India’s Strategic Perceptions: Dilemmas and Opportunities

12 July 2012 FDI Team

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Dr Dalbir Ahlawat

Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism

Macquarie University, Sydney


Key Points

  • India’s strategic orientation in the evolving power dynamic in South and East Asia will be increasingly directed towards building credible deterrence against, rather than attempting to contain, a rising China.
  • The use of soft power while keeping open the options of hard power and strategic alliance will also be favoured.
  • India is establishing a strong but cautious strategic partnership with the United States and, while it is wary of entering into a deeper strategic alliance at this stage, it nevertheless aspires to a close relationship with the superpower.
  • The new generation of leadership in China will be decisive in delineating the nature of Sino-Indian relations in the future.



The visit to India of United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on 5-6 June coincided with Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to China to attend the 12th Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) meeting held on 6-7 June 2012. During his visit, Panetta commented that India will be ‘a linchpin’ in the unfolding US defence strategy that is aimed at ”re-balancing” its forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Around the same time, Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, slated to be premier in July, described the Sino-Indian relationship as the ‘landmark bilateral relationship’ of the twenty-first century. Perhaps this was a riposte to President Barack Obama’s earlier statement in the Indian Parliament that ties between the US and India – the world’s two largest democracies – would be the ‘defining partnership of the twenty-first century’. Implicit in these “inclusive” statements is the recognition of both the big powers that fast-growing India could well be a decisive influence in the future power equation, at least in Asia.


Since 1962, China and India have had a track record of tense relations. But President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in 2006 culminated in a historic joint statement, which highlighted a ten-point strategy to promote peace and co-operation in trade, investment, energy, cultural and educational exchanges. Yet geo-strategic tensions persist. Take, for instance, the recent claim by China over the area south of the town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, which sparked a frenetic deployment of troops and the building of highways and railways along the borders. China’s intransigence, India claims, stands in the way of normalising bilateral relations. An increased Chinese military presence, including the replacement of an outdated missile system and upgraded People’s Liberation Army (PLA) capabilities along the border, add to India’s apprehensions.

The evolving scenario poses a serious challenge to New Delhi, as some fear it may, at short notice, escalate into a real military security threat. This was evident when China opposed the Asian Development Bank loan for infrastructure development in Arunachal Pradesh. On another occasion, China declined a visa to a senior Indian military officer from Arunachal Pradesh on the basis that the state is Chinese territory.

China has also shifted its policy on Kashmir in favour of Pakistan. This is evident in China’s practice of stapling, not stamping, the visas issued to Kashmiri people visiting China and also in China’s refusal to grant a visa to a senior Indian military commander assigned to the Kashmir region. A more basic issue that bedevils relations between the two countries is China’s “all weather” friendship with Pakistan. China continues to bolster Pakistan’s military capabilities and to help in building its nuclear reactors. China has supplied T-59, T-69 and T-85 tanks, heavy artillery and M-9 and M-11 missiles to Pakistan, presumably in the hope of helping Islamabad pose a credible challenge to India’s conventional superiority.

China is circumspect about Pakistan using its own territory for terrorist activities. This was visible during Chinese President Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi after the Mumbai terrorist attack. Whereas all other visiting dignitaries from the US and Europe not only condemned the terrorist attack, but also visited Mumbai as a token of their solidarity with India, Mumbai did not appear in Wen’s itinerary. He was even disinclined to mention the attack in his press statement. Instead, he added Islamabad to his homeward journey. In diplomatic circles, these moves were interpreted as evidence of China’s reaffirmation of its friendship with Pakistan.

Some argue that China’s policy initiatives vis-à-vis the Indian Ocean have further exacerbated India’s apprehensions. China’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy of developing sea ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, the Seychelles and the Maldives and entering into strategic relations with India’s neighbours in the Indian Ocean – traditionally thought of by New Delhi as “India’s pond” – are construed as deliberate and calculated moves. India sees them as casting a long shadow of doubt over China’s ulterior motives and designs.

Moreover, Beijing’s ambition to develop three ocean-going fleets, covering the Western Pacific, the South China Sea to the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean, has further raised serious concerns in New Delhi. China’s response to all these propositions, however, is its ambition of a “peaceful rise” and an assertion that the “string of pearls” is mainly intended to facilitate further trade with India, which, in recent years, has exceeded a substantial US$74 billion. Notwithstanding the positive trend in bilateral trade, the increasing wedge between the Chinese and Indian economies only increases the “barrier” of mistrust. Overall, analysts believe that China’s growing strategic, military and economic clout is aimed at “containing” India, if not globally, at least within Asia. 

Concomitant with, and as a consequence of, Chinese postures, India for its part has developed several strategic options. These include a counter-containment policy: muscling up its military to act as a deterrent, building leverage in East Asia and forging closer ties with the United States.

India has boosted its military presence along the border and has conducted several military exercises to improve its asymmetric warfare skills. In addition, even if only to demonstrate its big power credentials, India has sought to enhance its deterrent capabilities by test-firing the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile, which, with a range of over 5,000 kilometres, is capable of reaching major Chinese cities. Though this development was viewed negatively by China, it nevertheless led to Beijing adopting a conciliatory posture that was discernible at the SCO gathering. This clearly demonstrates a definite shift from India’s traditional approach of “dissuasion” to one of credible deterrence. In addition, India has taken tangible steps to modernise its navy, by budgeting for the acquisition of new submarines and aircraft carriers.

