India should counter China without necessarily allying with the United States

Things have steadily gone south between India and China, purportedly over territorial spats and Beijing’s malevolent backing of terrorists inimical to New Delhi. Both issues arise from larger differences in perception over each other’s role in the region and across the world. Heated rhetoric, even talk of punitive war, is in the air. It is not a reassuring sight or sound for the world, let alone the neighbourhood, when two of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world taunt and threaten each other through mouthpieces. And it certainly does not behoove legatees of great civilisations.

Such fine sentiments aside, what should be New Delhi’s response to Beijing’s belligerence? Acquiesce and seek accommodation with a neighbour whose economic growth is now the stuff of lore and appears to have given it military heft? Or seek alliances and partnership on its periphery in an effort to counter it? If it adopts the former policy, where does the slippery slope stop or end? And if the latter, how reliable will the partnerships be?

Illustration: Uday Deb

In more propitious times, Indian MP and public intellectual Jairam Ramesh coined the portmanteau term ChIndia amid hopes that constructive cooperation and competition between the Asian giants, who between them account for a third of the world’s population, would trump confrontation and conflict. Indeed, the expectations did not appear entirely misplaced. China became India’s largest trading partner as the two countries attempted to overcome the Himalayan mistrust between them through commercial engagement, even if people-to-people contacts lagged.

But much of the bilateral trade centred on goods and raw materials. Bangalore may have supplied granite for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC in the 1980s, but a decade ago, almost the entire edifice of Beijing Olympics was built on stone from India’s Silicon Plateau. In those intervening decades, the same Plateau’s fecund education system and…

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