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Confronting China: Lessons From an Ancient Indian Text

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The Pulse

Confronting China: Lessons From an Ancient Indian Text

Kautilya’s Arthasashtra provides a blueprint for responding to a rising China.

Confronting China: Lessons From an Ancient Indian Text
Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

The Dalai Lama’s recent travel to Arunachal Pradesh and the Indian government’s full support for the visit, despite China’s expressed displeasure, was assumed by many Indian analysts to signal a much needed change in Indian policy toward China, where assertiveness from one side might not be replied in kind.

While India’s stance no doubt needs to be appreciated, it is rather early to jump to such conclusions. It is true that the new government in New Delhi under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown an inclination to experiment with a new approach toward China, but there have been notable flip-flops in the way Modi manages his China policy. An increasingly assertive China in India’s neighborhood is a concern and India must devise a sustained policy approach in response.

This sustained policy framework can be based on ancient India’s magisterial political treatise, Kautilya’s Arthasashtraa masterpiece which details various aspects of statecraft. With regard to China, Kautilya’s two-pronged policy prescription of dvaidebhava (the dual policy) and mantrayudh (war by counsel) can provide a great insight into how India can devise a concrete China policy framework.

In Asia, the rise of China has translated into increased assertiveness – both in the South China Sea and now in the Indian Ocean Region. China’s formidable naval presence in the Indian Ocean, “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan, growing influence in Nepal and Bangladesh, and increasing border skirmishes in Arunachal Pradhesh all are glaring indicators of China’s intentions. The much-traded liberal argument that the deep-rooted economic engagements between the two countries would limit the possibility of the confrontation doesn’t seem to convince anymore. Instead, an increasingly assertive China is likely to arrest India’s geostrategic and national interests. The most decisive counter therefore is to prepare for a disguised cold war in the region, which is imminent by its early signs.

At first, the new Modi government seemed to have identified this reality and promised a muscular stance to protect India’s interest vis–à–vis China. The first early indication of this came on the very first day of the government, when Modi invited every head of state in the region to his swearing-in ceremony, but consciously avoided inviting anyone from China. Even the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile was present at the ceremony, which evidently irked the Chinese.

But since then, the policy seems to have gone astray. Recall Modi’s historic visit to Mongolia and the applause it received in scholarly circles in India. The visit was dubbed by many as a firm indication to Beijing that if China can meddle in the Indian Ocean Region, India can return the favor in China’s backyard. The Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia in 2016 was seen as rejoinder to India’s new diplomatic offensive and Mongolia was believed to support India in this as it accepted the visit despite glaring Chinese warnings. But when it came to supporting Mongolia after the Chinese clamped down on trade in response to the Dalai Lama’s visit, India could offer nothing but consolatory dispatches. As a result, Mongolia apologized for its misplaced bravado and pledged never to host the Dalai Lama again. A similar retraction was seen when India revoked a much-touted visa for a Uyghur leader-in-exile following pressure from China.

It’s therefore legitimate to fear that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh might again turn out to be more empty posturing. Amidst the flip-flopping, India needs a well-defined roadmap with identified milestones to protect its interests vis-a-vis an assertive China.

Kautilya’s Arthashatra, which details almost every aspect of statecraft, has the detailed foreign policy prescriptions India needs, and also strategies for waging “war” in many forms. Contemporary realities negate the possibilities of outright war, but war-games and strategic one-upmanship are likely to continue. Referring to the classical text of Arthashatra can provide a great insight as to how to deal with these strategic games. In particular, the two-pronged strategy of dvaidebhava and mantrayudha can frame India’s response.


Dvaidebhava, or the dual policy, is Kautilya’s prescription for a ruler with relatively weaker position compared to his adversary. Conventionally, dvaidebhava is explained as a two-pronged strategy simultaneously used by the ruler, which includes befriending one king and practicing hostility against the other one. That, however, is the textual prescription; today’s sub-continental realities merit a more nuanced application. The success of a similar strategy in the Indian case will primarily depend on how effectively the South Asian neighborhood as a whole (and not just any particular state) is consolidated to establish diplomatic clout that can be effectively leveraged with China. India probably is the only aspiring “great power” that has not been able to effectively consolidate its regional dominance. China, on the other hand, has managed these relations very well and now maintains a formidable presence in India’s entire neighborhood.

