Synopsis of Indian Thinking about China, 2018-2022
On May 23-24, 2022, Prime Minister Modi Narendra visited Tokyo for the Quad summit amid intense scrutiny of India’s positions on the Ukraine War (then starting its fourth month) and Taiwan (which Joe Biden on the 23rd said the US would defend if China attacked it). He explained that the other Quad members understand India’s position on Ukraine and Russia, and he made sure that China was left unmentioned in the Quad statements. What should we make of Modi’s wariness? To seek some clarity, we trace the evolution of Indian thinking about China over four years and recognize linkages with its response to Russia’s invasion.
India’s reactions to geopolitical events in recent years have perplexed observers. It joined the new Quad and leaned toward the United States, while it fought military skirmishes in the Himalayas in 2017 and 2020. Then, it stayed aloof from the United States after Russia invaded Ukraine, despite US entreaties. Meanwhile, Indo-Japanese relations have deepened, but New Delhi is also re-engaging with the BRICS. Key to Indian attitudes in today’s shifting conditions is thinking about China, affected by three variables rooted in bilateral relations—geopolitics, economics, and national identity. Drawing on a string of publications, this article traces Indian thinking about China from 2018 to 2022.
The starting point here is that the situation in the Indo-Pacific changed significantly from 2018 under the impact of five factors: the worsening of Sino-US relations; the worsening of Sino-Indian relations; the impact of the formation of the Quad; the pandemic; and the Ukraine war. The articles incorporated into this synopsis discussed one or another of the five developments. Reflecting on them together allows for a broader perspective on how the five factors collectively impacted India’s changing view and posture toward China.
As polarization intensifies in the shadow of these recent developments, where will India stand? The Quad summit of May 2022 showcases its alignment with the United States and Japan as well as Australia. The ongoing Ukraine war, however, muddies the picture, as entreaties by Washington and Tokyo have failed to persuade New Delhi to distant itself from Moscow. Recent articles offer some context for its choices.
The Sino-US Relationship and India’s Response
The years 2018-19 spelled the decisive downturn of a relationship on the rocks since early in that decade. Beijing interpreted Obama’s “pivot to Asia” as containment, and Washington perceived Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) as a Sinocentric, exclusive sphere of influence. However, there was no overarching downward spiral in relations until 2018 when security, trade, and identity deteriorated in tandem. Given parallel assessments of negative domestic trends, an arrogant China and an alarmed US put an ideological twist on a deepening rivalry.
Two far-reaching perceptions underscored the impact on India of the downward spiral in Sino-US relations. First, the two were proposing forms of regionalism extending into the Indian Ocean incompatible with each other and impinging on India’s own regional sphere of influence. Second, for each a single partner with important ties with India was ascendant in its regional balance of power calculus. Russia proposed a troika extending to India for a Greater Eurasian Partnership, and Japan proposed a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) anchored in India. Unlike Xi Jinping’s BRI or the “America First” doctrine of Donald Trump, these were multipolar frameworks with India in mind. Xi paid lip service to Vladimir Putin’s conception, and Trump took as his own strategy Abe Shinzo’s idea. India was tugged both ways.
By the end of 2017 a sense of urgency was growing in Washington over the need for India to be part of a collective response to China’s encroachments in South Asia. Perceptions of the BRI drove New Delhi’s response, exacerbated by concern that US withdrawal from TPP left it without an alternative. A case was made that alone Washington and Delhi would have little prospect of countering what was seen as a trillion-dollar challenge to a rules-based order both valued. Daniel Kliman wrote, “India largely views BRI as an extension of a long-term Chinese strategy of encirclement.” He added that BRI “could still reshape the economic and geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean rim and Eurasia in ways that pose a challenge to the existing rules-based international order… to parlay dual-use infrastructure constructed by its BRI investments into future military facilities that could provide a basis for projecting power.” Kliman added that the Obama administration gave priority to “addressing climate change, promoting global economic development, and ensuring support for UN Security Council sanctions against Iran… On the competitive side, countering Beijing’s construction and subsequent militarization of artificial island outposts in the South China Sea absorbed the attention of senior officials. Consequently, the Obama administration never formalized a view of BRI.”
