Are India and China destined to be adversaries?

Editor: Manas Gubbi
April 8, 2021

The two Asian giants, India and China, with their demographic and economic clout, have led to the shifting of the center of gravity of the world from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific- signifying the rise of the Asian system.1 In this Asian Century, the future of Asia and the globe are going to be intricately linked to the evolution of the relationship between India and China,2 the ‘Rim-land’ countries,3 which are rapidly emerging as the geographical fulcrum of the 21st century.4

The recent discourse on Sino-Indian relationship is negatively coloured by the bloodshed at Galwan that took place on June 15, 2020. The actions of China on the border in Ladakh represent an abrupt disruption of the modus vivendi that was characterised as the Rajiv Gandhi–Deng Xiaoping consensus.5 Though disengagement at the Pangong Tso is a welcome step, the military standoff at the three friction points- Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang plains, is yet to be resolved.6 This bloodshed at the border and the resultant hostility, which is termed by Brahma Chellany as the ‘tipping point’7 raises an important question- Are the two geographical neighbours destined to be adversaries?

Evolution of the relationship

The Civilisation States8– India and China – had mutual interactions in terms of trade, travellers and the teachings, in the ancient past. Most notable has been the spread of Buddhism from India to the East-including China.9 China’s relationship with British India was largely adversarial, directed by the colonial hand of the Empire. Indians were perceived by the Chinese as tools of Anglo-American diplomacy.10 Over a period of time, the relative differences in each other’s historical evolution and contextual experiences shaped their worldview in a vastly different manner.11 

After the Chinese aggression in Tibet, for the first time, the two civilisations became immediate neighbours. China has evolved as an inward-looking power with deep suspicions about the external world. The relative isolation of China and its apparent lack of appreciation of global reality has been termed as the Great State Autism.12 China’s intentions and ambitions were probably mis-read by India, when it came to the dispute regarding borders. The result was the 1962 conflict, which left deep scars on the Indian psyche and cemented Chinese position in Indian consciousness as an untrustworthy adversary.

India made several attempts to rebuild the relationship with China. However, China had a different prism of looking at India. The 1998 nuclear test by India, the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement and the India-specific exemption by the NSG may have contributed to Chinese fears about Indo-US alignment. The resultant Chinese aggressive strategy is characterised by Brahma Chellany as “wen shui zhu qingwa” in Chinese language, meaning ‘slowly heat the water to kill the frog.’ 13 The evolution of the foreign policy of both nations during these times followed different trajectories. Presently, strong nationalist leadership in both countries and the climate of deep mistrust tends to define the bilateral issues as a zero-sum game

From the Indian perspective, there is a need to realistically assess the asymmetry between the two countries in terms of their economy, military and their respective international clout. Indian assessment about China fluctuates along a spectrum, with a hostile China at one end and a friendly China on the other.14 To maintain peace with China, India has been too sensitive to Chinese concerns. Such sensitivity has been missing in Chinese approach towards India. The behaviour of China in the context of India, at the bilateral, regional and global fora, have given enough reasons to suspect China’s intentions vis-a-vis India’s aspirations. The examples are Chinese obstructionism when it comes to India’s proposal for United Nations Security Council reform, demand for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the issue of cross-border terrorism.15 The bilateral relationship between the two countries can be analyzed along the following  seven prominent dimensions.


After the occupation of Tibet, China has claimed Aksai Chin in Ladakh in the western sector in India and it refuses to accept McMahon line as the legal boundary in the eastern sector. However, the same line has been accepted by China while settling its border issue with Myanmar.16 China maintains ambiguity and displays a lack of urgency in dealing with the border issue. This has led to skirmishes on the border whenever India tries to defend against the Salami-slicing manoeuvre by China. These actions and assertiveness of China are not only a challenge, but may turn out to be a security nightmare for India.17 The incongruence in the perception of both countries, about where the actual border lies, adds fuel to the fire. But what India sees as betrayal, China considers it strategy. The deployment of deception as a strategy is celebrated in Chinese folklore.18 China needs to take firm steps to settle the neighbours’ anxieties, who see the Chinese expansionism as Lebensraum.19


