U.S.-India ties over the past few years have become increasingly close, but this movement has evoked limited response in China. Beijing’s composure is based on three factors: (1) Indian foreign policy is independent and free of strategic commitments to another countries; (2) India has been cautious in its handling of China’s differences with the United States, most prominently the South China Sea, and (3) the focus of Chinese foreign policy is to the East and not the South. India, the weakest of these three countries, seems to be engaged in a hedging strategy to gain concessions from its two more powerful counterparts.
Since Narendra Modi assumed office as the prime minister of India, there has been a visible convergence between Washington and New Delhi. The leader, who was denied entry to the United States while heading the government of the western Indian state of Gujarat, was invited to Washington D.C. by President Barack Obama soon after his May 26, 2014 inauguration ceremony. The two leaders clearly established a good personal relationship and subsequently Modi has met the U.S. president seven times, most recently on June 7-8 in Washington D.C., when he was invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Obama had earlier accepted Modi’s invitation to be the chief guest at the January 26, 2015, Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi.
These occasions have largely contributed to enhancing economic and security cooperation between the two countries. While Obama was in India for the Republic Day ceremony, the two sides bolstered security ties by prolonging their 2005 bilateral defense scheme. In addition, they signed the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, which notes that the two countries will strive for development and security in the area as well as calling for “ensuring the freedom of navigation and over flight,” specifically mentioning the South China Sea.
In April 2016, during U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s visit to India, the two sides forged ahead with defense ties with a breakthrough in the negotiations of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The pact lays down a framework for the common use of each other’s military infrastructure.
Furthermore, Modi, in his latest trip to the United States, went out of his way to demonstrate India’s friendship to Washington, including a highly symbolic visit to Arlington National Cemetery. In his address to the joint session of Congress, the prime minister pushed for enhancing bilateral security collaboration and noted that the United States is a prominent commercial and defense partner for India.
Still, China remained calm about the deepening Indo-U.S. ties, as the Chinese press coverage of Modi’s visit was void of hawkish language. This calmness marks a U-turn on the part of some of state-controlled media; the nationalist-leaning Global Times, as late as January last year, was rather anxious about India moving too close to Washington.
The change is likely rooted in New Delhi’s recent moves toward equidistance between Beijing and Washington. First of all, India’s categorical refusal of the U.S. suggestion of joint patrols in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific seems to be a critically important step that allayed Chinese concerns about India teaming up with the United States. An article in the Liberation Daily goes so far to argue that because of this rejection, Beijing would not be worried about India signing on to LEMOA.
Second, the high-profile exchanges between China and India during Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s visits to Beijing (which came between Carter’s stopover in New Delhi and Modi’s trip to the U.S.) seem to have succeeded in mutual trust-building. Chinese media accentuated that bilateral ties are improving and that India does not have hostile feelings against China.
Third, a communique issued by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese and Russian counterparts in April 2016, among other things, takes a stand against the internationalization of the South China Sea disputes and advocates that the issue should be solved by the involved parties. This argument shows a striking parallel with the Chinese point of view related to the situation in that area.
Fourth, a recent article on the Chinese news website, Cankao Xiaoxi (Reference News), refers to the foreign media saying that Modi kept Chinese considerations in mind when opting not to bring up the South China Sea issue during his June visit to Washington, D.C. While the Indian prime minister’s vow of assistance in safeguarding the “freedom of navigation on seas” could be interpreted as a hidden reference to China’s behavior in the issue, the article argues that the statement was not specific enough to be understood in this way.
Finally, the fact that LEMOA was not signed during the June 2016 Modi visit and the sluggish development of the more consequential Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) suggests India will be cautious about engaging in strategic agreements with the United States. This further implies that China does not have to worry about India’s engagement with Washington. Still, if LEMOA is concluded, it would allow the signatories to use each other’s bases for “resupplies, repair and rest,” and thus mark a significant development in Indo-U.S. military ties.
Taking the South China Sea issue as an example provides a hint as to India’s foreign policy strategy. The implicit message related to “freedom of navigation” in Modi’s speech, combined with the India-China-Russia trilateral statement, suggest that India is adopting a selective stance on the South China Sea disputes, which allows it to engage both with Washington and Beijing without irritating either of them.
By taking an ambivalent stand on the internationalization of the disputes, India supports the Chinese position only partially, but there is nothing to suggest that New Delhi backs China’s territorial claims in the area. On the other hand, India does not fully depart from the U.S. stance by reiterating its commitment to the freedom of navigation. India thus walks a careful line between these two powerful states, able to shift incrementally one way or the other depending on their actions’ impact on India.
India will almost certainly try to use this strategy to overcome Chinese reservations on Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Indian inclusion as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. On its road to becoming a great power, India will continue to maneuver in order to gain concessions from both sides.
Professor Walter Andersen is the Director of the South Asia Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a Teaching Fellow at Tongji University in Shanghai. Dániel Balázs is Professor Andersen’s student at Tongji University and an intern at the Consulate General of India, Shanghai. The views expressed are their own and do not represent the views of their affiliated institutions.