Michael KreponIndia’s Chinese Menu Approach to China

Note to readers: One of the many challenges we face in trying to reduce nuclear dangers is how to engage China, India, and Pakistan into a diplomatic process, multilateral and bilateral, that strengthens and lengthens two of the norms we live by: no battlefield use and no testing of nuclear weapons. To learn more, check out Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, available here and here.

Quotes of the week:

Free India has a geopolitical dilemma all its own.” — Shivshankar Menon

“The India way, especially now, would be more of a shaper or decider rather the just be an abstainer.” — S. Jaishankar

India is caught betwixt and between when it comes to its national security strategy vis-à-vis China. New Delhi doesn’t wish to offend but is obliged to defend against Beijing’s muscle flexing. India will always greatly value its strategic autonomy, but needs company to deal with China’s increasingly assertive probes along their contested border. Salami slicing occurs with intermittent periods of restraint. As the power differential grows in China’s favor, India faces a challenging counter-balancing act.

In The Indian Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar offers a confident case that his government can pick-and-choose its way toward national security, as if ordering from a Chinese menu.

Menu items include “engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, [and] draw neighbors in.” He outlines a “neighborhood first” approach, albeit not with Pakistan, and perhaps not with China, either, if Beijing refuses to be successfully managed.

In Jaishankar’s view, New Delhi’s foreign and national security policies can succeed by leveraging “competition to extract as much gains from as many ties as possible.” Success requires “advancing national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions.” Help can come from Washington and from states wishing to sell military equipment and gain access to the Indian market. India is empowered by its many suitors.

Jaishankar argues that India needs to demonstrate global relevance to earn respect, which means a greater willingness to make waves. But not too many waves, since the Chinese dragon ought not to be poked with sharp objects. New Delhi, unlike Canberra, hasn’t announced an agreement to buy nuclear-powered attack submarines from the United States and Britain.

Not everyone shares Jaishankar’s brimming confidence in the Indian government’s adeptness to manage a rising China. Shivshankar Menon offers a more cautionary approach, given the uncertainties raised by Xi Jinping’s leadership. This former national security adviser and Ambassador to China has written a tour de force, India and Asian Geopolitics. Menon knows whereof he speaks, and he speaks Mandarin.

There is much overlap in Menon and Jaishankar’s prescriptions of how New Delhi can best deal with China — “India’s biggest strategic challenge,” in Menon’s unarguable characterization. Here are some excerpts from his book:

China is unlikely to be a net provider of security in Asia as the United States has been, or to set norms, or to open its own markets and society to the outside world. Instead, it will seek to build a China-centered hierarchical order modeled on itself, as far as possible and as far as its power will reach.

The question today is to what extent China’s strategic thinking and culture has been Westernized. If it draws on the Western tradition of exclusive nationalism…, China will presumably behave as badly, probably with the same disastrous results. If, instead, the change and adaptation of China’s thinking fits circumstances in the region and the world, there is hope. The debate is still on in China, within and outside government. The jury is still out.

The Chinese are realists; they expect others to respect their power, as they respected U.S. dominance for over three decades. But realists are often disappointed, which is why so many of them become pessimists.

The key for India’s “China problem” is that China’s periphery is also India’s. It is here that China seeks primacy and projects power. This same periphery is critical to India’s security and, potentially, to our prosperity.

India’s goal in the India-U.S.-China triangle should be to be closer to both China and the United States than they are to each other.

If China chooses to work for an open, inclusive, multipolar concert or architecture in Asia, it would need to work with partners. So far this has not been China’s choice. Given its history, experience, and recent behavior, it also seems unlikely… China has instead chosen to build a China-centric hierarchic order in the Asia-Pacific.

If China sees the window of opportunity for its rise to primacy as limited… we can expect a continuation or even a doubling down on China’s assertive policies. In the short to medium term of five years or so, we will see a China in a hurry, changing facts on the ground in its favor and seeking friendly or pliable regimes in its periphery… The present prospect is for tenser and more adversarial India-China relations.

I think Menon’s assessment is right on the mark. He concludes that, “The most important thing, for me, is the need for India to rapidly accumulate usable and effective power.” Herein lies the rub. India’s “soft” power has been greatly diminished by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s authoritarian tendencies, which have weakened India from within. India’s hard power is shackled by systemic constraints with respect to resource allocation and defense acquisition. India’s Chinese menu approach has led to procurement patterns that are less that the sum of accumulated parts.

Jaishankar’s book ought to downsize expectations in Washington about how much New Delhi can be expected to contribute to strategic plans to counterbalance China. Grand strategists in the George W. Bush administration made this mistake when proposing a nuclear deal with India, believing that the key to bringing New Delhi on side was to offer the sale of nuclear power plants. These plans, and all the high paying jobs that supposedly came with them, collapsed over India’s liability laws. Russia wound up making these sales, the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Nuclear Suppliers Group took unnecessary hits, and Pakistan built three additional plutonium production reactors.

The most direct and truest path to greater U.S.-Indian strategic cooperation has always been in the defense sector. The pacing factor of bilateral defense cooperation has always been New Delhi’s sense of the China threat. Washington cannot engineer this incline because of New Delhi’s complicated balancing act.

Because of uncertainty regarding Xi’s ambitions and time lines, there will be growth in U.S.-Indian defense cooperation. If Beijing plays its cards badly wrong, we might even wake up some distant day to the news that India, like Australia, has embarked on a program to acquire modern, nuclear-powered attack submarines. 


  1. Avon (History)

    India has already embarked on a program to acquire modern nuclear-powered attack submarines, under Project 75A, apart from buying/leasing Russian Akulas.