Reports suggest that China plans to build 60GW hydro-electric projects on the Brahmaputra River.20 China has recently approved a Mega Project on the Yarlung Tsangpo in the Grand Canyon that it forms before it enters the Indian territory.21 This dam, which would be located in an active seismic zone, would produce nearly three times more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. The construction of  large dams and the probable plans for diversion of the water towards the north by China, may have significant negative impacts22 on the interests of downstream countries. It is an expression of hydro-politics, rightfully viewed as a threat by India.23 The fact that China has not signed a single water-sharing agreement with any of its lower riparian states,24 speaks volumes about Chinese intent. Despite occasional assurances from China against diversion, there are good reasons to believe that faced with the water crisis, China would not hesitate to act in its narrow self-interest.25 The unilateral punitive suspension of hydrological data sharing arrangement by China in 2017 stands as an example of China’s coercive approach.26 There is a need to build an alliance with other lower riparian states to negotiate with China and evolve a water-sharing architecture for South Asia.  


Regarding bilateral trade, China insists on de-coupling of trade and border issues. China is presently the largest trade partner of India, $92.68 billion in 2019, though the imports from China in India have gone down after the recent clashes in Galwan.27 Chinese investments do play a role in the growth of unicorns in India, as nearly $4b were invested into Indian Start-ups in 2019.28 But this falls short of the $20b investment which was promised in 2014 by the Chinese leadership.29 Despite recent decline, the trade deficit for India with China is nearly $46b, which is unsustainable.30 China has been less sympathetic to Indian concerns about ballooning trade deficit, despite representations from the Indian side. China continues to create roadblocks to the entry of Indian software sector, pharmaceuticals and the automotive exports in its market.31 This unfair approach of China fails to inspire confidence in India. It is pertinent to mention that India needs to build a strong economic foundation for her to exercise global influence.


India, due to her geographic extent and geo-strategic location, has a prominent position not only in S.Asia, but also the Indo-Pacific. Through her Neighbourhood First policy, India aspires to project herself as a major power32 in Asia. China too, seeks to extend its footprint in S.Asia by enlarging its sphere of influence. The intense contestation for influence by the two giants in the neighbourhood countries makes such participation a zero-sum game. The aggressive engagement by China in India’s neighbourhood33 and countering of Indian interests, has been termed as the Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.34 Examples are Chinese support to Pakistan, its stand on Kashmir and the political interference in Nepal, to name a few. 

In these countries, China is not only using its hard power, but is also deploying its Ruan Shili, which in mandarin translates as soft power, to achieve its strategic goals.35 In the words of C. Raja Mohan, while the two countries follow their own respective versions of Monroe Doctrine, they are bound to step over each other’s toes. Being hybrid powers- land and sea- the competition may spill over the adjoining seas in the form of String of Pearls vs. Necklace of Diamonds.36 This is termed as the Nested Security Dilemma, which refers to the negative externality of this competition on the interests of neighbouring countries.37 In this context, India’s choices – to protect her interests and to expand her strategic autonomy – depend on her engagement with two groups of countries. The first group comprises the countries in her neighbourhood and the other being the countries in China’s neighbourhood.

The Blue Waters

India envisions herself as the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which she considers as her strategic backyard. However, due to limitation of matching material capabilities, India realises that she needs to cooperate with the like-minded nations to evolve governance architecture for the IOR.38 Similarly, the S.China Sea is economically important for Indian interests, in terms of oil and gas exploration, and freedom of navigation as per international norms.39 For its own purported economic interests, China unveiled and began the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese expectation that India would eventually align with the BRI was shattered by the determined refusal by India to join the same.40 The Indian opposition to the project was cemented when China announced the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Further, the Chinese proposal to develop a number of ports in the Indian Ocean— Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar—has raised security concerns in India. The Chinese expansionist behaviour and the incidents occurring at the northern border strengthen the narrative of these ports being a strategic enterprise rather than an economic one. 


