Why is India unable to ‘swing’?

India’s portfolio of capabilities to deliver pain to China (and the US) is not sufficiently developed, constraining India’s ability to swing between US and China.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Seoul ended without a decision on India’s membership application, despite India’s energetic diplomatic push. In the end, China managed to get India’s membership bid blocked. Following this, the Indian geostrategic community has been trying to ascertain the motive that led China to oppose India’s entry into NSG.

Broadly, there are two lines of thought to explicate China’s opposition. The first argument goes as follows: China’s opposition is a result of the larger US—China powerplay. China wants to prevent an important partner of the US from growing in stature in global forums and hence it opposed India’s NSG membership. WPS Sidhu argued this point of view as follows:

In reality, it [India’s membership] is a contestation between the US and China to determine the future of the nuclear and world order. China’s public declaration to oppose New Delhi’s formal NSG application is more about keeping India out rather than bringing its “all-weather friend” Pakistan (which belatedly also put in an application) in; it is more about securing the existing nuclear and world order rather than strengthening the non-proliferation regime; and, above all, it is a blatant challenge to Washington’s leadership in shaping the evolving world order.

The implication, if this viewpoint holds true, is that any attempt by India to build closer ties with the US will lead to Chinese opposition for India’s membership in multilateral organisations that have the US as the fulcrum. The view also assumes that China will view India more favourably as India grows without coming in the way of China’s geopolitical ambitions.

The second line of thought argues that China’s opposition is consistent with China’s long-held strategy of containing India. Rajesh Rajagopalan, explains this point of view, as follows:

China’s strategy has been consistent since the 1960s and its sole objective was the containment of India. China containment strategy shows little correlation with the state of US-India relations. China transferred nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan in the 1980s, not exactly a period of close US-India ties. It transferred missiles to Pakistan in the 1990s at a time when India had lost its Soviet ally and its relations with the US were still tense. India’s increasing closeness to the US is the result of New Delhi’s reluctant recognition of China’s containment strategy against India, not its cause.

The implication here is that China will oppose India’s growth as a regional and global actor, regardless of India’s equation with the US. Thus, China will not only oppose India’s membership in multilateral organisations where the US has played a powerful role but will also undermine India’s role in Chinese led initiatives such as OBOR, SCO and BRICS.

Both lines of thought concur that China is determined to pose challenges to India’s rise.  This, despite the fact that India has tried to advance its relationships with both China and the US. Essentially, India has tried to project itself as a swing power —a factor that can tilt the equation in favour of any major power which has India on its side. It is with this objective that India is eager to be a part of every global governance forum led by China, even though India’s national interests clash the least with that of the US.

But if China’s actions are an indicator, it appears as though this strategy of ‘swing’ doesn’t seem to be working. Why is that so? A successful “swing” is the one where a state can demonstrate that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other with equal effectiveness. And here in lies India’s problem — our portfolio of capabilities and stated intentions that can deliver pain to China and the US is not sufficiently developed. While India has amply demonstrated that it can be supportive to both Chinese and US multilateral campaigns, there is no articulation of how costly it can be to ignore India.

Let’s look at the current pain deliverance portfolio of India. In what way can it objectively hurt China?

The first option is to amp-up India’s involvement in China’s neighbourhood. Rajesh Rajagopalan explains India’s involvement in East Asia as follows:

India can imitate what China is doing with Pakistan: build up the military capabilities of others on China’s periphery who share India’s worry about China. They may be too weak to match China, but enhancing their capabilities is one way of forcing China to divert its energies and make it understand the costs of strategic blowback. This can take the form of military assistance as well as training and other forms of cooperation.

ASEAN is also divided on the issue of tackling China. States such as Philippines and Vietnam have longstanding conflicts with China. While they are likely to be more vocal against Chinese hegemony, others in ASEAN will bandwagon with China. The next event that will see tempers rising in the region is the upcoming verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the issue of sovereignty over two island groups claimed by both China and Philippines. In all likelihood, this verdict will not go entirely in favour of either nation; PCA will settle for a mix of equidistance and equitable principles just like it did in the case of India—Bangladesh maritime dispute. Back then, India displayed exemplary maturity in accepting the PCA verdict. India can start projecting its own success story before the verdict comes out in the next couple of weeks. Going ahead, India can prioritise its relationship with the ASEAN nations that are likely to challenge China.

Second, India can look at global Chinese initiatives such as Belt & Road (OBOR) from the dual lens of competition and complementation: in the Indian sub-continent, OBOR should be looked at as an aggressive competitor, using it as an excuse to accelerate India’s own projects of connecting markets in India’s own neighbourhood. Outside the Indian sub-continent, India can look at complementing OBOR. For instance, in East Africa, India can work with China under the aegis of “Many Belts Many Roads” to expand its own reach.

Third, India can make its presence felt in BRICS and SCO by taking a strong stand against Chinese hegemony. Quitting these groups at an appropriate juncture can be used to make a point.

These are the three pain deliverance measures that India can implement at its current levels of power. Beyond them, there is little that India can do unless it gets its house in order with a view towards a substantial rise in India’s power in all dimensions — economic, military, maritime and political.

Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.

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  1. India, NSG and the world: The Time for Hard Choices and Big Ideas is Now | Ink and IR - July 9, 2016

    […] actions or inaction and their consequences. We must seriously consider whether India can be a ‘swing’ state without being aware of what it can do to hurt either or both of the sides. Without an appreciation […]

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