Alliance or Autonomy? India's Options as China Looks for Asia Hegemony in Face of 'New Great Game' With US

Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series by Lt Gen (retd) DS Hooda on how India can navigate foreign policy challenges in light of China’s recent border moves and growing regional ambitions, as geopolitical headwinds point towards a cold war with the United States.

Any hope that big powers will set aside their rivalries in the time of a worldwide health crisis now stands belied. The US-China rivalry has intensified, and the economic and technology decoupling between the two countries appears to have become inevitable.

The latest salvo fired by the US is a restriction on foreign companies from selling semiconductors produced using American technology to China's biggest technology company Huawei. Global times reported that China could respond by putting US companies like Boeing, Apple, and Cisco on an "unreliable entity list", launching investigations and imposing restrictions.

There is a large element of geopolitical competition that underpins these moves. In the past few years, the rise of China was already proving to be a challenge to American power, and the coronavirus has accelerated this rivalry. A recent report by Council on Foreign Relations, The End of World Order and American Foreign Policy, points out that “The fault lines that emerged in the past decade have now become a chasm and have stripped away any illusion that major power convergence is possible.”

In this environment, how should India chart out a path that protects its national interests and keeps it on the track to economic prosperity? There is one view that India should retain its strategic autonomy and work in its national interest, without taking sides in any great power rivalry. This is something that India has successfully done in the past.

The birth of the Indian nation took place amid the American-Soviet cold war, and our leadership decided to take a neutral stance in the ongoing global power politics. Henry Kissinger described the Indian foreign policy strategy in his book, World Order:

“(India) was not interested in operating an international system. Its overriding impulse was not to be found formally in either camp, and it measured its success by not being drawn into conflicts that did not affect its national interests. Emerging into a world of established powers and the Cold War, independent India subtly elevated freedom of maneuver from a bargaining tactic into an ethical principle. Blending righteous moralism with a shrewd assessment of the balance of forces and the major powers’ psychologies, Nehru announced India to be a global power that would chart a course maneuvering between the major blocs.”

Many experts find problems with Nehru's policy of non-alignment, but as Ashley J. Tellis, a South Asia specialist, points out in his paper India as a Leading Power, “In retrospect, this effort turned out to be more successful than was imagined initially. India survived the Cold War with its territorial integrity broadly intact, its state- and nation-building activities largely successful, and its political autonomy and international standing durably ensconced.”

The break-up of the Soviet Union saw a period when the US became a pre-eminent and unchallenged power, and although all of Washington's actions could not be termed benign, the world saw a respite from great power rivalry. Even at this time, India pursued its national objectives, carrying out the 1998 nuclear tests in defiance to almost the whole world.

The last 15 years, from India’s perspective, saw two significant geopolitical shifts. The first was a gradual rise in US-China tensions that have now exploded into a full-blown competition. The second was that India was being looked at by the US as a ‘global swing state’ in the international system. India’s geostrategic location astride the Indian Ocean, coupled with its growing economic and military power, made it an attractive partner as a balancing power.

The US has consciously sought to strengthen diplomatic and military relations with India in an effort to create a counterweight for China in the Indo-Pacific region. This has been viewed with great suspicion by China. At regular intervals, India has attempted to alleviate Chinese concerns by stressing on the economic cooperation between the two countries and maturity in handling disputes, particularly along the borders.

Today, as the US-China rivalry sharpens, it is being hoped that India can retain a balance between the two countries and avoid getting drawn into their conflict. Unfortunately, this is going to become increasingly difficult because of India’s geography. As Robert D. Kaplan writes in The Revenge of Geography, geography is “like the distribution of economic and military power themselves, a major constraint on—and instigator of—the actions of states.” Our future actions will be hostage to our position on the world map.

Unlike the previous cold war, where there was a luxury of physical distance from the US and the Soviet Union, India shares a disputed border with an aspiring global power. For the first time in recent history, Asia has two neighbouring rising powers, each seeking to expand their sphere of influence. The Himalayan barrier separating India and China has been flattened by infrastructure development on both sides and the technology of long-range missiles and modern military aircraft.

China’s attempts to establish hegemony in Asia is a precondition to its global power ambitions. As its military power grows, it will coerce its neighbours to settle the land and sea borders on terms favourable to China. In these conditions, India could be hard-pressed to deal independently with China without getting drawn into alliances.

The other area of potential conflict is in the Indian Ocean. US interests in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and its attempts to contain Iran will ensure a significant naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The 2015 US maritime strategy envisages the deployment of approximately 60 percent of Navy ships and aircraft in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, in addition to 40 ships in the Middle East.

The PLA Navy seeks to overcome its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ by an increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and bases in countries like Djibouti, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. India sees these Chinese moves as an encirclement to limit India’s maritime footprint and a challenge to its naval power in the Indian Ocean.

This intersection of US, Chinese, and Indian navies in the Indian Ocean complicates any attempt by India to chart a sovereign path. The ideal situation would be the forming of a cooperative framework for the three navies, but with the ongoing tensions over freedom of navigation issues in the South and East China Seas, any cooperation appears unlikely.

India’s desire to follow a strategically autonomous path in the face of a new Great Game between the US and China faces the serious challenge of its geography. One way to mitigate this challenge is to ensure that India itself becomes a great power that is not forced to swing one way or the other. This ambitious undertaking will be explored in the next part of this article.

The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views expressed are personal.