India aims for the rise of Asia, which has adequate space for the growth of both the neighbours–India and China. However, the vision of the Chinese leadership is unipolar Asia led by China.41 China’s rising military power, economic dominance and technological advancement—compounded by growing nationalism in the domestic sphere—may increase friction with India, as both countries jostle for their rightful place under the Sun. As Harsh Pant mentions, the actions by China in the recent past tend to give an impression that China does not respect Indian security concerns and is dismissive of India as a major global power.42 India needs to understand the way in which China perceives the world. It is possible that Chinese behaviour towards India is a part of this larger calculus, rather than just the bilateral equation.

One cannot deny the role that Tibet plays in colouring the Chinese perception against India.43 Without a quid-pro-quo, India had accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Yet China continues to harbour doubts about India’s intentions. The existing misunderstanding needs to be addressed soon, as the Dalai Lama succession issue may create uncertainties in future. Through dialogue and appropriate signaling, both countries need to build trust and settle the unresolved historical issues- including the border.44 But the fact is that China has nearly 17 territorial disputes—on land and the sea—with its neighbours.45 China needs to deal with the countries in the world as equals, not from the primordial notions of its superiority. The Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks about “a community of common future for mankind”, but the inspiration for the same seems to be drawn from the concept of Tianxia– all under heaven as a one family.46 It highlights the centrality of China, The Middle Kingdom, in the future world order, displacing the USA. In his book, On China (2011), Henry Kissinger says that China is not comfortable with the Westphalian system.47 It is through this prism that China looks at India’s relationship with the USA. It may prefer India to remain a developing country and a sub-regional neighbour who doesn’t challenge its dominant position, either in Asia or globally. The foreign policy of China seems to disregard the rise and the influence of India, as it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge India as an independent global player.48 This explains China’s persistent obstructionist approach to the Indian interests.  


The Quadrilateral Initiative —between USA, Japan, Australia and India—was established in 2007 as an initiative from the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe.49 The initial attempts to formalise it as a military arrangement were thwarted by the strong reaction from the Chinese establishment.50 Australia and India were wary of provoking the Dragon and being viewed as a part of anti-China alliance. The gradual escalation of tensions between China and the members of the Quad, especially India, led to re-evaluation of the choices of these nations. The Chinese insensitivity towards India’s interests and aspirations, China’s announcement of CPEC as a flagship project, India’s refusal to join BRI, China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, India’s assertive stance in geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, and the recent aggression by China in the Western sector, represent the gradual erosion of mutual trust. The two countries seem to be locked in a negative spiral, with each successive step leading to escalation of tension between the two. According to the security analyst Brahma Chellaney, the Chinese aggression in Ladakh region of India was a precipitating factor for a fundamental shift in the Indian approach towards the Quad.51 India not only shed her initial reluctance and ambivalence, but decisively agreed to define the grouping in military terms. The Chinese enterprise of the BRI and the CPEC has convinced India to move closer to the US and collaborate with regional powers to evolve structures like Quad, BIMSTEC and IOR-ARC, to maintain the balance of power in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.52

By calling it the ‘Asian NATO’, China attempts to shape the narrative regarding the Quad. India needs to be careful not to get trapped in the Chinese discourse on the issue. India’s approach to the Quad has to be interpreted from the prism of plurality and strategic autonomy, that form the fundamental basement complex of the Indian Foreign Policy. With the global order in a flux, India seeks to restructure her choice architecture in a manner that protects and promotes her national interests in the region and beyond. In this context, the Quad allows India to enlarge the choices available to effectively deal with the Chinese attempts to freeze the existing asymmetry in the bilateral relationship. Yet, one cannot conclude that Indian agenda in the Quad is ‘Containment of China’, a concept central to the foreign policy of the United States of America. Rather, India supports a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific which is inclusive.53 This clearly highlights that India supports China’s presence in the region, albeit in a rule-based framework evolved through consensus. The Quad grouping, utilising its diplomatic weight, can convince the Dragon that it can emerge as a major global power, but only if it adheres to rules evolved to secure peace and stability in the region and beyond.54