The Trump administration started with general skepticism about China’s intentions coupled with concerns about BRI creating an unequal playing field for US companies and using financial leverage for geopolitical advantage. Talks to revive the Quad, involving India, had begun, reflecting also rising Indian concerns about Chinese encirclement.
Kliman stated, “Indian fears of strategic strangulation by a Chinese ‘string of pearls’ proved premature, not necessarily overblown.” As seen from Delhi, elements of BRI pose an immediate challenge spanning the diplomatic, economic, and military domains. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through Kashmir and is developing Gwadar into a possible military port, is at the center of concern. The debt trap that obliged Sri Lanka to transfer a port as a strategic asset to China also fueled the view that BRI poses a zero-sum competition. While prime ministers Narendra Modi and Abe had signed many agreements in 2017, including endorsing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and Modi had refused to attend the May BRI forum in Beijing, there was not yet a collective response to counter China’s planned economic and security order. India and Japan awaiting a US proposal is the impression one could surmise at the end of 2017.
It was the deterioration of Sino-US relations in 2018 that set in motion what for India would be transformative events. Yet 2018 can best be called a transitional year. Trump’s intentions were unclear. Modi had previously thought he could put relations with China on a more positive course. But after the lengthy military stand-off at Doklam, with India coming to the rescue of Bhutan against China’s territorial encroachment, the China challenge looked more serious. At the same time, India’s rejection of BRI and closer ties with Japan rattled ties with China. Already, Modi was echoing Abe’s pursuit of a FOIP and joining in the diplomatic meetings called the Quad, while the December 2017 US National Security Strategy suggested growing US interest. With Abe Shinzo beckoning and the Trump administration showing more interest, but above all, owing to alarm over the BRI and Beijing’s aggressive posture, Modi tilted away from China as Sino-US ties worsened.
Thomas Lynch accentuates the fact that in India, “there is broad political consensus that strategic relations with Japan are very important, topped by strategic economic engagement to robust economic growth, industrialization, and modernization of its infrastructure,” and after lagging, “defense cooperation has begun advancing rapidly in military-to-military exercises, exchanges, and military equipment and technology transfers.” At a critical juncture, Abe drew India closer, even if it was “unable to join in a full-throated criticism of China” given its heavy economic dependence. As Abe pursued Xi and had qualms about Trump, ties with Modi advanced, leading to the first India-Japan 2+2 foreign and defense dialogue, in 2019. Yet, India’s orientation stayed in flux in 2018.
At the same time, at a Wuhan informal summit with Xi Jinping in April and at the Shangri-La Dialogue soon afterwards, Modi appealed for reconciliation, saying, “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests.” Rahul Mishra explains that “Beijing’s decision to engage India through Wuhan seems to be aimed at blunting and softening India’s eagerness for the Quad. China seems to have achieved some success in that regard.” At Shangri-La Modi had not even mentioned the Quad. Joining the SCO, Modi might have considered that as a balance to the Quad. Yet, at the SCO meeting, India alone opposed the BRI. The 2018 thaw in Indo-Chinese relations proved to be short-lived, yet another unsuccessful attempt by India to reset bilateral relations through summit-level, top-down diplomacy. India felt more threatened by the BRI, China’s “string of pearls” in its neighborhood, and Sino-Pakistan strategic ties. Meanwhile, as US ties to China deteriorated, opportunities were growing to put new teeth into the embryonic Quad.
India’s great power maneuvering at the end of the 2010s would be incomplete without mention of Russia. In the context of Trump’s assertive approach to China and lingering possibilities of reducing tensions with China, Modi not only kept the rising momentum with Abe but showed new interest in ties with Putin. As Tanvi Madan explains, Modi gave the keynote address at the 2019 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, to diversify a narrow relationship centered on arms sales and to encourage a “rethink in Russia about the Indo-Pacific.” The defense technology acquired from Russia, e.g., nuclear-powered submarines and S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems despite the threat of US sanctions, helped to balance China, and also sent the clear signal that Modi sought multipolarity while trying to forestall the tightening of Sino-Russian ties, Russia’s newly problematic position on India-Pakistan relations, and a “drift in India-Russia ties.” Madan writes,
“like Japan, it is trying to limit Russia’s China relationship—in part by conveying to the Kremlin that China is not its only option. Thus, Modi made it a point to reassure Russia that it remained a priority for his government.”