To counter this growing influence, India must re-invent its relationship with its neighbors. One of the direct ways to do this is by re-energizing dormant regional multilateral initiatives, which have direct strategic implications. To India’s advantage, there already exist forums which can be utilized to forge constructive partnerships. The forums — like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Mekong–Ganga Cooperation (MGC), and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) — have long remained comatose and India shares part of the blame for this. It has not realized the strategic potential of these forums and, as a dominant player, has not substantially invested in them. These three forums, with distinct geographical spaces, could be effectively used to build partnerships and create a diplomatic constituency favorable toward India in their respective regions, all of which have direct implications for India-China relations. There are coinciding interests – counterterrorism, anti-piracy, economic and trade issues, regional connectivity, and tourism, among others – on which entrenched partnerships can be built. These could serve as good entry points to further build up toward defense partnerships.

Apart from the existing arrangements, India should actively aim to create new ones and structure them in a manner that would best suit New Delhi’s strategic interests. These new arrangements must consciously focus on Afghanistan and Central Asian states. Unfortunately, the Central Asian states, despite being of critical importance and sharing deep civilization connections with India have only peripherally appeared on India’s strategic radar. There have been sporadic initiatives like Connect Central Asia, Look North, and Extended Neighborhood, which have tried to bridge the gap; however, these initiatives saw little substantial progress. China, on the other hand, has a large presence in the region as compared to India. China no doubt has a geographic advantage of direct connectivity, which India lacks, but there are areas like counterterrorism and defense partnerships where a lot more can be achieved. India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can further provide a boost, but India must independently plan and forge other arrangements that are mutually incentivizing.


Mantrayudha, or  war by counsel, refers to the diplomatic maneuvers Kautilya prescribes in situations when the costs of open war disproportionately outweigh the gains. The alternative strategy, then, is to use diplomatic posturing to make a point, as Kautilya viewed effective diplomacy as subtle act of war. The success of this strategy, however, depends majorly on acquired diplomatic leverage and the nation’s ability to stand to the counter-offensive from the adversary. The Modi government seems to have been working on the first element quite consciously but faltered on the second count, as was evident in the Mongolian case and in the revoked visa incident.

Insofar as building diplomatic leverage is concerned, the Modi government has consciously attempted to build stronger partnerships with the United States and Japan, the two most crucial players in the game against China. This has manifestly disturbed the Chinese. Modi’s outreach marked a corrective policy navigation from a time of despondency and indecisiveness in these crucial relationships.

India’s closing in with the United States is a possible indicator that both nations share the strategic aim of checking an assertive China. Chinese displeasure reaffirms this possible conclusion. Under Modi, this bilateral relationship has taken a new turn; foundational agreements like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) are step toward a more robust relationship. Though both nations share their difference in other spheres, including trade and climate change, their willingness to cooperate in their coinciding spheres of interest is notable.

Insofar as Japan is concerned, political similarities and common strategic objectives between the two countries are bound to bring them closer. With increasingly aligned interests and Japan moving toward a more self-reliant and proactive defense posture, it goes without saying that Japan is India’s natural ally.

Apart from the extra-regional powers, India must forge greater defense partnerships with its immediate neighbors, as well which primarily includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. India must create an atmosphere where the neighbors feel that they have lot to gain with their partnership with India. These entrenched networks of partnerships can provide the necessary clout required to play diplomatic games with China successfully. Only when one has this formidable clout cane the policy of mantrayudha work effectively.

One thing is clear: the rise of China has changed the geopolitical equations entirely. The consequent re-ordering of the world calls for new power dynamics. India must be ready to adapt to these changing dynamics. Under Modi, forging and strengthening new partnerships has given the right direction in the pursuit of a decisive policy vis-a-vis China. One of the major changes Modi has brought to strategic thinking in India is that he has decisively halted the Nehruvian inertia in policy thinking. India under Modi is not apprehensive about experimenting with new power combinations. What India now needs is a framework to sustain this policy. India must continue its realism-driven geopolitical pragmatism if it effectively wants to checkmate China and safeguard its national interests.

Akshay Ranade is a Research Scholar at the Center for International Politics, Organization, and Armaments (CIPOD), School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.