However, the mere presence of the United States of America, the characterisation of the Quad as the ‘Arc of Democracy’, and the common binding glue of Anti-China sentiment, is bound to ruffle Chinese feathers. In the Covid19 Pandemic, the recent decision by the Quad to promote India as the base for vaccine manufacturing, has dented China’s plans to dominate the Vaccine Silk Route.55 The disruption in the global supply chains during the pandemic and the excessive dependence of these chains on China, especially for semiconductors and the rare-earths, has led to initiatives like Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) by Japan, Australia and India, and the “rare-earth procurement chain” by the Quad members.56 

In the similar context, the concepts of the ‘Quad Plus’ and the ‘Blue Dot Network’ offer India a platform to increase her participation in global supply chains. This would boost exports and propel the Quad as an economic alliance for India.57 At the time when the Sino-US relations have reached a nadir, India would be walking on the razor’s edge, as these developments may negatively influence future Chinese actions towards India. The Chinese newspaper, Global Times, has already described Quad as a negative asset for the BRICS.58 

The way forward 

In the light of their geographical proximity and their aspirations, both the countries would try to follow, in the words of Shiv Shankar Menon, a minimax policy—minimizing threats and maximising gains. Both countries, located at the heart of the global geopolitics of the 21st century, aim to shape the global order, which is in flux presently. In such a situation, it is natural that both would have to learn to deal with one another, for the Dragon and the Elephant to tango.59 China needs to show a greater understanding of India’s pursuit of her interests and the Indian doctrine of multi-alignment.60 China also needs to be mindful of the fact that adversarial relationship with a major rising power like India is not in the interest of Chinese aspirations for global leadership. If a reset is to be attempted by both countries, it is China who would have to show greater flexibility in making amends, as it has clearly more to lose from bilateral confrontation than India.61 The bilateral relationship  may remain adversarial in the near future— with elements of cooperation and competition, both. In essence, the mantra can be—“Cooperation when feasible, Competition when necessary; but Communication at all times.” 

The other C- Confrontation, though sometimes may become inevitable, is better if avoided by following the principles of Panchsheel.62 The former Foreign Secretary of India Shivshankar Menon argues in his book, ‘Choices’, the prime objective of the Indian foreign policy must be to create conditions favourable for the growth, transformation and rise of India. India needs to work with the like-minded democratic countries, regionally and globally, in weaving a Spider-Web that alters the external incentive structure available to China. India can be assertive, yet supportive of China, by evolving an appropriate choice architecture that nudges the Chinese towards a more cooperative stance. A confident India need not necessarily be confrontational. However, India needs to take concrete steps to encourage Chinese scholarship, including language and culture, to be able to deal with it better. It is pertinent to quote the historian Jacques Barzun, who had said, 

“To see ourselves as others see us is a valuable gift, without doubt. 

But in international relations what is still rarer and far more useful is to see others as they see themselves.”63 

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.


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Adinath Rohamare
Adinath Rohamare
1 year ago

This article was very insightful , covering all the dimensions of this India-China relationship

drkaustubh bondre
drkaustubh bondre
1 year ago


Pratik Juikar
Pratik Juikar
1 year ago


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General Rawat has been given a timeline of 3 years to establish effective jointmanship amongst the forces, which, hopefully, should lead to the creation of theatre commands where the Army, Navy and Air Force operate under one umbrella.4 The task at hand for General Rawat is monumental as India navigates itself against the rise of China and the ensuing global trade war. India’s influence in the neighbourhood with an extension to Africa and the Middle East, will be heavily determined on how our forces interact; bilateral military exchanges and defence trade can form the cornerstone of India’s relevance in the region. The present charter of the CDS does empower him, amongst other things, to deal with the supply of ammunition to neighbouring countries, monitor developments in the Indian Ocean, Afghanistan, West Asia and South East Asia.5 Further, to counter, the Pakistan-China alliance, whether on border disputes or the Belt and Road Initiative, it is imperative for the services to act under one command so as to avoid another Kargil-like conflict.

As the CDS does not have operational command over each service – Army, Navy and Air Force, the responsibility of achieving the desired level of inter-operability, lies equally with the three service chiefs. In addition, considering the tensions between the bureaucracy and the military since independence, coupled with inter-service rivalry, the success of such a major reform cannot be left solely on the CDS and the Ministry of Defence needs to play a proactive role in clearing the bottlenecks for the synergizing process.