Alarmed by China and eager to keep Russia from tilting sharply to China over India, Modi found little understanding in Moscow for his efforts to build closer ties with Japan and especially the United States. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the Indo-Pacific concept raised by India “as an “artificially imposed concept” designed by the US, Australia, and Japan, “with an apparent goal of containing China.” He was “careful not to criticize India, instead portraying it as a subject of major power machinations.” India strove to turn Russian eyes to maritime Asia and away from Chinese thinking about the Indo-Pacific concept, contesting its “Turn to the East” becoming a “turn to China.” It refuted Russian charges that the Indo-Pacific idea is dividing the region, insisting that this ideal could be unifying, inclusive of the US and Japan and open to others.
Although a new US president might take office in 2021, the assumption by the end of 2019 was that Sino-US tensions would only grow worse. As Abe, Modi sought to keep Putin from fully siding with Xi, but more than Abe, Modi was clearly wary about fully supporting US strategic designs.
The Trump visit to India on February 24-25, 2020, gave more momentum to the relationship with security ties and China in the forefront, especially given the absence of a trade deal. Shared wording about a free, open, and rules-based Indo-Pacific reinforced the sense that architecture at odds with China’s is a joint objective. Although Trump had previously described India in negative ways and Modi’s nationalist policies, notably toward Kashmir and Muslims, had aroused some in Washington (mostly Democrats), the strategic imperative was undiminished. Even India’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 system was secondary when, as Michael Kugelman wrote, “Security cooperation, the partnership’s sweet spot, remains strong and—impelled by shared concern about China and convergent policies on the Indo-Pacific—is poised for further growth… Overall, the US-India relationship is in a good place. In a volatile, topsy-turvy era for US foreign policy, with the Trump administration having alienated some longtime friends (such as NATO allies) and attracted some bitter foes (read North Korea), the US-India relationship represents a rare case of stability and predictability.”
The Sino-Indian Relationship and Indian Thinking to mid-2020
In 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the Chinese conveyed the impression that Modi’s foreign policy was at a crossroads. The bilateral momentum of the Wuhan summit had not fully dissipated, and the Modi-Trump relationship was still problematic. In mid-2019, Xavier wrote, “While a Sino-Indian ‘modus vivendi’ through coexistence remains a possibility, Modi’s foreign policy suggests that the probability is unlikely.” The Chinese were uncertain of Modi’s economic strategy and “wavering between a Eurasian (SCO) agenda or a US-led agenda to contain China militarily,” Rozman observed. Yet “The Chennai summit in October 2019 between Modi and Xi was far from successful. Xi was apparently pursuing an ambitious agenda, as reflected in earlier Chinese articles on the relationship, eager for connectedness through Nepal, and to get India to follow through on its entry into the SCO and a finishing round of RCEP talks. Yet Modi limited his interest to bilateral economic ties (reducing a huge trade deficit through balancing) and failed to cap the meeting with any symbol of an improving relationship,” Kugelman said. Sino-Indian relations, arguably, had missed their chance.
Chinese authors recognized the precipice on which relations hung and appeared to try to point in one direction or another. “Articles over the winter months reflected on India’s role as a new member of the SCO, its decision not to join RCEP, the visit of Donald Trump to India, and the impact of the pandemic on Sino-Indian relations,“ Rozman wrote in April 2020, citing the remark that “The only choice should be for the “dragon and elephant to dance together” (longxiang gongwu). . . . A rise in protectionism, clashing views of economic regionalism, and a security split were all feared as 2020 began. The improved atmosphere in 2018-19 was already showing signs of fraying by the start of 2020.” Modi’s delicate balancing act to rework non-alignment was becoming complicated by Xi s assertive moves for a new order. India had joined the SCO but China feared it could be a disruptive influence; India is rejecting RCEP and is critical of BRI; and India’s strategic ties to the US are an issue. These were warnings readily visible in the mainstream Chinese coverage.
