The India-US joint vision statement has committed the two countries to “promote the shared values that have made our countries great”. This none-too-subtle promise to stand up to China’s authoritarianism is followed by a promise to uphold “freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. The declaration marks a dramatic departure in the language of Indian diplomacy, generally shy of such ideological messaging, but also in attitudes to China. It wasn’t too many months ago that New Delhi was reluctant even to conduct serious military-to-military exercises with Japan, for fear of upsetting China. The turning point in Modi’s generally Sinophile thinking may well have been the Chinese intrusion into Chumar back in September, which took place while President Xi Jinping was visiting Delhi. The action was a warning-growl, coming soon after India agreed to sell missiles to Vietnam and put in place more robust patrolling on the Line of Actual Control. India could do little but protest — and the sense of humiliation, it is likely, lingered.
The argument underlying India’s policy shift isn’t opaque. Beijing, India’s leadership points out, doesn’t consult Delhi before sending its submarines to Sri Lanka or blasting roads through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. There’s no reason, they have therefore concluded, for India to be reticent about deepening relationships with China’s near-neighbours — with countries like Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Australia and even the Philippines, all of whom have grown increasingly worried about the dragon’s unpredictable bursts of ire. Modi is reported to have spent more than half an hour during his one-on-one conversation with Obama discussing China — and the United States found, to its surprise, that their views were in complete consonance. Like the US and its Asian allies, India still hopes to grow its economic relationship with China, but will at once participate in growing the strategic partnership to deter the new giant from using its military muscle.
This argument is, in principle, unexceptionable — but it doesn’t address the problem of intrusions across the Line of Actual Control or bring a border deal with China any closer. Indeed, there are even odds it could make both harder. It takes courage to poke a dragon in the eye. It may even be necessary. But it’s wise to have carefully considered the consequences.