Optimization of Resources and the Industry

The operational effectiveness of a force not only lies with the men who command it but also with the equipment that that they use. Despite having a defence industrial base, dominated by public sector units, India has not been able to indigenize many of its critical platforms and still relies on imports.6 Further, the services, on numerous occasions, have raised objections against the quality and delivery timelines of the public sector units. 7, 8

To encourage competition in the sector, it was opened for private participation in 2001 and since the launch of the Make in India programme by the Indian government in 2014, a renewed zeal and optimism has emerged amongst the private sector to be part of achieving the goal of self-reliance in defence manufacturing.

In building a conducive environment, the government has been proactive in streamlining the defence procurement procedure (DPP) and the defence procurement manual (DPM) through multiple revisions whilst taking cognizance of the Industry’s concerns. The announcement of the draft Defence Production Policy 2018 is also a welcome step as the policy articulates a vision to make India self-reliant and one of the top five countries of the world in the aerospace and defence sector; The policy clearly sets a goal for the sector to achieve an annual turnover of $26 billion in  defence goods and services by 2025.9

Given India’s external security threats, timely acquisition of military equipment is essential to maintain operational effectiveness. Coupled with traditional equipment, the emergence of Industry 4.0 – artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D Printing et al., has led the services to expand the scope of warfare through these new-age technologies.

With big ticket capital acquisitions still under the ambit of the Defence Secretary, the CDS will have to create integrated requirements for the tri-services so that a supplier company can achieve economies of scale by supplying to all three arms in one procurement cycle. In numerous cases related to technology development and absorption, the Industry has raised concerns over research and development costs and assured acquisitions by the services. With an aggressive push by the government to boost exports and an integrated capability development plan being steered by the CDS, the Industry can look forward to attractive acquisition plans and a supportive export policy that caters to the aforementioned technologies.

The Cyber and Space Command, under the purview of the CDS, is where the real potential of the Indian Industry can be realized.10 India has already developed substantial capability in the Space domain where many micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME)’s have contributed to supplying spare-parts and components to missions of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). In addition, India has established herself as an information technology (IT) leader where major players and start-ups can contribute immensely to its defence requirements. Dr Ajay Kumar, defence secretary, has already conveyed that the IT industry is exporting goods close to $2billion in the Defence and Aerospace sector and that the Government needs a stronger partnership model with the IT industry to expand this number.11 In line with this ‘digital’ aspect of defence, the recently concluded DefExpo 2020 endorsed the theme of ‘Digital Transformation of Defence’ where a dedicated ‘India Pavilion’ was made to showcase indigenously developed technology to the services as well as to the global market.

Inducting indigenous equipment has become imperative to ensure secrecy and operational efficiency.12 As the United States is apprehensive of Huawei and impeding Chinese intrusion through 5G, India’s forces have faced similar apprehensions while using foreign equipment, especially communication gear. Hence, the services are becoming increasingly dependent on using indigenously developed technology rather than going for imports. Though national security has been at stake, the induction of any equipment, traditionally, has progressed at a snail’s pace due to a lengthy procurement procedure. Adding salt to the wound, this lengthy procedure is why, presently, the Air Force has 26 fighter squadrons as against a sanctioned number of 42 squadrons.13 The sanctioned number amounts to waging a two-front confrontation with China and Pakistan.   

The combination of internal reforms i.e. establishment of the position of the CDS along with streamlining of procurement procedures can herald a win-win scenario for the services and the Industry. The following can be achieved if reforms are implemented in its full spirit:-

  • Quicker induction of latest technology in line with emerging requirements.
  • Economies of scale for the industry that will, thereby, will be incentivised to invest in manufacturing.
  • Increase in inter-operability of the services and the equipment they use.
  • Substantial increase in defence exports to friendly foreign countries.
  • Projection of India as a self-reliant, technologically equipped military power. 

After 70 years of independence, we are fortunate to have a government which is attempting to shake the inertia of its military dormancy. With reforms in motion, hopefully, the next Indian war could be won with Indian solutions.


