Dr. Kaustubh Bondre

Each year in India, an average of 4 lakh candidates appear for the Civil Services Examination (CSE) conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). The notification for  CSE 2021 has already been released by the UPSC, and the approximate number of vacancies is 712, a reduction from 796 in 2020 and 896 in 2019. The exam is for the recruitment of candidates for top administrative positions that are generalist in nature. Graduates and postgraduates from across the spectrum of higher education tend to compete in this examination. With the dream to become an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, these candidates prefer to appear for a long-drawn-out examination process conducted by the UPSC every year. This essay argues that the nature of the UPSC CSE needs urgent reforms, as it presently contributes to the erosion of India’s precious human capital. 

Opportunity cost 

The opportunity cost of preparation for UPSC CSE is high. In economics, opportunity cost refers to the benefits that one decides to let-go, when one chooses one option over another. It incorporates both the explicit and implicit costs of the decision.  When a candidate decides to appear for the UPSC CSE, he may forgo the immediate opportunities available in terms of jobs, career progression, better salaries, and higher studies. This is one part of the story. For the other half, one needs to calculate the cost of appearing for this examination. On average, the cost per aspirant is pegged around Rs.1.5 to 2 lacs just for coaching over the entire examination cycle. Adding the cost of living in metro cities that are the hub of the coaching industry, the entire cost can be around Rs.4 lacs per candidate for one attempt.

Now, let us put it in proper context. According to reports on data from the Household Consumer Expenditure Survey (2017-18) conducted by the National Statistical Office, the Monthly Per Capita Consumer Expenditure (MPCE) has reduced by 3.7% between 2011-12 and 2017-18.1 The decline was more in rural areas in India, as compared to the urban areas. In addition, the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18 conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) highlighted that the rate of unemployment in India has peaked to a 45 year high of 6.1%.2 The data also shows a summary decline in the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for people in the working age. This is surprisingly accompanied by a rise in the number of NEET individuals – Not in Education, Employment or Training. This is the group that the UPSC CSE aspirants belong to. 

Considering the above data, one may conclude that in an economy with fewer jobs, declining household income and expenditure, the precious human and economic capital in the country is diverted to the preparation of UPSC CSE, with all its subjectivity and uncertainty. The question is- why do the aspirants not realise this and make a course correction when necessary?

Sunk Cost & the Vicious Circle 

The three-stage examination cycle consisting of the Preliminary examination, the Main examination and the Personality Interview, stretches for one complete year. The preparation, due to the syllabus & the fierce competition, generally requires dedicated study of at least 8 to 12 months, prior to the preliminary stage. In effect, any serious candidate taking the first attempt at the CSE would be required to study for nearly 2 years to complete one examination cycle. If they fail to qualify in any of these three stages, they are required to undergo the entire examination cycle again the following year if they choose to do so. Also, the score obtained in the examination in one particular year is valid only for that year. This ensures that the sunk cost becomes extremely high for the aspirant, as the number of attempts taken at the examination increases. Sunk Cost is a retrospective cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Thus, with each additional attempt, the aspirant gets entrenched deeper and deeper in this vicious cycle of successive stages of the examination. The subjective nature of the examination and the lack of objective self-evaluation by the candidates, makes them discard the risk involved and they continue to chase the mirage of becoming an IAS, year after year. (See Fig.1)  

Erosion of Skills

According to the latest Annual Report (2018-19) published by the UPSC, among the candidates recommended by UPSC as per the final merit list, 77.7% were graduates while 22.3% were post-graduates. The analysis of their graduation and optional subjects for the CSE is shown in the figure below. 

Fig.2. The cross-domain shift by recommended candidates

Source: Data for recommended candidates from UPSC Annual Report (2018-19)

Extrapolating this to all aspirants for the CSE, it can be concluded that the majority of the science, engineering and medical graduates make a cross-domain shift from their original background subject (technical/professional) to humanities subjects while appearing for the CSE.3 This shift is based on the assumption that it is easy to complete the study and score better in the examination taking the humanities subjects like geography, political science, anthropology, etc. as optional subjects, rather than their original graduation stream. Also, not all science and technical graduation subjects are included by UPSC as choices for selecting the optional subject. The bad news is—most of these candidates making the cross-domain shift don’t qualify!