India’s increased interest in the Asia-Pacific is welcomed by most of the countries in the region, many of which are wary of Chinese expansionism and are looking for a viable alternative. India, therefore, tends to be viewed as a countervailing force to China. The ASEAN countries mainly view India’s naval growth as a promising development. This situation makes India’s engagement with South-East Asia somewhat easier than that experienced by China. As a result, India has entered into agreements with Vietnam, Singapore and Burma.

The most recent visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Burma led to the signing of an agreement to build a road from India to Thailand through Burma. In addition, countries like Australia, Japan and the US have taken note of India’s growing influence in the region. This has been translated into bilateral relationships with major countries, not only to address issues of terrorism, piracy and safeguarding sea lines of communication, but also to “balance” the shifting power parity in the region. India has conducted joint naval exercises with the US, Japan and South Korea. In addition, it has entered into an agreement with Vietnam on naval repairs. Just as China established the so-called “string of pearls”, in a sense, India has developed its own parallel strategy: a so-called “necklace of diamonds”. 

The most important fallout from the rising China’s posturingin the region is the convergence of relations between India and the US. Barring a brief spell during the 1962 Sino-Indian hostilities, Indo-US relations remained at odds, mainly because of divergences in their strategic perceptions, understanding of international relations and the Cold War power dynamics. It was only in 1999, following the Kargil War, that the US, for the first time, recognised India’s security concerns and pressured Pakistan to unconditionally withdraw its forces from Kargil. A closer Indo-US relationship developed during the second term (2005-09) of President George W. Bush. In the beginning it was perceived as the inevitable convergence of interests between the two democracies, but as it developed in subsequent years, the feeling grew that there was much more to it. It came to be seen as the outcome of a common challenge faced by both countries in the wake of China’s emergence. It was frequently depicted as a common strategy to contain China. Renewed negotiations over the civil-nuclear agreement by the Bush Administration, and its subsequent approval by the US Congress, were at least indicative of the broad contours of an evolving “containment” strategy. In turn, India’s subsequent unconditional support for the US in its fight against international terrorism further evidenced a discernible thaw in the relations between the two countries.

Over a period of time, the US diluted its stand on Kashmir and held Pakistan responsible for harbouring terrorists and sponsoring terrorism in India. The election of Barack Obama gave further impetus to the bilateral relationship, which was eloquently couched in such phrases as India being an ‘indispensible power’ and a ‘leader in Asia’. This development triggered a new dialogue with India on East Asia, in a sense “institutionalising” formal bilateral consultations on China. In response to the evolving warm relationship between India and the US, and to counter the civil nuclear initiative, China responded by selling two additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan; thereby seeking “nuclear parity” between India and Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, Panetta’s warning to Islamabad that the US was ‘reaching the limits’ of its patience regarding Pakistan’s supposed role in harbouring and offering haven to terrorists on its soil, was very much appreciated in India. It was received as though Panetta had acted as a spokesman for India. His blunt statement that, ‘Our two nations [India and the US], I believe, have finally and irreversibly started a new chapter of our history’, was received with some disbelief in diplomatic circles.

Admittedly, India is at a precipice in the development of its relations with the US and China, posing a serious challenge to India’s policy making establishment. Should India come to terms with China and thereby ensure a durable peace in the Asia-Pacific region, or should it forge an alliance with the US in an effort to contain China? It is, no doubt, a dilemma worthy of Macbeth!

Given the predicament in which India finds itself, perhaps New Delhi is wary of entering into any deeper strategic alliance with Washington at this stage, but it nevertheless aspires to continue to enjoy a close relationship. Since independence in 1947, India has followed a policy of non-alignment and maintained autonomy in its foreign and defence policy. Notwithstanding Pakistan entering into a defence alliance with the US during the Cold War, India stuck to its guns. Perhaps India will also be seeking to retain that autonomy in the current situation.

There is no doubt that, despite a small war-mongering lobby in India, it does not aspire to be a world power. Nor does it aspire to contain China, but it does want to develop a credible deterrence capability. Also, Indian strategists tend to prefer soft power over hard power. Moreover, against the backdrop of China knowing full well that India has the option of entering into a strategic alliance with the US, India will wait and watch. It will take into consideration Chinese perceptions of India’s place in the Asian strategic game plan, China’s support for Pakistan, its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean and any moves towards the resolution of border disputes.

Considering the circumstances, India’s long-term strategic policy posture will take shape after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It will then contemplate the position of Pakistan in supporting terrorism and China’s relations with Pakistan. Overall, the attitude of the new generation of leadership in China will be decisive in delineating the nature of the ‘landmark bilateral relationship’ in the twenty-first century between China and India. It will also be instrumental in deciding how much autonomy India will retain in its relations with the United States.




About the Author: Dr Ahlawat is a Lecturer at the Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism, Macquarie University, Sydney. He has over 15 years’ experience in conducting research on topics related to strategic perspectives and international and bilateral relations.






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