1. Shaurya Gurung, “Kargil: What happened 20 years ago and why it’s unlikely to happen again”, The Economic Times, July 26 2019,

2. “OP Safed Sagar”, Indian Air Force, accessed February 16, 2020,    

3. Rahul Singh, “ India’s 1st chief of army staff Gen Bipin Rawat to head dept of military affairs”, Hindustan Times, January 01, 2020,

4. “Cabinet approves creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in the rank of four star General”, Press Information Bureau,  December 24, 2019,

5. “Allocation of work and staff between Department of Defence and newly created Department of Military Affairs”, Ministry of Defence, January 09, 2020,

6. “India is world’s second largest arms importer”, The Hindu, March 12, 2019,

7. Rajat Pandit, “ Army raises alarm over rising accidents due to faulty ammunition”, May 14, 2019,

8. Manu Pubby, Slow HAL impacting India’s air combat strength: IAF to Govt, The Economic Times, January 24, 2019,

9. “Draft Defence Production Policy 2018”, accessed on February 16, 2020,

10. IBID – iv

11. Dr Ajay Kumar, ” We are fortunate to have strong domestic IT Industry with defence and aerospace exports worth $ 1.5 – 2 billion; we must engage in a stronger partnership model with the IT Industry”, Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers, Twitter, November 27, 2019,

12. “Important to develop indigenous systems for ensuring secrecy: Gen Bipin Rawat”, The Economic Times, November 26, 2019,

13. Ajai Shukla, “ IAF to increase squadron strength; 3 more to be inducted in 2020”, Business Standard, January 19, 2020,

February 4, 2020
In his article, political commentator and analyst Sanjaya Baru engages with what national power is, what it isn't and how the capability of a nation can be determined through it. The author stresses that national power is not just about having a strong and capable military, but also about economic performance and institutional and human capability.

In his classic treatise on Power, Bertrand Russell suggested that just as the concept of ‘energy’ is fundamental to an understanding of physics, the concept of ‘power’ is fundamental to an understanding of society. “Like energy, power has many forms, such as wealth, armaments, civil authority, influence on opinion…….. The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power, not in terms of this or that form of power.” 1 Russell believed that no one form of power can be regarded as subordinate to any other.

In Russell’s view the military, economic, governmental and ideological power of the State taken together would define national power. It may be argued that scientific and technological power gets subsumed under all four, but for greater clarity it is best to separate it out, given the weight of technology in defining national capability. Thus, National Power may be seen as a sum of a nation’s military, economic, administrative, scientific and technological and ideological capabilities.

Not surprisingly, each of these aspects of power appears as a factor in the concept of national power defined by American, Chinese and Indian strategists. In a paper written for RAND, a think tank that has served the United States Air Force since the Second World War, Ashley Tellis defined ‘national power’ as “A country’s capacity to pursue strategic goals through purposeful action. This view of national power suggests two distinct but related dimensions of capacity: an external dimension, which consists of a nation’s capacity to affect the global environment through its economic, political, and military potential; and an internal dimension, which consists of a nation’s capacity to transform the resources of its society into ‘actionable knowledge’ that produces the best civilian and military technologies possible. Any effort at creating a useful national power profile must incorporate variables that capture these two dimensions.” 2

China and India too have developed their own concepts of national power in the context of a global re-assessment of what constitutes ‘national power’ in the post-Cold War world and following the Asian & Trans-Atlantic financial crises. The Chinese were particularly innovative when they proposed the concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP), developed at the China Academy of Social Sciences. CNP was also defined in Russellian terms of being a combination of military, economic, scientific and technological, administrative and diplomatic capabilities of a nation. CASS developed a CNP index that was a weighted average of eight variables: Natural resources (0.08), domestic economic capability (0.28), external economic capability (0.13), scientific and technological capability (0.15), social development (0.10), military capability (0.10), government capability (0.08) and foreign affairs capability (0.08). All adding up to 1. 3 This original version has gone through many iterations as Chinese views on the relative importance of these factors changed. Two detailed studies on CNP have been done at USI and CLAWS. 4

Independent of US and Chinese efforts at defining ‘national power’ in the post-Cold War era we began our own effort through the institution of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). Constituted in December 1998, in the aftermath of India declaring itself a nuclear power, the NSAB was tasked to draft a report on national security. As convenor of the Group on Economic Security I was tasked to write the chapter on economic power of the Strategic Defence Review (SDR), submitted to the government in 2000.

