The recently concluded trip by U.S. President Barack Obama to India was hailed by many as a turning point in U.S.-India relations. A short list of achievements includes agreements in defense, nuclear cooperation, climate change, and security. In particular, there is considerable hype that India has agreed to join the U.S. to contain China’s rise. There are also reports that (here and here) that China is now worried about the warming relationship between the U.S. and India. Is this really so?
A warm U.S.-India relationship will not worry China. In fact, the outcome might disappoint those in India and the U.S. who want to actively balance the rise of China. There are three primary reasons for this.
The first reason is that India has always maintained an independent foreign policy since its independence, thus making it very difficult for it to join any major power as an ally. As the book Wronged by Empire convincingly argues, India has a strong sense of victimization that still is relevant today to its foreign policy. In practice, this means that India will always remain suspicious of any major power’s potential threat to India’s independence and security. No matter how successful president Obama’s trip to India was this time, it is very unlikely that India would completely trust the U.S. intentions in helping India to balance China. Modi perfectly understands that India and the U.S. need each other at the moment and there is no harm in welcoming American assistance in balancing a possible China threat.
The second reason is quite straightforward. Very simply speaking, India needs Chinese investment to develop its economy in the long run. Sure, India does not want to be dominated by China economically, but in the long run there is no better alternative than China to help India’s huge appetite for investment in infrastructure. For example, Obama announced that the U.S. would invest $4 billion in India over the coming years, a number that pales in comparison to China’s pledge of $20 billion for India, announced during President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014. Of course, there is no reason for India to reject investment from other powers as long as India resists economic colonization. Moreover, although India has some advantages with its democratic system, there is a lot to learn from China with regard to China’s unique model of economic development. If India can learn the right lessons from China and avoid China’s mistakes, then indeed the 21st century might be a century for Asians.
Lastly, policymakers in India fully understand that it is pointless and even counterproductive to contain a rising China. The truth is that China has already risen and any plan to contain China would be a huge mistake. This is not to say that a containment strategy would not cause damage to China’s national interests (it would). But the point is rather that any power who initiates this containment strategy would suffer vastly itself. Thus, no rational state would choose such a suicidal strategy. Despite the fact that there is some kind of security and economic cooperation between India and Vietnam, no evidence suggests that India truly wants to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. India’s strategy in the South China Sea is more likely a response to China’s increasing inroads into the Indian Ocean and continued support for Pakistan. If China is willing to make some concessions in those areas, India will also likely make some concessions in the South China Sea.
To conclude, despite the disputes and differences between India and China, the potential gains in this relationship are greater than the costs. Like any other bilateral relationship between major powers, there is always both cooperation and conflict in China-India relations. Both countries are rational enough to understand this important point and will maintain a good and friendly relationship in the future. The fact that Modi will visit Beijing in May proves the point that India still needs China badly. China does not see India as a threat, and India certainly should not see China that way either.