A recent policy brief issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asserted that even in a pandemic world, India’s influence would enable it to become a strong counterweight to China. A cursory search of recent newspapers, policy statements, and even academic journals reveals this widespread belief.
One may be forgiven for thinking that this idea dates to contemporary watershed moments of military or economic strength —such as India’s economic reforms of the early 1990s or the nuclear tests of 1998 — but this would be wrong. Shortly after India turned independent in 1947, and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, The New York Times declared that independent India would become “a great counterweight to China”. Given that in the eyes of the world, India has apparently been in the process of becoming a counterweight to China for 70 years, it’s important to examine what this means. In other words, if India were a counterweight to China, what would that entail? And whom would it benefit?
The concept of one country being a counterweight to another, or “counterbalancing” as it is sometimes known, comes from realist and neo-realist theories in international relations. If there is one dominant power either in the world-at-large or within a region, the best chance of reducing the likelihood of war is for one country (or a group of countries) to counter it by acting as a balance. A counterbalancing country would take deliberate and assertive steps to match the dominant power in not simply size and population but in military spending and prowess, economic power, global influence, participation in international institutions, the strength of its alliances, and its reputation. This would make it risky for the dominant power to go to outright war with the counter-balancer. The father of neo-realism, Kenneth Waltz, famously declared that the most stable world was one that was bipolar, much like the Cold War world with the United States (US) and the Soviet Union counterbalancing each other.
Which brings us to the current post-Cold War world where the rise of China is a source of huge worry for the dominant power, the US. While the US’ capabilities and influence still outstrip China’s — simply put, it is a superpower and China is not (yet) — it is important for it to find allies with a common cause to counter China’s rise. Thus, when it comes to counterbalancing, particularly in Asia, the US thinks of India. This is partly because China and India are heavyweights in the region. It is also because India is a democracy, and the US, therefore, sees India as a country akin to it.
What it expects is for India to undertake a number of significant actions that will cement its role as a counterbalancer. Expanding the Indo-US defence partnership is, of course, one — the US has, for example, agreed to transfer sensitive military technology to India, engage in industry collaboration including 5G networks, and hold high-level defence talks, and joint exercises. But it expects not simply a strategic partnership but one that is implicitly and, perhaps even explicitly, anti-China. The US thus wants India to undertake an expanded role in the Indo-Pacific as a member of the Quad (along with Japan and Australia). It would like India to strengthen its economic and naval profile in Southeast Asia; strengthen its relationship with Japan; develop its own security and economic capabilities and commit to regional partners; and counter China’s naval expansion in the Indo-Pacific, including by lending its voice to the negotiating of a code of conduct for China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
All of this then begs the question of whether India wants to act as a counterweight to China. Here, the evidence gets murky. There is a reason that the idea of India becoming a counterweight to China has been floating around for 70 years with little end in sight —while the word “non-alignment” has essentially faded from the Indian government’s vocabulary, the word “alliance” has not replaced it. A counter-balancer needs formal alliances, not simply partnerships — since, by its very definition, counter-balancing involves both serious assertiveness in foreign policy, and, therefore, strong support from a coterie of other countries.
But as external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, pointed out just a few days ago, at a forum with US Vice President Mike Pence, China and India as rising powers needed to reach some kind of “understanding or equilibrium.” His statement hints at the reluctance that has always existed in the Indian government to become the US’ geopolitical tool.
So if not explicit counterbalancing, what then? What are India’s possible options in the geopolitical triangle? India could continue to develop its partnership with the US, and hope that a commitment to any alliances or assurances of explicit security cooperation would not be needed.
It could move under a US security umbrella à la Japan and South Korea. It could move away from the US, and commit to non-alignment between any future American and Chinese poles. Or it could, in the least plausible scenario given the current climate, decide to take concrete steps that would lead to long-term rapprochement with China.
All of these actions come with costs and benefits. But, all else being equal, at some point India will have to make a difficult choice.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is associate professor of International Relations, Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and a research associate at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford
The views expressed are personal