In writing our chapter we were inspired by Kautilya’s Arthashastra that first postulated, “From the strength of the treasury the army is born. ….… Men without wealth do not attain their objectives even after hundreds of trials …… Only through wealth can material gains be acquired, as elephants (wild) can be captured only by elephants (tamed).”   Taking the view that the word ‘strength’ and the word ‘treasury’ have a wider meaning, that Kautilya’s statement refers to the wider economic and fiscal capacity of the State and Nation, our chapter began as follows:

Economic power is the cornerstone of a nation’s power in the contemporary world. The economic size of a nation matters and is an important element of national security. Low economic growth, low productivity of capital and labour, inadequate investment in human capital and human capability and a reduced share of world trade have contributed to the marginalisation of the Indian economy in the world economy. ……. China’s sustained economic growth of the past quarter century has increased its economic, political and strategic profile in Asia and the world. If the Indian economy does not catch up with China, in terms of economic growth and human capability, its wider security and global profile may be seriously challenged.

Accepting this view and the importance of investing in ‘comprehensive national power’ the National Security Council commissioned an exercise to construct an index of national power. Edited annually by Professor Satish Kumar the Indian National Security Annual Review has been publishing from time to time the changing indeces of national power. 5 Whatever the merits or limitations of such an index a policy fallout of the focus on comprehensive national power has been the importance accorded over the past two decades to economic performance, institutional capacity and human capability in defining national power.

The end of the Cold War and the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, which in part contributed to the rise in Chinese power within Asia, were the context for much of the theorising on power in the 1990s. 6 The Trans-Atlantic financial crisis of 2008, with its disruptive impact on the Trans-Atlantic economies and further accentuation of China’s geo-economic power, only increased the relevance of economic performance to national power and became the backdrop for the emergence of new thinking on geo-economics. 7

In 2011, the Union ministry of finance commissioned a study on the evolving dynamics of global economic power in the period after the trans-Atlantic financial crisis (2008-09), offering a new Index of Government Economic Power (IGEP). The IGEP comprised of four variables: government revenues, foreign currency reserves, export of goods and services, and human capital. These variables, the report argued, “broadly reflect aspects that contribute to a government’s economic clout, voice and negotiating leverage by capturing elements like its ability to raise resources, its creditworthiness and credibility in international financial markets, its influence on global economic activity and its potential in terms of human resources.” 8

Without getting detained by disputations on the various indices of power, it would be more useful to consider the manner in which the thinking on national security has been altered by attempts at its redefinition and measurement. The most significant impact on global thinking has been that of China’s CNP because Chinese power, as of now and the foreseeable future, is in fact defined by all the elements of CNP and not just military power.

The historical context in which the CNP was proposed as a measure of national power must be kept in mind. The Cold War ended not because the US defeated the Soviets on any given front but because the Soviet Union imploded. At the time the Soviet Union imploded the biggest worry for the United States was the economic competition from Japan and the unification of Europe under the aegis of a resurgent Germany. In the Second World War the Soviets were victors, the Japanese and the Germans the vanquished. Less than half a century later, Japan and Germany had emerged as new global growth engines, challenging US dominance of the world economy, while the Soviet Union lay in tatters. Deng Xiaopeng drew the right lessons.

China had already embarked on a campaign of economic, military, scientific and technological modernisation. Its leadership understood that China may well emerge as the world’s biggest nation and economy, but was far behind the US in terms of military, scientific and technological and soft power. It therefore enhanced its geo-economic power as a means of acquiring geopolitical power. The 2008 Trans-Atlantic crisis further accentuated China’s geo-economic power.

