will take advantage of.
  • Overall, we do not expect conventional conflict between the great powers in Asia, though other forms and levels of violence and contention in the international system will rise, with Taiwan a special case.

Opportunities in disguise for India

  • The uncertainty and changing geopolitical environment clearly pose considerable challenges to Indian policy.
  • However, it also throws up certain opportunities, enhancing our strategic options and diplomatic space, if we adjust policies internally and externally, particularly in the subcontinent.

How can India reap the benefits?

  • Enhancing ties with the US: Increasing security congruence with the US could enable growing cooperation in fields significant for India’s transformation: energy, trade, investment, education and health.
  • Climate cooperation: Other areas in which India and the U.S. could increase cooperation are: climate change and energy, tech solutions for renewable energy, and on digital cooperation.
  • Neighbourhood first: Several middle powers like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia in the neighbourhood are now India’s natural partners.
  • Digital space: This time of transition between orders is also when new standards and norms are being developed, particularly in the digital space. India can and must be present at the creation.
  • Maritime cooperation: At sea, the balance is today more favourable to us than before, possibly more so than on the continent. India must bat for the creation of a Maritime Commission in IOR.

Bottlenecks in India’s neighbourhood policy

  • Over securitisation of policy: towards our neighbours has driven trade underground, criminalised our borders.
  • Conducive environment for entry of China: This has enabled the large-scale entry of Chinese goods destroying local industry in the northeast.
  • Lack of self-strengthening: While lessening dependence on China, and seeking external balancing, our primary effort has to concentrate on self-strengthening.
  • Lack of socio-political enterprise: If there is one country which in terms of its size, population, economic potential, scientific and technological capabilities can match or even surpass China, it is India.

Way forward for India

(A) Bringing multipolarity in Asia.

  • The way forward should be based on the core strategic principles in Non-Alignment 2.0 which are still relevant: independent judgement, developing our capacities, and creating an equitable and enabling international order for India’s transformation.
  • Today’s situation makes India’s strategic autonomy all the more essential.

(B) Making an issue-based coalition

  • India must adjust to changing circumstances. We have no choice but to engage with this uncertain and more volatile world.
  • One productive way to do so would be through issue-based coalitions including different actors, depending on who has an interest and capability.

(C) Reviving SAARC

  • India must craft and reinvigorate regional institutions and processes in the neighbourhood, reviving the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for instance.
  • India could be the primary source of both prosperity and security in the neighbourhood — the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean Region.


  • Economic policy must match political and strategic engagement.
  • Globalisation has been central to India’s growth.
  • A more active regional and international role for India is incompatible with a position on the margins of the global economy.
  • Self-reliance in today’s world and technologies can only be realised as part of the global economy.
  • We should not imitate China’s claims to being a civilisational state and its adoption of victimhood.
  • Instead, we should affirm our own strength and historic national identity.


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