Not only is the human capital non-utilised, but the long-drawn-out process of examination also erodes the domain-specific abilities and skills acquired by the candidates during their graduation. Without giving due consideration to their aptitude, interest or their skills, a large number of educated youth continue to be lured by the power, prestige and aura surrounding the IAS and the allied services.

Most candidates who take multiple attempts at this examination unsuccessfully, continue to drain the resources of their families, while themselves becoming unfit for the rapidly evolving techno-economic milieu in the job market. This needs to change, especially considering the Covid-19 pandemic and its adverse impact on the Indian economy and society. With declining incomes, depleting assets, rising poverty and uncertainties about their livelihoods, the fate of the aspirants and their families cannot be subjected to the cruelty of an examination system that robs them of their hard-earned savings, their productive energies, and their professional skills. Is this cost justified? Let us take a look at the relevant numbers.

The problem  

With a youthful demographic profile, burgeoning middle-class, the explosion of aspirations, and the lack of commensurate increase in good-paying job opportunities in the market, the number of candidates appearing in the UPSC CSE each year has remained at a very high level as compared to the aggregate posts available (See Fig.3 and Fig.4). In addition, the number of final selections every year have remained nearly stagnant at around 1,000, as data from the last decade indicates. The only exception was the year 2014 when vacancies rose to 1,364, probably the result of a populist step by the government facing a highly contested general election that year. 

Each candidate appears for the Civil Service Examination with his or her sight firmly set on the top two or three services. The rate of selection in this examination is declining consistently over the years, as the vacancies decrease and the number of aspirants increases (See Fig.5). The average percentage of selection is 0.28%. The rejection rate is 99.72%. Among those selected, the percentage of candidates getting the top services, effectively considered the service of their choice, is approximately around 25%. This means that nearly 75% of the candidates who qualify the rigorous UPSC CSE do not get their preferred service allocation. This forces many of these candidates to reappear in the examination for improving their ranks the following year. Thus, even for those who have qualified the examination, albeit with a lower than expected rank, the process of examination does not effectively end. And after so much effort, if they are forced to accept the service they are already in, how motivated would these officers be to do justice to their role?

For a general category candidate, the number of attempts permitted in CSE is six, and the maximum permissible age limit is 32 years. Both these parameters are relaxed for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and SC/ST candidates. This means, the cumulative number of unsuccessful candidates that keep on appearing for the civil services examination, both at the Centre and State levels, goes on increasing each year. This talent, locked for 4-5 years in a pipeline, without a good job or hard skills, is a loss of precious human capital that our country cannot afford. 

A common examination system with a generalist bias

The UPSC is a constitutional body and a central recruiting agency. Through the Civil Services Examination conducted each year, selected candidates are allocated across 19 different services. In effect, the same examination, process and yardstick is being applied to select candidates who would be working as officers in Indian Foreign Service, Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and the Indian Revenue Service and so on. Though a candidate is required to indicate service priority in his/her application form, the process doesn’t take into consideration the aptitude of the candidate while the service is being allotted, as the allotment process follows the merit-cum-rank basis in the common examination.

After their selection, the candidates are trained to be generalist officers handling various administrative posts in the government. The post allotted and the nature of work may be completely different not only from the educational background of the candidate, but also his/her aptitude and interest. For example, a graduate or postgraduate student from literature background and interested in Indian Foreign Service, may get allocated to, and be required to work in the central audit & accounts department or the Income Tax department. This raises serious questions about person-job fit.