The debate in China swirling into 2020 found articles crediting Modi with resisting US appeals threatening to China, wavering without a final stance, or casting his lot with US containment. In the first camp were those who emphasized the sharp Indo-US gap in strategic thinking, e.g., arguing that India wants an ASEAN-centered region and focuses on economic ties and infrastructure while the US seeks a narrowly oriented security nexus and is not viewed as dependable on economics. Rozman’s summary found one Chinese approach saying that India’s “Indo-Pacific” concept and dreams were completely different from those of the US and that “Trump returned empty-handed on drawing India into the US Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Another Chinese viewpoint was that the situation was in flux. India “could opt for a network of Eurasian strategic regionalism or it would become a negative influence aiming to balance China and Pakistan. At present its positive influence exceeds its negative influence, but it could become a negative factor in the development of the SCO since it regards the organization as a China-led mechanism designed to expand China’s influence. The SCO is at a crossroads, [and] Sino-US relations are poised to become more antagonistic. India could be a disruptive factor.” Along the same lines, it was said, “Since Obama was in office, the US sees ‘armed India’ as part of rebalancing, relaxing exports of the most advanced military technology and agreeing to joint production. This breaks the balance in South Asia… worsening the confrontation between India and Pakistan and pulling on India to contain China. Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy is actually Asia-Pacific plus India, but India insists on diversifying to boost its bargaining power.” Such analyses leave India’s choice open.
More ominous for Chinese ties with India were warnings that “the joint statement has wording suggestive of some ‘strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific,’ although explicit wording to this effect was eschewed—due to Modi’s caution.” Also, Global Times charged that India had committed a February 2020 provocation by detaining a ship supposedly carrying equipment to make nuclear weapons and seized material for manufacturing long-range missiles as if China were violating Security Council restrictions. Thus, it was seen as insulting China. The warning concludes that “While China is working to forge a new relationship of ‘dragon and elephant dancing together,’ the arrogant Indian government and the governing Hindu nationalists are trying to act as a ‘police officer’ in the Indian Ocean, and China must counter such provocative actions.” None of the three perspectives accepted India’s strategic needs or its concern about China’s behavior. A hard line was gaining in China.
Rush Doshi began a 2020 chapter with the quote, “Hindu nationalism risks pushing India into war with China.” The May 2019 election victory gave Modi and the BJP a resounding mandate, but Doshi observes, it views Islam, not the West or China, as the salient other. He argues that China plays a relatively limited and often contradictory role in nationalist discourse. . . Hindu nationalists view China through a variety of lenses—sovereignty, trade, and values… And in some areas, Hindu nationalists even admire Chinese approaches.” They see China as a threat on sovereignty and the status of Tibet, but Muslims and Pakistan are of far greater concern among the rank-and-file. Some see China as a threat to domestic industry; others show little concern. Some attack Western civilization and make common cause with China eager for pan-Asian thinking. To the extent the border issue flares or Buddhist suppression in Tibet draws scrutiny, the focus could turn to China, but no less likely was commonality with China against Western criticisms. Doshi describes the uncertain pull of nationalism at the start of 2020.
The Pandemic’s Impact
Amidst a spike in Hindu nationalism, the COVID-19 pandemic brought new tensions to Sino-Indian relations. By the spring of 2020 China was feeling confident. Observers predicted a more assertive approach to India as China grew emboldened by its rapid emergence after a short lockdown stage centered in Wuhan and India succumbed to what seemed to be accelerated devastation, e.g., Modi’s announced shutdown in late March. Mutual distrust grew as Chinese faulted India for withholding masks from export at the outset, and India joined many in blaming China for its early handling of the outbreak. Wuhan acquired a more negative meaning rather than the “Wuhan spirit” serving as the springboard for the expected celebration of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2020. As Tanvi Madan argued, “COVID-19 would reinforce and increase rather than alleviate competition… with pandemic response and recovery efforts being seen through a competitive prism.”
