Conflict or Cooperation: How should India respond to the rise of China?

By Capt. U. S. Gogate & Eshan Arya

Indian PM N. Modi / Photo Wikipedia

India needs a two-pronged approach in response to China’s rise as a major world power. This includes both an external short-term and an internal long-term agenda. The external short-term approach is to change its current projection of India-Japan and USA relations as a threat to China. The internal long-term approach is to improve its own economy.

What is troubling China?

The Chinese refer to the era between the First Opium War of 1839 and the end of World War 2 as the “century of humiliation”. It began when Britain forced China to open its markets to Indian-grown opium. During this period, China lost wars to Britain, France, and Japan. Under the rule of president Xi Jinping, China believes it is back on track to reclaim its rightful position as a world leader. It does not intend to allow foreign powers to humiliate it again.

How Has China developed militarily?

China has been building up artificial islands in the South China Sea, and placing runways, anti-aircraft missiles and land-to-ship missiles on them. China is not able to decide who it will allow through the Straits of Malacca, but might be able to do so in the future. China has promoted its “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which aims to build road and rail links from East Asia to Europe.

How has India responded?

India feels that the Chinese navy is surrounding it by its inroads in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. India has replied by modernising its base on the Nicobar Islands, about 1,000 km northwest of the Straits of Malacca. India has promoted its ‘Sagar Mala’ project, which aims to improve all Indian ports to world standards. It has also promoted Japan’s “Freedom-Corridor” project to connect Asia and Africa with high quality infrastructure. India’s Union Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari says, “The Sagar Mala project will lead to the creation of at least 12 smart cities and has the potential to raise India’s GDP by two per cent”. The routes of the OBOR, Sagar Mala and Freedom-Corridor projects are likely to clash at some point. This clash could be over common strategic routes such as the Straits of Malacca, and the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

How did India react to one belt one road and China’s new military strength?

India has turned down China’s invitation to join the Chinese multi-billion dollar OBOR programme.  India has blamed the project for making smaller countries financially burdened.  India further blamed the OBOR as a violation of the Indian sovereignty as some rail and road lines would cross disputed territory.

In doing so, India has missed an opportunity to build mutual trust with China.  Instead, there was a rise in border tensions and a serious high-tension military standoff between the two nuclear powers.  This standoff lasted three months from June 2017, where the borders of India, China and Bhutan meet.  In addition, China has been building up links with Pakistan.  Many Indians see this as a major hindrance in having good relations with China. They Blame Pakistan for some terrorist attacks inside India.

India’s democratic constitution needs its politicians to face the voters every five years.  This has shaped India’s reaction to the rise of China.  Indian politicians want to get re-elected.

To do so, they avoid saying anything suggesting trust towards China.  India has viewed China as a threat to its national sovereignty since the 1962 Indo-China war.  In this war, India lost large portions of land to China in the Himalayan sectors.  China continues to have border issues with India including over several rivers. .  India feels threatened by China’s new 99-year lease of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka  China is also developing ports in Gwadar in Pakistan, and Chittagong in Bangladesh.  India also feels threatened by the Chinese naval inroads in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean areas.

In 2014, soon after his election as the Prime Minister, Modi embarked on new accommodating equations of International Relations. These included a USD 250 billion defence modernisation plan focused on buying of defence equipment.  Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi have both fired up nationalism in their own countries.

In the case of India, politicians equate “being nationalist” with “being Hindu,” and this alienates the religious minorities.

India should stop focusing its response to China’s rise as a significant power through military readiness alone.

In July 2017, Japan joined India and the US for the second time in the Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal.  These exercises featured 95 planes, 16 ships and 2 submarines.  The Indian public have welcomed these engagements with the US and Japan.  China will always be suspicious of any alliance between India and Japan.  The Chinese government will treat any joint military exercises with the US with suspicion.  China may believe that the US is preparing India to open new western fronts in any future conflict with Japan.  India is also increasing its defence cooperation with Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Malaysia, and Singapore to balance against the rise of China.

China may perceive these relations as a threat because the Indian government is projecting China as an enemy and not a mere trade competitor.

In a military sense, India cannot take on China on its own.  The joint submarines, destroyers and frigates of India, Vietnam and Japan only make two thirds of the number owned by China.  Though history has proven that the military hardware alone is not always the major factor in winning wars, it does matter.  India needs to take a pragmatic view and revise its relationship with China.  It could do so by forming new relationships of deeper understanding, greater partnerships, fewer provocations, and fewer hostile engagements with China.

The nationalist views backed by most of the Indian leaders influence the Indian public.  In addition, the Indian public in turn welcome engagements with the US and Japan.

What should India do now?

However, India needs to adopt an external program to build mutual trust with China, and a programme of modernising itself internally.  Indian politicians should stop always portraying China in a bad light.  Besides, the Chinese firms would slowdown the essential projects already started in India in case of increased military conflicts.

