India’s China-US balancing act not sustainable

By Wang Jiamei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/17 20:48:41

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

While yearning for economic gains with China, India cannot help aligning itself closely with the US.

The informal meeting between the leaders of China and India signals closer development ties between the two countries. Additionally, India just agreed to cut or eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of Chinese imports under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) during the latest round of RCEP negotiations, marking a major breakthrough for the 16-country free trade pact.

On the other side, India, Japan, Australia and the US held their first four-way ministerial dialogue session to discuss the Indo-Pacific strategy on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in late September. The Indo-Pacific strategy is actually an updated revision of the US' Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, which is aimed at reshaping partnerships with major Asian allies like India to contain China's growing influence in the region. Observers believe that the elevation of this quadrilateral dialogue to the ministerial level was mainly caused by a change in attitude from the Indian side, which was due in large part to the deepening of US-India relations.

India may be smug about its flexible policy, which allows it to gain by exploiting the tensions between its powerful neighbor and its ally. But how long can it continue to play this balancing act? The increasingly fierce competition is bound to lead to a set of hard choices for India, and its national strength determines that its space to maneuver between China and the US will be limited.

It is true that both the US and China want to have India on their side. In the eyes of the US, India is a key partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy. 

In order to safeguard its leading position in the Indo-Pacific region and to contain China's rise, the US has been actively expanding its Asia-Pacific alliance system to the Indian Ocean to establish the four-way dialogue. In other words, India's attitude is crucial for the formation of the US' Indo-Pacific strategy.

India matters a lot to China if the latter wants a peaceful environment for its strategic development. India is not only one of China's neighbors, but also a major power in the global arena. On many multilateral platforms, India and China share great potential for cooperation. As such, a good China-India relationship can ease China's geopolitical pressure to a large extent.

From the perspective of the Indian side, while India often tends to appease the US, it doesn't want to stand on the opposite side of China considering their common interests on multiple economic fronts. Although India often appears hesitant or resistant toward some China-proposed initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative, in reality it doesn't want to miss the trade opportunities and benefits for its economy and industries.

Fundamentally speaking, India's balancing act underscores its gap with both China and the US. Compared with these countries, India still lags far behind in terms of political influence, military strength and economic power. 

It doesn't have the ability to either contain China's rise directly or counter the US unilateralism alone. Thus, while enhancing interactions with the US, India also needs to maintain close ties with China to safeguard its integration into the China-centered global value chain amid growing trade protectionism.

Of course, it is totally justifiable for India to be concerned about China's rising influence in the region. As India's largest neighbor, China has risen to become the world's second-largest economy, and has a much more advanced industrial manufacturing system. China and Nepal are even reportedly considering the construction of a cross-Himalayan connectivity network.

 Given India's outdated infrastructure, a major drag on its economy, it is no wonder that the country has been feeling the pressure.

It may be difficult for India to accept the rise of a powerful neighbor, which is why it needs another major power to counter China's influence in the region, but no one knows how long it can continue to go between the two powers in today's changeable geopolitical environment.

There is no doubt that India has its own ambition to become a superpower. If it grows strong enough, it is possible for the South Asian country to compete with China through its own development in the region. Nevertheless, it seems that the outlook for its economic growth has not been very optimistic recently. The IMF just slashed its growth projection to 6.1 percent for the current fiscal year, down from its July forecast of 7 percent. The Indian economy expanded at 5 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2019, marking its slowest pace in over six years.

India's top priority is still to develop its own economy. Only with the rise of its economy can it maximize its benefits in any global arena.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

Posted in: INSIDER'S EYE

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