As Madan wrote in the spring of 2021, “Together, the pandemic and the boundary crisis have ensured that the competitiveness and conflictual elements of the India-China relationship have been front and center over the last year. They have reinforced and accelerated concerns in India.” She focuses first on the pandemic, stressing that, strategically, Indians were concerned that China was using this chance to increase its influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region by its medical supplies and claims of a superior system of governance. At a time of supply disruptions, India was concerned about overdependence on China for industrial supplies. Some even began to argue that lack of democracy was the problem. A former foreign secretary said that the initial handling of the virus “dispelled the myths around the Beijing consensus.” The public response built on existing concerns and even stereotypes about China. In 2019, only 23 percent of Indian respondents had a favorable view of China. This negativity spiked amid criticism “for China’s lack of disclosure, its influence on the WHO, its sidelining of Taiwan, the quality of Chinese medical supplies, and what were seen as Beijing’s efforts to take diplomatic or commercial advantage of the crisis.” There was no “wolf warrior” direct targeting of India, but Global Times cited reports that Indian frozen seafood carried the virus or even speculated it might have originated in India, Madan’s coverage noted.
The Border Clash and Indian Thinking from mid-2020
Tanvi Madan in 2021 saw the border flare-up of 2020 along with the pandemic as a one-two punch to Indian views of China. Whatever benefits came from Chinese diplomatic overtures through the spring of 2020, the June border clash—more serious than earlier ones in 2013 and 2014—proved to be a gamechanger. It accompanied assertive moves against Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, and Japan, as well as the South China Sea. The boundary standoff continued in 2021. China sought business as usual, but India demanded restoration of the prior boundaries and a reset of the relationship. The impact for India was significant, Madan argues, damaging trust and hardening views of China: “It has weakened the hands of those in Indian policymaking circles who argued for more engagement with China or for the idea that economic ties would help alleviate political strains.” This was a watershed moment, leading to a more adversarial relationship. Public calls for a boycott were heard at this time of strain.
Indians blamed China for launching an unprovoked attack, violating the bilateral understanding on how to keep peace at the line of actual control (LAC) in the Himalayas. Threat perceptions of China on the northern border were heightened, but so too was alarm about China’s expanded involvement in South Asia and rising naval presence in the Indian Ocean. A qualitative shift with little dissent left could be traced to the armed conflict in 2020.
Looking back on the June 2020 clash in the Himalayas, we can discern an end to India’s idealist engagement of China and a boost to the Quad and US ties. In turn, China grew more assertive in criticizing India, even if it has been inconsistent in the tactics it has chosen. The Biden administration took office eager to capitalize on India’s diplomatic reconsideration.
The Impact of the Ukraine War
Although the Quad was advancing in 2020 and 2021, India was pursuing diplomacy with Russia and meeting with China as a troika or in the SCO. Russia was leaning strongly to China, but it held out hope for both Sino-Indian reconciliation and India staying aloof from the US strategy for the Indo-Pacific, insisting that India’s vision of that differed sharply.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, two months after Putin paid a visit to New Delhi, reminding Modi of the deep historical roots of the relationship. If geopolitics did not look promising, except limited cooperation on Afghanistan after the US pullout, the two sides could highlight the arms trade and downplay signs of declining shared interests with pledges to do better. As the US warned of Russia’s invasion, India stayed quiet on the fence.
India was the epitome of neutrality during the first months of the war. Why? At least five reasons can be cited. First, it was wedded to great power balancing in a multipolar context, avoiding the loss of autonomy so vital to its identity. Turning against Russia would have meant the end of such autonomy by hitching its future to the Quad and the West. The second reason is that Russia, especially at the UN Security Council, offers India ideological insurance against the Western agenda of democracy and human rights. Joining in a perceived defense of Ukraine on the basis of values and repudiation of Russia, for which value differences have been of little consequence, is unwelcome.
Third, is geopolitical self-interest, forestalling a complete Russian tilt to China and even to Pakistan. While driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing has failed at the SCO and elsewhere, preventative moves are still on the table. Fourth, India’s immediate interests are regional, not global. In South Asia and even Southeast Asia, the prevailing consensus is aloofness from distant struggles. Were India to become a player in the international maneuvering over a European war, there would be nothing to gain in its neighborhood. Fifth, its reliance for arms on Russia is not quickly reversible. The cost of alienating Russia is high.