India also needs to assure China of fair business opportunities with India.  India will need to stop depicting China in a bad light as India’s reliance on trade with USA and Japan for economic growth is debatable.  India should give China a practical status of a significant power without compromising its own sovereignty.  Unfortunately, many in India see the Chinese stance of supporting Pakistan as a problem in developing trustworthy trade relations.  This in fact is shifting India’s focus from the bigger threats of the international supply and trade routes in the Malacca straits and the South China Sea.

The long-term tasks for the Indian government include an integration of people of all communities and religions.  The government should not alienate non-Hindus and cause a problem of low competence and low efficiency among its work force.  Failure to do so may weaken the Indian efforts of standing up to China’s surged challenge.  Internally, Indian politicians need to find a unifying agenda for the Indian people other than constantly associating nationalism with Hinduism.

India also needs to create a professional work culture focussing on ethical and efficiency driven behaviour.  India has a tough task of creating a professional work culture, which is sharply lacking in most parts of the country.  Side by side, India needs to impart professionalism and pragmatism among its people.  This way, the public at large understands that a fair-trade engagement with China does not equal a surrender to the enemy.  Hence, Indians would also not vote out any political leader who tries to engage China constructively.  This in turn will ensure continuation of being in power for the current ruling government.

It also needs to step up its efforts to develop its own infrastructure and human resources.  India cannot let its growth rate depend on other countries.  China could soon obstruct the Trade routes that India and Japan depend upon, in the South China Sea.

However, China itself is wary of the counter measures by these new alliances among US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Japan.

India faces a balancing act. India will need some military partnerships with other countries to protect its access to the South China Sea, and also to not being outgunned if its ships are challenged by hostilities near the Suez Canal.

At the same time, it needs to create an atmosphere of mutual trust with China.

This may involve some delicate diplomacy over the coming decades.  

~ ~ 

Eshan 01
Eshan Arya

Capt. U. S. Gogate is a senior merchant navy Captain training ships multi-national officers and crews in ship operating and ship security skills. Eshan Arya is a PhD student in Politics at La Trobe University. Eshan is also founder and President of United and Peaceful Subcontinent Inc: Facebook page here.



References for future reading

Ayres, A 2017, ‘India Objects to China’s One Belt and Road Initiative — And It Has a Point’, Forbes Foreign Affairs, viewed 19 October 2017, Link here.

Bano, S 2017, ‘India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) Membership and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, vol. 25, no. 2014, pp. 117-135.

Bipindra, NC 2017, ‘Rigid rules trip Modi’s $250 billion plan to modernise India’s defence’, The Economic Times, viewed 24 October 2017, Link here.

Chadda, M 2002, ‘Integration through internal reorganization: Containing ethnic conflict in India’, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, vol. 2, no. 1.

Challenges,’ New Delhi, UNESCO.

Chatterjee, A 2011, ‘India-China-United States: The Post-Cold War Evolution of a Strategic Triangle’, Political Perspectives, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 74-95.

Gopalakrishnan, R and Torode, G 2017, ‘Unsure of U.S., Asia builds new alliances to counter China’, Reuters, viewed 12 October 2017, Link here.

Malik, M 2017, ‘China and India: The Roots of Hostility’, The Diplomat, viewed 1 October 2017, Link here.

Rajan, SI 2013, ‘Internal Migration and Youth in India: Main Features, Trends and Emerging

Rao, R 2017, ‘China May Be an Adversary, But Making It an Enemy Will Not Serve India’, The Wire, viewed 15 October 2017, here.

Sethi, AS 2017, ‘Indian Navy outgunned 1 to 4 as China steps up presence in Indian Ocean’, Hindustan Times, viewed 27 October 2017, Link here.

Simran, R 2017, ‘By needling 3 great powers simultaneously, China probably just punctured its own future’, The Economic Times, viewed 12 October 2017, Link here.

UNESCO 2013, ‘Social Inclusion  Social Migrants in India’, Internal migration in India Initiative, UNICEF, viewed 12 October 2017,  here.

Varma, D and Abbas, R 2014, ‘Internal Labour Migration in India Raises Integration Challenges for Migrants’, Migration Policy Institute, viewed 19 October 2017, here.

Vishnoi, A 2016, ‘Why India failed to enter NSG’, The Economic Times, viewed 21 October 2017, here.

Wang, VW 2012, ‘The Rise of China, the Rise of India, and the Changing Geopolitics of Asia: Contending Perspectives on India-China Relations’, In Towards a New Asian Order, edited by Ali, A, Jagannath, P and Singh, PK, 81-109. New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis.


  1. Its really in depth analysis of exact situation prevailing in India. I must congratulate both the writers for providing well studied valuable insight on this important subject. Congrats Ishan &Sachin


  2. Highly educative Article. As India can not dispense with China, the article arouses interest in the advocated two pronged approach. Will be interesting to learn as to how India can balance good neighbourly relations with Long Term Economic and Regional Security – not just Defence against external aggression. The Article is a must read concise and comprehensive capsule for students


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