No longer a counterweight: What lies behind the India-China 'reset'?

Later this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold a summit meeting in the city of Wuhan, the first since the confrontation between the two countries’ militaries at Doklam near the Sikkim border last year. The Wuhan summit is generally being seen as another step forward in a “reset” of bilateral ties between India and the People’s Republic of China following a precipitous decline in the years leading up to the Doklam face-off. The first signs of this were when National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, India’s Special Representative for this relationship, met his equivalent from Beijing, Yang Jichei, in December last year. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale then visited Beijing in February — a visit that was reportedly preceded by a decision to warn government officials away from observances of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama seeking refuge in India from Chinese persecution. Since then, several other senior Indian ministers have also visited China.

What lies behind this “reset”, if indeed there is some strategic thinking underlying it? There are at least two likely motivations. The first is the understandable desire on the part of the Indian government to not have any major disturbances on the border, or any other kind of confrontation, in the year leading up to the general elections. Any such incident, once played up by the hyper-nationalistic electronic media, might force the government in an election year to respond with measures that might objectively be considered unwise - or else cause it to lose some of its nationalist credentials. The second motivation might be a cold and rational assessment of India’s capabilities as a counterweight to China. India has systematically starved its military, failed to upgrade or purchase essential weapons platforms, and operated for too long without a coherent military strategy. In Doklam, it benefited from helpful terrain. Elsewhere, however, the disparity in capabilities is stark. 

India’s inability to influence events in Maldives to its advantage is just the latest example of this. Meanwhile, New Delhi might believe that there are signs that Beijing’s patience when it comes to Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism is not inexhaustible. Nor is it necessarily the case that containing India or controlling its aspirations is central to Beijing’s game-plan; the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, might be driven largely by internal economic and political compulsions. Under this framework, even the increasing Chinese footprint in South Asia and the Indian Ocean may not be India-focused, and thus New Delhi has diplomatic room to manoeuvre. Given that, many could argue that a rapprochement with the People’s Republic is in India’s best interest.

It is worth noting, however, what the broader, long-term implications of this could be. For decades, a common narrative in the capitals of the West - and in New Delhi — has held that a rising, increasingly powerful, increasingly prosperous and democratic India will serve as a natural counterweight to China. It should be no surprise that New Delhi has perpetuated and sought to benefit from this narrative, which allows it to argue that it deserves support from other democracies even as it itself does not compromise its “strategic autonomy”. This narrative, however, no longer seems to fit the facts. The implications for India’s standing in the world should be plain.

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