As seen at the May Quad summit, India’s neutrality has not undermined its appeal to Tokyo and Washington. It is not doing much to help evade sanctions, given the low level of trade, and it is too vital versus China.
There are three explanations for the relative harmony of the Quad summit despite discord over Russia. First, patience toward India’s reluctance to fault Russia is easier when there is an expectation that meager Indo-Russian trade means that India’s impact on the sanctions regime will be slight. Second, opportunities to boost security cooperation with the other Quad members, mostly the United States, including defense manufacturing inside India, are assumed to lower India’s dependence on Russian arms. In a short timeframe, Russia’s setbacks from the Ukraine war are seen as loosening India’s ties to it with no need for pressure that could prove counterproductive. A third factor is the ambitious Indo-Pacific Economic Security Framework (IPEF), which welcomes India as a vital force for its success.
The Quad in Light of Its Four Summits and China’s Response
As the Quad deepened and expanded in 2021-22, China’s adversarial view of India’s participation in it echoed in warnings to other countries in South Asia and in charges that India was destabilizing the region. Xavier mentions Beijing’s critique that India risks disrupting the balance of power in South Asia. China’s actions have aggravated Sino-Indian regional interactions, stalling progress on India-Pakistan normalization and resulting in a proxy battle for political influence in Nepal. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka rival moves were also pronounced, as Beijing even attributed the “tensions, competition, and even conflict in South Asia’s third countries solely to India’s participation in the Quad.”
If the Quad intensified the split in the region, Xavier sees that as more a symptom than a cause: “Bilateral economic interdependence is now seen as a problem in New Delhi, keen to diversify its partnerships to reduce its reliance on the Chinese economy. This was one reason why New Delhi had already opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), in late 2019, and why it subsequently accelerated alternative economic agreements with Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and the European Union. Yet the most significant response from India came as a proactive participation in the Quad, which saw unprecedented progress after 2020.” For India, the choice is between Chinese hegemony and a multipolar Asia, anchored in ASEAN centrality as well as the Quad.
Xavier summarizes thinking as the following. First, “China is the predominant yet not exclusive factor that informs India’s interest in the Quad… a principal balancing mechanism to compensate for the rising asymmetry in capabilities… the Quad’s single most important focus is to change Chinese behavior by constraining yet not containing its power.” Second, in parallel to other balancing instruments, one Indian official notes that “the Quad partnership is one of the ways in which we could address strategic competition and geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific region… various circles of engagement give Indian foreign policy a degree of flexibility and room for maneuver vis-à-vis major powers and enhance its strategic autonomy.” And finally, “India has remained adamant about keeping the initiative flexible, without a formal, institutional or treaty structure… reportedly opposed a secretariat, preferring to let the Quad develop organically.” In the words of one analyst he quoted, the Quad acts “less as a bloc of four countries and more as a matrix of trilateral and bilateral relationships” which is leading to “increasingly shared strategic worldviews, greater comfort levels and growing habits of cooperation.”
Xavier recognizes policy divergence between India and the United States, as on Myanmar, and problems for India of the perception that the Quad is a US instrument, which emboldens India to meddle more across South Asia and bolsters the need to turn to China as a hedge. New Delhi “faces the dilemma of how deep to engage with the United States in the region’s third countries, whether through bilateral policy coordination or the Quad.” Smaller states are keen on maintaining their decision-making autonomy.
He concludes, “The predominant view is that the Quad represents a crystallization of the U.S.-led, non-China camp in an increasingly bipolar and competitive regional order that could escalate into open conflict.” He notes “the dissonance in popular perspectives of the Quad and the BRI: the former as a security-oriented and potentially destabilizing ‘alliance’ and the latter as a strictly development-oriented, benign economic ‘partnership.’” Finally, there is concern that the Quad’s democratic values could lead to political interference. “Coupled with the Quad’s predominant security agenda and its limited economic dimension, regional leaders tend to be wary of the political pillar of a democratic Quad. This stands in contrast with popular perceptions of China’s ‘win-win’ and ‘no-strings-attached’ economic assistance under the BRI, which Beijing and regional leaders tend to pitch as a ‘neutral’ initiative devoid of any political implications or interference.”
