China’s great global game with India

India and the United States have been cementing an ever closer partnership since the start of the millennium. Yet, at least in Asia, India has tried to steer clear of America’s geopolitical contest with China.

Take, for example, the South China Sea: In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then US President Barack Obama called upon all parties to resolve disputes amicably under international law. Yet, the following year, when China refused to abide by an international tribunal ruling, India chose not to pass comment.

In 2016, when America approached India with a proposal for joint patrols, New Delhi demurred again. India finally joined the US, Japan and the Philippines in a naval exercise last year, but it still tried to uphold non-alignment: The Indian warships which participated in that exercise had taken part only a few days earlier in a fleet review with the Chinese themselves.

India has also made significant compromises on Tibet and Taiwan. In 2018, two months before Mr Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, the Indian government asked its senior leaders to avoid events featuring the Dalai Lama. Later that year, the state-owned Air India replaced “Taiwan” with “Chinese Taipei” on its website.

Yet, for all the tightrope-walking, New Delhi has not much to show for it. Border stand-offs recur every few years all across the Himalayas. China has also continued to oppose India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group – and has stood alone in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) against Indian interests on Pakistan and Kashmir. Worse, while India has compromised on Tibet and Taiwan, China has been far less sensitive to India’s territorial concerns: Beijing legitimised Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir by planning the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

The root of this conflict is global: India’s non-alignment policy in Asia is not rooted in a non-alignment of interests on the world stage. Owing to similar political and economic structures, India and the US are much better aligned on issues of global governance than India and China – and Beijing knows it.

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