Managing China: Competitive engagement, with Indian characteristics

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend the group photo session during the BRICS Summit at the Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center in Xiamen, southeastern China's Fujian Province, China September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool

Executive Summary

Learn more about Global ChinaThis paper explores India’s ties with China, outlining how they have evolved over the course of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s years in office. It lays out the elements of cooperation, competition, and potentially conflict in the Sino-Indian relationship, as well as the leverage the two countries potentially hold over each other. The paper also examines the approach that Delhi has developed to manage its China relationship — one that can be characterized as “competitive engagement with Indian characteristics.” The paper details how and why India is simultaneously engaging with Beijing, where that is feasible, and competing with China, alone and in partnership with others. Finally, the paper considers what could cause India to reevaluate its approach to China either toward greater accommodation or greater competition.

The paper argues that India’s recent “reset” has thus far been limited, consisting of greater high-level interaction, efforts to improve economic and people-to-people ties, and the restarting of boundary and military dialogues. However, the persisting boundary dispute, China’s support for Pakistan, concerns about China’s increasing activities and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region through the Belt and Road Initiative and beyond, and an unbalanced economic relationship have ensured that the Sino-Indian relationship remains a fundamentally competitive one. In response, at home India is trying to enhance its military, nuclear, space, and technological capabilities, as well as its infrastructure. Abroad, it is establishing or enhancing partnerships in India’s extended neighborhood, as well as with like-minded major powers — including Australia, France, Japan, Russia, and the United States — that can help balance China, and build India’s and the region’s capabilities.

In this context, India has largely approved of the Trump administration’s more competitive view of China, even as it does not have similar concerns about China as an ideological challenge and despite Delhi’s discomfort with certain elements of Washington’s approach toward Beijing. Their broad strategic convergence on China has laid the basis for U.S.-India cooperation across a range of sectors, particularly in the diplomatic, defense, and security spheres, as well as incentivized the two sides to manage or downplay their differences.

This convergence could unravel if there is a major Indian reorientation on China, but the paper argues that is unlikely. Nonetheless, an Indian reevaluation toward greater accommodation of China could conceivably occur as a result of domestic political or economic developments in India, doubts about America’s role and commitment in the region and vis-à-vis India, or a sustained Chinese strategy to reassure India or assuage its concerns.