Xavier argues that “New Delhi and Beijing are now locked into a difficult renegotiation of the most fundamental terms of their bilateral relationship,” and that India has decreased its threat assessments of the United States, Japan, Australia, and other powers that constitute whatever remains of the Cold War, U.S.-led security system.” Yet, there is a regional policy dilemma. “To what extent, and in what form, should India optimally use the Quad in its immediate regional periphery? Will the Quad complicate its relations with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka? Or will it enhance India’s capabilities to deny or deter China’s growing regional footprint?” Xavier calls for Quad reinvention with a greater economic focus, taking advantage of setbacks that China is now facing in South Asia with promised BRI investments not materializing and interventionist behavior backfiring, Biden’s IPEF could help.
Rohan Mukerjee focuses on India-Japan relations in his discussion of the Quad, covering India-China ties only briefly. He cites three goals for Japan, “restrain China, keep the United States engaged, and maintain access to the maritime commons,” and India’s goal of “developing hard-power capabilities while building a host of strategic partnerships with countries that might help deter or restrain China in a future crisis.” This leads to alignment “placing limits on China’s assertiveness and securing freedom of navigation across the Indo-Pacific region…The Quad, which initially appeared to be a military coalition aimed at China…has evolved into an effort at safeguarding regional order and providing common goods.”
Mukherjee warns: “India and Japan have an interest in maintaining what might be called an optimal level of competition and conflict between the United States and China. Too much conflict forces them to choose, while inviting provocations from China for being aligned or allied with the United States. Indeed, a consistent theme of Chinese state-run media’s messaging to India since the onset of the Ladakh crisis has been the allegation that India is a US puppet being manipulated into weakening China. Too little US-China conflict risks accommodation that might overlook or disregard the interests of India and Japan. A US distracted in other regions—as it currently is in Europe—would portend a weakening of extended deterrence in Asia. Both will shy away from versions of the Quad that either fully accommodate or actively contain China, or moves toward excluding regional actors.”
He also adds: “The implications for the Quad were evident in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India’s calculus was informed not just by its heavy arms dependence on Russia but also its broader desire to maintain relations with an historically important pole in an evolving multipolar international order. A similar difference can be seen on Taiwan, with Japan’s position shifting in favor of publicly stating a willingness to aid in the defense of Taiwan, while India still only uses the language of trade and people-to-people ties. If Sino-Indian relations deteriorate, India may be willing to see a more hard-edged Quad.”
The early Biden administration can be divided into two: strengthening of the Quad in 2021, and holding a Quad summit in the shadow of the Ukraine war launched by Russia three months earlier. During Biden’s trip to Japan on May 24, he faced new uncertainties with India due to differences over the war but also new opportunities, building on recent momentum with others in joining to impose sanctions and export controls on Russia. Unveiling the IPEF, he simultaneously boosted the Quad with a greater economic security component, offering carrots to India in technology cooperation, and in military security, especially joint defense production with India.
The Quad statement pointed to shared concern about China without mentioning it by name, warning of “challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas.” It added, “We strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions in the area, such as the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities.” Military security drew the most attention, especially in light of the Ukraine war and Biden’s remark about Taiwan the day before. Another reason was the fact that Chinese and Russian bombers chose to fly a joint strategic patrol over nearby waters on that same day. Economic security was in the forefront too, not only because of IPEF, but due to the launch of the India-US Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) to forge closer linkages between government, academia, and industry of the two countries in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 5G and 6G, biotech, space, and semiconductors.
Biden “condemned Russia’s unjustifiable war against Ukraine” during his bilateral meeting with Modi, the White House reported, but there was no indication that Modi expressed similar sentiments. Biden raised the war in Ukraine, saying he and Modi would discuss its effect “on the entire global world order.” Thus, the focus was redirected from placing blame to coping with disruptions such as on energy and food prices, from which India is suffering. Biden declared that he is “committed to making the US-India partnership among the closest we have on Earth.” Modi praised the US-India relationship as “a partnership of trust,” a force for global good, and referred to “common interests and shared values” as well as economic cooperation. Also, he called Quad meetings “very positive and productive.” China could not have been pleased.