The cost of failure  

The Administrative Reforms Commission-II (10th report) discusses the problem of loss of human capital due to the structure of the UPSC CSE.4 After aspirants have exhausted their attempts at the CSE, they attempt to re-enter the market. It is important to realise that the resources spent on the education and training of the rejected 99.72% of the candidates do not get the desired output and outcome in the economy. Apart from the financial cost that the families of these candidates are forced to bear, there is a tremendous psychological cost that these candidates pay during and after the process of examination is over. Having exhausted their 4-5 years in preparation, the 99.72% candidates are then forced to confront the harsh realities of a ruthless job market. These aspirants find it difficult to return back to their professional fields and thus, settle for various posts advertised by the State Service Commissions, Staff Selection Commission and the Banking sector, etc. The sheer number of candidates generates cut-throat competition for these posts too, further consuming the aspirants time. 

These candidates, having taken a long gap to prepare for the CSE, do not have any certificate or degree which justifies this gap, nor any tangible experience or skill, that may make them eligible for employment elsewhere. This takes a toll on their productivity, self-confidence and their emotional health, as they are battered by repeated setbacks in the examination process. In essence, when the advancement in technology has brought the world on a cusp of change, the professionals in India are chasing the mirage of ‘permanent’ government jobs. And in this tussle to enter the formal public sector, the demographic dividend of India could be inadvertently turning to informal jobs. Not to forget the fact that these candidates, the graduates and the post-graduates, represent the fortunate one-fourth of their age cohort, who get an opportunity for higher education in India. This precious human resource gets trapped in the vicious circle of repeated attempts at UPSC CSE, while remaining voluntarily unemployed and economically dependent. 

What can be done to address the issue?  

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the inefficiencies in the rigid administrative system in India. It has also highlighted the limitations of the Consultant Culture that most ministries and departments in the government have opted for. The process of reform has to begin with the reforms in the system of examination. The provision of lateral entry cannot be the substitute for administrative reforms. 

First, the Civil Services Examination, in its present form, needs unbundling.5 The services need to be grouped on the basis of the required skills and aptitude. The Stage-1 Examination can be common for all the services, whereas the Stage-2 Examination can be organised separately for different groups of services. This will curtail the generalist nature of the process and make it more specialised and focussed. The Detailed Application Form, submitted by aspirants to the UPSC, should emphasise on aspirants’ skills rather than being just a summary of their personal information. 

Second, the Preliminary stage of the UPSC CSE can be conducted as a Stage-1 standardised computer-based online test, the scores of which can be held valid for at least two years.5 For Stage-2 and Stage-3, the results can be considered as valid only for that particular examination cycle. The questions in Stage-1 can be based on Current Affairs, Critical Thinking, Quantitative Aptitude, Logical Reasoning, Analytical Skills, Data interpretation and English Comprehension. This Stage-1 examination may be conducted at least twice a year, to save the candidates time and effort. 

As the results of Stage-1 can be obtained in real-time, the Main Examination i.e. Stage-2, for various groups of services can be conducted within 45-60 days after the preliminary examination. The syllabus for the Stage-2 examination can be curated separately for each group of Service, making it more relevant to the Service requirements. This Stage-2 examination should also be conducted in the online format, based on a syllabus covering the relevant areas for the Service concerned, in addition to General Studies, Case Studies, Ethics & Aptitude. Stage-3 of the examination can be the Personality Test combined with a descriptive Essay Paper. This would help shorten the examination cycle. In this format, UPSC can conduct the Civil Service Examination twice a year. This would require adjustments in the training schedule at the Service Training Academies to allow for the intake of selected candidates twice a year.  

Third, the age-limit can be upto 28 years for general category, with relaxations for the disadvantaged sections. This age-limit is more than what has been recommended by various civil service reforms committees, like Y.K Alagh Committee (recommended age-limit of 26 years), P.C Hota Committee (recommended age-limit of 24 years), the 10th Report ‘Refurbishing of Personnel Administration & Scaling New Heights’ of ARC-II (recommended age-limit of 25 years), Baswan Committee (recommended age-limit of 26 years) and recently, the India@75 Report by the NITI Aayog (recommended age-limit of 27 years).6 This would help address the concerns of aspirants from rural areas, who would get sufficient time for preparation. The number of permissible attempts for aspirants must be reduced to three, which would not consume more than 2-3 years for any serious candidate, in the new format of the examination. 

