This lack of consensus within Chinese strategic circles ensured that China’s outreach to India remained episodic at best, marked by alternate periods of camaraderie and conflict and of hope and despair. For instance, in a symbolic move, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang chose India as the destination for his maiden foreign visit in 2013, but the potentially historic trip was overshadowed by an over three-week confrontation between Chinese and Indian forces on the western part of the border. In the following years, even as China-India interactions became more high-profile and significant, clashes at the border became more severe and long-lasting, indicating that two distinct but contradictory schools of thought dominate China’s India policy.Even as China-India interactions have become more high-profile and significant, clashes at the border became more severe and long-lasting, indicating that two distinct but contradictory schools of thought dominate China’s India policy.
But despite many convergences in interest, a U.S.-India alliance was not seen as inevitable by Chinese strategists. They believed that India remained the weakest link of the Indo-Pacific grouping or the Quad (which many Chinese strategists refer to as a three-plus one and not a quadrilateral) because of New Delhi’s own “great power complex(大国情结),” its unwillingness to be subservient to the United States, and the complicated history of U.S.-India relations. Therefore, in the Chinese conception, India has been the “key variable” ( 关键变量) which would determine the success or failure of the Indo-Pacific strategy as “without India, there is no Indo-Pacific.”In the Chinese conception, India has been the “key variable” (关键变量) which would determine the success or failure of the Indo-Pacific strategy as “without India, there is no Indo-Pacific.”
Overall, many Chinese strategists saw (and continue to see still) India as the “most critical node” in the competition between the U.S. FOIP and Chinese BRI. As a result, they advocated that China should strive to: 1) improve ties with India by looking for more common ground, reducing the destabilizing factors in the relationship and ensuring smooth ties; 2) drive a wedge between India and the other three Quad members and reduce or restrict the strategic interaction between New Delhi and these Indo-Pacific democracies; and 3) play a role in shaping the Modi government’s strategy towards the Indo-Pacific, encouraging India to practice non-alignment and strategic autonomy.The year 2018 saw Chinese optimism regarding India reach a crescendo. There were even some discussions in the Chinese press on whether a compromise could be reached such that China would support India’s key aspirations like joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group in return for India hopping onboard BRI.
It was becoming clear that China’s Major Power Strategy was increasingly in tension with its Neighborhood Strategy. A blue book on the Indian Ocean, jointly released in late 2019 by some of China’s top think tanks, further deliberated on how the progression of the Indo-Pacific from an ambiguous concept to a concrete mechanism had put China’s Neighborhood Diplomacy and Major Power Diplomacy strategies vis-à-vis India to a major test. Any Chinese overreaction, they asserted, would accelerate the actual realization of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad and underreaction would further embolden India and others. The report argued that even as India “undoubtedly” occupied a very important position in China’s strategy for responding to the Indo-Pacific concept and beyond, Beijing needed to ensure that India did not become an “excessive diplomatic liability” that would extract high costs for disproportionate benefits. If that happened, the authors asserted, China’s rise would be impacted, and its regional and global ambitions jeopardized even before the Indo-Pacific posed any real threat to China.A 2019 report, jointly released by some of China’s top think tanks, argued that even as India “undoubtedly” occupied a very important position in China’s strategy for responding to the Indo-Pacific concept and beyond, Beijing needed to ensure that India did not become an “excessive diplomatic liability” that would extract high costs for disproportionate benefits.
His key argument was that India’s rise is not necessarily detrimental to China’s interest as this would prevent further polarization of the world and ease the pressure on China. If China managed its relationship with India well, New Delhi would never fully invest in the United States, just like it never fully invested in the Soviet Union and the security situation on China’s western frontier, both land and maritime, would improve significantly. But if China-India ties are impaired beyond repair, India alone or in association with other countries could cause endless trouble for China in the future. For instance, an openly hostile India, in his assessment, could make active efforts to prevent China from reaching the Indian Ocean, be it through Pakistan or Myanmar. On the other hand, any decoupling of China-India relations would only strengthen the anti-China alliance between the United States, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries, whose key objective was to reshape global industrial chains, use the Indo-Pacific strategy to check China’s military and economic power, and expand international organizations such as the G-7 to weaken China’s influence in international affairsThe sheer magnitude of the Galwan incident, the high number of casualities, an unprecedented level of perceived escalation by India, and the global attention around the development caused much unease within Chinese strategic circles.
China seeks India’s cooperation to weaken the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, because, in the Chinese assessment, India is the “key variable” ( 关键变量) determining the success or failure of the strategy. On the other hand, Beijing’s Western Development Strategy, its BRI or Two Oceans Strategy, that is, China’s own version of Indo-Pacific, aimed at connecting the Pacific and Indian Ocean economies under Chinese leadership and opening up a dedicated Indian Ocean exit for China, rests heavily on India. Not to mention, good relations with India give China peace and stability on its western frontier and allows Beijing to keep its entire strategic focus and concentrate its resources on the intensifying rivalry with the United States and its allies. Overall, it is well understood within Chinese strategic circles that India’s cooperation can secure Chinese gains of vital geopolitical and economic consequences, and its non-cooperation can pose the biggest hurdle to China’s South Asia strategy and advancement of its Indian Ocean footprints.By taking a leaf out of China’s own playbook and consistently emphasizing India’s fundamental and growing importance in determining Chinese strategic outcomes – no matter which foreign and defense policy India adopts toward China – Indian policymakers can potentially influence their Chinese counterparts toward greater concessions and conciliation.