The Quad is today India’s primary framework of choice to deal with the China challenge. But it coexists with other frameworks and balancing mechanisms that New Delhi will keep investing in to pursue its strategic dream of a multipolar world. No other major power today is able to be a trusted player on so many different platforms, working simultaneously with the Quad, on the one hand, and the SCO and BRICS, on the other hand.
Over the last few years, India’s strategic pendulum has, however, shifted significantly towards the Quad. While this convergence is irreversible, New Delhi will continue to proceed cautiously given its legacy of strategic autonomy, close defense ties with Russia, Hindu nationalism, and protectionist trade policies. The single most disruptive force since 2018 has been the view that China poses a geopolitical threat to India’s northern border, major power leadership in South Asia, and also maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Given substantial trade with China, concern over vulnerability to pressure has risen. An identity clash with China has grown, too, but it is less about democracy versus authoritarianism or even Hindu nationalist arousal than about a rule-based order and spillover from Sino-Pakistan closeness. The Quad has security, economic, and even identity appeal.
Five developments over four years have contributed to a more critical Indian view of China. The deepening Sino-US rift, along with the shift of Japan and Australia away from China has alerted India to China’s impact and presented it with more eager overtures to recalibrate its balance. The sharp Chinese tone toward India as well as China’s aggressive behavior close to India’s borders has made the turn from China more urgent. Further, the pandemic weakened trust in India, as trust was building with both Japan and the United States. An inflection point occurred in June 2020 when Chinese and Indian troops engaged in lethal combat in the Himalayas. If the Ukraine war seemed to boost prospects of Sino-Indian cooperation because neither criticized Russia, the US downplayed concern about the Indian response, which in fact, had to do with alarm about China benefiting from Russia’s isolation and further turn to it. The May 2022 Quad summit reenforced India’s support for an agenda to constrain China, although it remained cautious about naming China directly.
The fourth Quad summit in 14 months (2 of which were virtual) has significance as the point of no return for India’s relationship with China. It solidified the new grouping in spite of the shadow of disagreement about Russia. It boosted consensus on countering China, applying lessons learned in the response to Russia, although no mention of Taiwan was approved by Modi. Above all, the Tokyo summit reflected clear-cut US leadership, backed by a newly unveiled economic security framework. Agreeing to new, joint defense production and protection of a rule-based order, India stood firmly on one side as Chinese tension with the US and its allies was deepening. If it appeared that the Ukraine war was a blow to the Quad, it actually clarified India’s new alignment and commitment to it.
* This is a synthesis of eight articles scattered in two publications, which Rozman has edited. In chronological order, they are: Daniel Kliman, “Expanding US-India Geoeconomic Cooperation amid China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” The Asan Forum, December 23, 2017; Thomas F. Lynch, III, “Balancing China and Transcending Pax America: India and Japan as Emerging Strategic Bookends,” The Asan Forum, July 19, 2018; Michael Kugelman, “Post-Trump’s India Visit: The US-India Partnership Is in a Good Place,” The Asan Forum, April 6, 2020; Rush Doshi, “China’s Role in India’s Hindu Nationalist Discourse,” in Joint-U.S.-Korea Academic Studies. East Asian Leaders’ Geopolitical Frameworks, National Identity Impact, and Rising Economic Concerns with China (Washington DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2021); Jagannath Panda, “India’s Quad Calculus and China,” The Asan Forum, June 23, 2021; Tanvi Madan, “The Coronavirus: Fueling Concerns and Contrasts between India and China,” in Joint-U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: Questioning the Pandemic’s Impact on the Indo-Pacific: Geopolitical Gamechanger? Force for Deepening National Identity Clashes? Cause of Shifting Supply Chains? (Washington DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2021); Rohan Mukerjee, “India-Japan Relations and the Quad after Abe Shinzo,” and Constantino Xavier, “India, China, and the Quad in South Asia,” in Joint-U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: The Indo-Pacific in the Shadow of the Ukraine War: Pursuing the Quad, Reshaping Regional Economic Order, Korea’s Response to New National identity Pressure (Washington DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2022). Shorter national commentaries in The Asan Forum, e.g., by Madan, Rahul Mishra, and Rozman provide additional material as well.