Fourth, the mandatory requirement of choosing an Optional Subject must be done away with.7 This would eliminate the cross-domain shift from professional and technical courses to humanities subjects. The optional subject paper does not specifically measure the suitability of the candidate for an administrative role. Eliminating it would reduce the cost of preparation for the aspirant and make the process more relevant and less time-consuming.

Lastly, it is needless to emphasize the need and significance of technology in the present governance architecture. The UPSC CSE should require from the aspirants a certain level of proficiency in digital skills. This can act as a signal for the aspirants who would then consider obtaining competence in these skills, thus increasing their job readiness. 

Such a scheme of examination would minimise the dead-weight loss to the economy, and still attract and retain the best talent for service to the nation. As the eligibility criteria would still remain graduation, the exam system would successfully bring in candidates from diverse backgrounds into the services. The shorter and relatively flexible examination cycle would help aspirants to seek alternative opportunities in education or job, without wasting much time, effort and money. 

The above mentioned steps would also help break the draconian grip of the coaching industry that has mushroomed throughout the country for the existing pattern of the CSE. Most of these commercial coaching institutes create a larger than life image of the IAS and sell this dream to the aspirational youth. They tend to misguide the candidate, keeping him/her in the phase of preparation perpetually, till the candidate exhausts either the money, age limit or the total available attempts for taking this examination. 

These measures would keep the competitive spirit of the UPSC CSE intact, but would reduce the loss — to the candidate, to the economy, to the society and to the nation. The structure of the examination would be flexible enough to allow talent to flow in and the non-performers to be weeded out easily. By reducing the uncertainty and the overall cost of the examination to the candidate, the new system will ensure that the officers selected would be more eager to learn and adapt, once they get into the service. The public services, in effect, would become more agile and outcome-oriented. The officers chosen would be better suited to deal with the complex challenges of 21st century India. The whole process would be dynamic and discourage preparation in silos, thus, better utilising the human capital for value creation in the Indian economy and society. It is high time that the colonial constructs of the UPSC CSE —the Steel Cage; and the Indian Administrative Service—the Steel Frame, are restructured to be more responsive to the needs and aspirations of the youth and the nation. 

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.


  1. Jha.S. (2019 Nov.16). “Govt scraps NSO’s consumer expenditure survey over ‘data quality’.” Business Standard. Retrieved from https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/govt-scraps-nso-s-consumer-expenditure-survey-over-data-quality-119111501838_1.html
  2. Jha.S (2019 Feb.6). “Unemployment rate at four-decade high of 6.1% in 2017-18: NSSO survey.”Business Standard. Retrieved from https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/unemployment-rate-at-five-decade-high-of-6-1-in-2017-18-nsso-survey-119013100053_1.html
  3. Union Public Service Commission. (2011-2019). The Annual Reports 62nd to 69th. https://www.upsc.gov.in/annual-reports
  4. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission 10th Report. (Nov. 2008). Refurbishing of Personnel Administration- Scaling New Heights. https://darpg.gov.in/sites/default/files/personnel_administration10.pdf
  5. Nigavekar.A. et al. (2012 August 30). Committee on Civil Services Examination Reforms. Retrieved from https://www.upsc.gov.in/sites/default/files/Sl-023-ArunNigvekarCommitteeReport-2012_0.pdf
  6. NITI Aayog. (November 2018). Strategy for New India @ 75. http://niti.gov.in/sites/default/files/2019-01/Strategy_for_New_India_0.pdf
  7. Baswan. B.S. et al. (9 Aug. 2016). To take a comprehensive look at the requirement of IAS Officers over a longer time-frame. https://dopt.gov.in/sites/default/files/BaswanReport.pdf

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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