Sino-U.S. Competition and India Policy

U.S. Embassy The Hague

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At the time of India’s independence in 1947 the world had just witnessed the end of the Second World War and was slowly being engulfed in a new power struggle with the Cold War. The brewing trend of the time was that of alliance forming with either of the blocs led by the United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR).

India at that point in time was in the nascent stage of formulating its foreign policy. The policy of “non-alignment” then formed one of the three prongs of Indian foreign policy, as Devdutt points out in his article “Non-Alignment and India”.[ref]Devdutt. 1962. “NON-ALIGNMENT AND INDIA”. The Indian Journal of Political Science 23 (1/4). Indian Political Science Association: 380–97.[/ref]

The basis for the adoption of such an approach was the perception India had about the world during that period. India’s attitude to the Cold War was shaped by various rational and emotional factors. Jawaharlal Nehru, fresh with the memories of colonialism, based India’s foreign policy on the lines of anti-racism, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. This meant not letting India get too close to the West and maintaining its independence.

Although the Cold War has been over for more than two decades, India is still debating its policy of non-alignment. However, this debate over the relevance of non-alignment cannot be branded as futile. Given the present day context of the burgeoning competition between the US and China, a more thorough debate on non-alignment may be overdue. Thus, this article will analyze the nature of Sino-US competition and try and answer the puzzle of why India’s policy of non-alignment is still relevant.

Reviewing the debate on India’s non-alignment policy

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many have come to question the relevance of India’s non-alignment policy. Many have argued that India has now given up its policy of non-alignment and has now moved closer to the United States. However, there are still some who believe that India still needs to adhere to the policy of non-alignment. In the following section, I will give a brief overview of the debates prevailing in India regarding the policy of non-alignment.

Need for a non-alignment policy

The debate revolving around India’s non-alignment was brought into light once again when eight prominent Indian scholars and strategic thinkers gathered together in 2012 and presented a new document entitled, “Non-Alignment 2.0: A foreign and strategic policy for India in the 21st century”.

The authors of the document suggested that this was an attempt to lay out the opportunities enjoyed by India in the international sphere, identify the threats and challenges it is likely to confront and to set out certain principles that India should adopt while it works on enhancing its “strategic autonomy” in global circumstances.

In this document the authors try to re-interpret the old policy of non-alignment in the light of new circumstances. The authors state that unlike the scenario that prevailed during the Cold War where there were two centres of power, in today’s world there are other relevant powers, especially in the regional setting. Thus non-alignment now will be a “skillful management of coalitions and opportunities”, rather than just avoiding being involved in the conflict between two superpowers.

Giving up non-alignment

While this document received some appreciation, it also received a fair share of criticism. Various scholars differed from this view and proposed that it was time India started taking sides and began aligning itself more closely with the US.

One such scholar was Sadanand Dhume. In his piece in Foreign Policy magazine in 2012 he stated that the policy of non-alignment was “like a pesky ghost that won’t be exorcised.”   In his article, Dhume argues that if India views its foreign policy through the lens of national interest rather than abstract doctrine, it will see that the U.S. is its natural partner given the vast range of common interests.

K. Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian diplomat, also pitched in his dissatisfaction with the policy of non-alignment. He argued that the revival of the policy of non-alignment would drag India back into a concept which is not only outdated but also has done more harm than good. He goes on to argue that the original non-alignment policy was “a means to an end peculiar to its times [that] got inflated into a grand philosophy for saving the world”.

In the following section, I will discuss the nature of the present day relationship between China and the US and which policy is the most viable option for India to adopt, vis-à-vis these two states.

Nature of the Sino-US competition and India’s policy options

The rapid growth of China’s economic and military capabilities has led various scholars to ponder the nature of Sino-US relations. Relying on his theory of offensive realism, John Mearsheimer predicts that if China continues its rapid economic growth, a Sino-US conflict is inevitable. He goes on to state that China’s neighbors including Japan, India, Singapore, Vietnam and Russia will eventually form a coalition to contain China.

Yan Xuetong and Qi Haixia have argued that the Sino-US relationship is one based on the strategy of ‘superficial friendship’. They have stated that although China and the US have some differences, they also seek cooperation with one another on various issues, and in a way more concerned with individual benefits than a zero-sum-game. Unlike Mearsheimer, they argue that as long as China and the US do not give up their “superficial friendship” another Cold War is not a probability.

Keeping the above arguments about the nature of Sino-US relations in mind, let us discuss what India’s approach should be towards China and the US.

The current international scenario, where the US and China are locking horns with each other on various issues, seems to present India with a very conducive environment to grow and strengthen its own capabilities. However, this environment will only remain conducive while India remains non-aligned.

The one important flaw in the view of those who state that US would be the “natural partner” is that although India and US share many political values, it would not be wise for India to have a hostile Chinese neighbor on the verge of superpower status.

A better strategy would be for India to cautiously manage its relations to get the best from both China and the US. One of the most viable options for India in the context of the present day Sino-US competition is to maintain its posture towards both states and focus on its internal development.

With the US and China focusing ever more diplomatic energies on one another India has been presented with the space and opportunity to work on the strengthening of its own capabilities. India should use the example of China’s rise in the last decade or two, where it took advantage of the US involvement in Iraq to focus on its own internal development and economic modernization.


India should maintain the policy of non-alignment in the present day context of the Sino-US competition to focus on its internal development. However, an Indian policy of non-alignment should not equate to a policy of isolation. Rather India should maintain cordial ties with both states and not become embroiled in the Sino-US rivalry. In this way India should be able to reap the benefits from both of these crucial relationships.

(I would like to thank Dr. Jabin T. Jacob and Mr. Nishant Lohagun for their critiques and comments)

Image courtesy of U.S. Embassy The Hague

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About Sanjeevan Pradhan

Sanjeevan Pradhan is a postgraduate student of International Relations at Tsinghua University, Beijing. My research interests are international security, great power politics, East Asian studies, Chinese foreign policy and Sino-Indian relations.

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