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China and India are locked in a complex rivalry. The 2 countries have shared histories of cooperative and competitive dynamics, which has had mixed success in terms of their engagement in the multilateral world. India considers China to be an "asymmetric rival” and its approach is best understood in terms of –

  • Accommodation: Primarily important for domestic stability. A peaceful periphery would allow India to focus on its socio-economic objectives at home; economic growth, job creation and social service provision.

  • Rejection: Of China’s flagship foreign policy project, “The Belt and Road Initiative”

  • Competition: India seems to compete with China alongside USA, Japan, Australia in the wider Indo-Pacific and prevent Chinese hegemony in Asia.

  • Deterrence: the shift in military response from defence to deterrence in the Himalayan frontiers.

Thus, while India aims at safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity, it also hopes to create strategic space for itself in multipolar Asia.

Now, the hot topic of the debate revolves around the question that whether India in its full economic, military and strategic capacity be ever able to stand up to China? Or will it cease to exist under the shadow of Chinese supremacy in the Asian region? The answer lies in several folds of arguments present in the later part of the article.

The causes of Sino-Indian rivalry are rooted in structural factors: from their simultaneous quest for great power status and influence in Asia; to the status of Tibet and presence of Dalai Lama; the ongoing border and river water dispute of the Brahmaputra river; the China Pakistan entente and India’s growing partnership with the USA, Japan and others in the Indo Pacific. These suggest that though India has been able to manage its rivalry with China so far, it still lacks a viable strategy to catch up and compete with China. Few other points to note in this aspect are-

To stand up to China, India needs to learn how our neighbour became a superpower. It is well-known that China’s per capita income in 1978 was even lower than that of India, but today it is almost five times higher. It is this transformation that has made China the world’s second superpower. India has a rare exception in maintaining a consistent stance against China in terms of trade. Be it European Union’s comprehensive agreement on Investment with China or Australian 15 member Regional Comprehensive economic partnership with China; leading countries have found ways to do business with China irrespective of its aggressive or hegemonic stance in world politics. India on the other hand, is left out of all such trade and economic blocs.

Thus, in order to become an alternative and surpass China, India has to step up its game. As US and other companies find it increasingly difficult to operate in China or seek to diversify away from Chinese-led supply chains, India has a strategic opportunity to become an alternative destination for manufacturing in the Indo- Pacific. To fully seize the opportunity, the Indian government may have to put up strong propositions.

  • Globally, India has seen little to change its view that China is seeking to limit India’s space and prevent its rise. Beijing has continued to resist Indian membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), as well as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

  • China’s strategic relationship with Indian rival Pakistan, has deepened in part thanks to CPEC. But even beyond that long-standing partnership, India has watched warily as China’s political, economic, and military ties with India’s other territorial and maritime neighbours have grown. It is concerned about the impact of those ties on its neighbour’s political and economic landscapes, and particularly on their strategic choices that have implications for India.

  • Thus, China has strategically planned on encircling India and thereby maintaining close allies with all other Indian neighbors’ ex. Sri Lanka; to use them to its own advantage against India. India’s pushback against China comes in its open criticism of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has also robustly challenged China in Indo-Pacific and the emergence of the Quad would have remained a pipedream if India hadn’t clarified its foreign policy choices. However, India needs to provide a military outlook to Quad (and not just a political and diplomatic one), for its better effectiveness against countering Chinese predominance in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Developments in the Indian ocean have left both the powers scrambling for legitimacy. For India, China seeks to reinforce its offshore defense capabilities by entering into military and semi-military alliances with partner countries, building ports, posting noncombat troops, and supplying arms to selected partners. Indeed, the Chinese presence is most strongly felt in the Djibouti naval base in the Horn of Africa, on Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, and in the Gwadar Port of Pakistan. Therefore, India is also seeking to extend its outreach over the Pacific. Naval cooperation with like-minded countries like Japan, France, and the United States is at the forefront of India’s maritime strategy. This spirit of conducting vigorous maritime activities with like-minded countries has reinstated a sense of solidarity against rapid Chinese developments.

  • However, the problem for India in effectively challenging China lies in its decision-making process—India might not lack ambition but it certainly lacks the cohesiveness and the resolve to outcompete a country like China.

  • On the defense front, it has become clear that cooperation has limits or at least a long way to go. Asked recently why China was not invited to India’s multilateral maritime exercise MILAN, when more than 40 other countries were, the Indian navy chief recently responded, “we have called the people that we think are like-minded.”

Thus, India is not just keeping an eye on Chinese maritime inroads, but also technological ones. The government’s concern has shown up in warnings to its military not to use Chinese equipment. The Modi Govt. has successfully managed to ban some 18+ Chinese apps in India, which in itself came out as a strong blow to China.

In order to become a credible manufacturing hub and alternative to China, India needs to undertake some serious measures. It needs to maximise its FTA’s and trading MOU’s in order to climb up the ladder of being an important part in the global supply chain. The US, in its feedback to the WTO on India’s trade policy, said that if India continues to raise its tariff structure, it will “not facilitate India’s further integration into global supply chains.”

So, India is now trying to become part of the post-Covid supply chain network by joining certain small groupings in the form of ‘minilaterals’ under the Indo-Pacific strategic initiative. Minilaterals are quintessentially ad-hoc trading arrangements depending on the existing scenarios. They are voluntary setups and not legally binding, unlike large-scale trade pacts. Minilaterals are viewed more critically in trade parlance compared to multilateral trade agreements. And with a weakening WTO, the scope of the multilateral body, to oversee these minilaterals in terms of trade disputes also becomes minimal. India is also part of a supply chain network with Japan and Australia but the real outcome of these arrangements can only be ascertained when trading arrangements such as the CPTPP, RCEP and CAI become activated. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has also kept India on the tenterhooks for not moving ahead effectively on the business and economic initiatives that have been led down under the SAARC or BIMSTEC.

Thus, though India has been doing effectively well, yet there’s still a long way for it to stand up to China in many spheres.

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