China, to be sure, invested both in its military capability and in its economic capability. If there is a weakness in the Chinese model it is that China’s economy has become globally dependent while at the same time raising global concerns about its rising power and assertiveness. This would explain US President Donald Trump launching a ‘trade war’ against China. His strategy echoes Edward Luttwak’s concept of applying “the logic of strategy in the grammar of commerce, by restricting Chinese exports into their markets, denying raw materials as far as possible, and stopping whatever technology transfers China would still need.” 9

For these very reasons China has not only tried to re-orient its economy towards domestic consumption-led growth but through the Belt and Road Initiative seeks to create new relations of inter-dependence across Eurasia. China makes it a point to remind trading nations that it is not only the world’s largest exporter but also the world’s biggest importer. Its ability to export cheap and import big is what has helped lock developing economies into its orbit.

The experience of the post-Cold War period does bear out the relevance of the Chinese concept of CNP.  We would do well to constantly measure ourselves on this scale to see where we stand and what we need to do. Consider each of the eight parameters and see how India fares on each of them:

  1. Natural resources                                        – Deficient on per capita basis
  2. Domestic economic capability                   – Improving, more needs to be done
  3. External economic capability                     – Improving, more needs to be done
  4. Scientific and technological capability       – Weak
  5. Social development                                     – Inadequate attention to education
  6. Military capability                                        – Make in India needed
  7. Government capability                               – Governance reform needed
  8. Diplomatic capability                                   – Limited by economic capability

Even as India emerges as the world’s most populous and youngest nation, inadequate investment in the eight parameters of CNP constrains India’s emergence as a global power. Two critical areas of CNP to which we need to pay particular attention are human capability and quality of governance, or what the CNP calls ‘social development’ and ‘government capability’. Both are vital to national power and power projection.

An important asset for India that enhances its national power potential is its social resilience. Despite a wide range of inadequacies and shortcomings, internal conflicts and external threats, Indian society has been remarkably resilient. India’s democratic and social institutions have enabled this resilience, despite all their flaws and shortcomings. They have allowed Indian society and polity to absorb a range of shocks – economic, political, communal, natural disasters, and so on. India’s political and social resilience within the framework of a plural democracy is a source of national power. Indeed, resilience is a more enduring feature of power than strength. This could well be one dimension of power along which India is ahead of China. However, this cannot be taken for granted and such resilience is a function of the quality of governance. Going forward social resilience has to be matched with greater state capacity and human capability.


Y.K. Gera, S Dewan and P.K. Singh (Editors), Comprehensive National Power: A Model for India, USI of India, VIJ Books, New Delhi, 2014

1 Bertrand Russell, Power, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1938.

2 Ashley Tellis, Measuring National Power in the Post-Industrial Age, RAND, 2000. Accessed at:

3 Huang Suofeng, New Theory on Comprehensive National Power: CNP of China, China Social Sciences Press, Beijing, 1999. Quoted in Hu Angang & Men Honghua, The Rising of Modern China: Comprehensive National Power and Grand Strategy, Tsinghua University, 2002. Accessed at:

4 J.S. Bajwa, Defining Elements of Comprehensive National Power, CLAWS, 2008.   Accessed at:

5 Satish Kumar (Editor), Indian National Security Annual Review, Routledge, India (Since 2004).

6 See for example Arvind Virmani, “Global Power from the 18th to 21st Century: Power Potential (VIP2 ), Strategic Assets & Actual Power (VIP), ICRIER Working Paper No. 175, 2005. Accessed at:  And, Karl Hwang, Measuring Geopolitical Power in India: A Review of the National Security Index (NSI), German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Working Paper No. 136, 2010. Accessed at:

7 See Sanjaya Baru, Strategic Consequences of India’s Economic Performance, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2006; and  Sanjaya Baru, India and the World: Essays on Geo-economics and Foreign Policy, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2016. Chapters 1 & 2.

8 Kaushik Basu, et al,  “The evolving dynamics of global economic power in the post-crisis world: Revelations from a new Index of Government Economic Power” (2011). Accessed at:

9 Edward Luttwak, The Rise of China vs The Logic of Strategy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, USA, 2012. Page 166