Delhi’s deepening bilateral naval engagement with Vietnam, which is mired in territorial disputes with China, its support to the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and its frequent joint naval exercises with Japan and the United States do raise eyebrows in Beijing.
Even as China and India build up their naval capabilities and step on each other’s toes in the Indo-Pacific, neither of them is in a position to supplant the United States as the dominant maritime power in both the oceans.
The U.S. military rebalance towards Asia is marked by a profound wariness of China’s growing power and great enthusiasm to strengthen the partnership with India. This has set in motion what could be a consequent triangular dynamic in the Indo-Pacific.
Like everyone else in Asia, India wants to benefit from China’s economic growth but would like to limit the prospects for Beijing’s dominance of the region.
As the strategic gap between India and China grows—for China is rising much faster than India—Delhi can only bridge it through a combination of internal and external balancing.
An alliance with Washington, then, would seem natural for Delhi. But India is concerned about the inconstancy of American policy towards China, the fiscal and political sustainability of the pivot to Asia in Washington.
Delhi is acutely aware of the dangers of a potential Sino-U.S. rapprochement that could leave India exposed. It therefore seeks simultaneous expansion of security cooperation with the United States while avoiding a needless provocation of Beijing.
China, clearly, has the upper hand in the current triangular dynamic with India and the United States. It could accommodate either Delhi or Washington to limit the depth of a prospective India-U.S. strategic partnership.
Given the current ambiguities in Washington, Beijing and Delhi, there is much uncertainty surrounding the direction of the triangular dynamic between them.
One thing, though, is certain. The emergence of China and India as naval powers and the intersection of their maritime policies with those of the United States are bound to churn the security politics of the Indo-Pacific for decades to come.
C. Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His latest book is Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.