• Don McLain Gill

Power and Perception: Understanding the China-India-U.S. Triangle

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

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The rise of China and India has become a major preoccupation among several scholars of international politics. Accordingly, the theory of offensive realism seems to be applied often to understand the trajectory of rising great powers. By emphasizing on the anarchic global structure and the international balance of power, the theory paints a static picture of potential great powers vis-à-vis the established great power. It is always assumed that power-maximizing rising great powers will engage in a fierce power competition with the established great power and balance against it to alter the international order. The reality, however, is that China and India are two rising global powers with opposing perceptions of the current global order. To understand this, it would be important to go beyond the dictates of offensive realism.

International anarchy and the balance of power are important elements; however, these alone cannot directly influence the behavior of states. It is also critical to pay attention to both power and the role of perception. The need to analyze the differing objectives of states is crucial. By paying attention to both power and state perception towards the international order, it will be easier to understand why states cooperate or compete. This means that power-maximization is not the only variable to look at when assessing the trajectory of states. Rising powers can either be revisionist or status-quo seeking based on their perception towards the global international order; that is, whether they seek to maintain or alter the distribution of goods which includes territory, status, markets, expansion of ideology, and the creation or change of international law and institutions.

China is a dissatisfied revisionist power that engages in assertive actions to expand its territory, spread its ideologies, and restructure the U.S.-led global rules-based order. On the other hand, India is wedded to this rules-based order and seeks to incorporate in its great power designs. This stark dichotomy explains why China is locked in competition with both India and the U.S. and why the U.S. and India are forging closer bilateral relations. Interestingly, despite India’s ambitions to maximize and project power beyond its immediate geographic neighborhood, the U.S. is seen to be more accommodating towards its rise compared to China’s. The U.S. perceives India as a stabilizing force towards the current order. In fact, on several occasions, U.S. leadership has openly supported the idea of a more powerful India. Therefore , both power and perception must be taken into consideration to understand the interaction of powerful states.

China as a Dissatisfied Power

There have been attempts to theorize China’s rise based on a positive and negative dichotomy. Scholars like Joseph Nye believe that China’s rise will be peaceful; however, there are other notable figures such as John Mearsheimer who believe that China’s ambitions revolve around altering the U.S.-led order and expanding assertively to dominate the Eastern Hemisphere. Taking these two sides into consideration, it would be important to assess whether China’s actions designate it as peaceful or not. Throughout the years, China has been increasing its relative material capabilities particularly in the economic and military realm. However, what can be noted is that China is engaged in assertive activities throughout the Indo-Pacific region to alter the distribution of goods to its favor.

China has been ramping up its incursions into Japanese territory in the East China Sea, continues with its expansive claims in the South China Sea, and engages in economic coercion over Australia. In the Indian Ocean, its notorious debt-traps and land grabs have come under the spotlight. China’s control of Sri Lanka’s strategically located Hambantota Port, its encroachment on Nepal’s territory, and its claims on Bhutan’s lands are among the major issues in the region. Currently, China is locked in a stand-off with India after the former’s intrusion into the latter’s territory in Eastern Ladakh which resulted in fatalities on both sides. This string of events clearly show that China’s intentions are far from benign. As China continues to grow more powerful, it will be expected that these assertive actions will continue as well.

India as Status-Quo Seeking Power

India is also a rising power. Contrary to China, however, India seeks to maintain the distribution of goods. It has no intentions of encroaching on the territory of other states, it accepts the dominant international ideology, and most importantly, it recognizes the need its foreign policy to abide by the existing international law and institutions. India has also been enhancing its power projection capabilities throughout the Indo-Pacific through strategies such as the Act East, Look West, and Connect Central Asia. According to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index of 2019, India has cemented its place as an established major power. The country is also currently ranked fourth in military power, the sixth in economic size, and the second in terms of population size. These numbers are also expected to improve as the country aims to be the third-largest economy and the most populous state in the following years.

Unlike China, India openly supports the U.S.-led rules-based order. There have been strong efforts by India to forge close partnerships with the U.S. and its allies to maintain this very order. The evidence lies in the development and enhancement of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and India’s active role in the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. It can be expected that India’s rise will not only be tolerated but will also be supported by the established great power.

Since the mid-2000s, the U.S. has been openly assisting India’s rise. The U.S.-India nuclear deal, for example, recognized India's position as a de facto nuclear weapons power outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and gave it access to civilian nuclear technology. Moreover, the security framework of 2005 (renewed for another ten years in 2015) and the designation of India as a Major Defence Partner provide India with access to U.S. military technology at a level comparable to that of a treaty ally. The U.S. has supplied India with transport aircraft and attack helicopters, offered fighters and technology-transfer; furthermore, it now assists India with its cybersecurity.

China-India Relations

With India and China set to cement their positions as major poles in the international system, it will be important to look into the future trajectory of their bilateral relationship. India is one among a handful of states that can directly challenge China’s ambitions to alter the status quo. As a result, China will inevitably devise a strategy to constrain India’s power projection capabilities. China has been steadily expanding its strategic footprints in the Indian Ocean. It has been engaging with smaller states of the region which geographically form a noose around India’s neck. However, recent trends have shown that these states have been slowly pushing back Chinese-led mega-investment projects due to fears of being debt-burdened and exploited.

China is also dissatisfied at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India and is trying to alter the situation unilaterally. However, despite China’s efforts to usurp Indian territory for its strategic gains, India managed to gain the high ground especially when its army devised a counter-strategy to seize the Kailash Range in August. This completely obliterated any possibility of a Chinese advantage along the border. Unfortunately, this will not be the last. With China being a dissatisfied power and India steadfast in securing the current order, it can be expected for India-China relations to continue to sour especially in the security domain. As China continues to grow more powerful, it will be inevitable to witness a fiercer power competition between the two Asian giants.

Biden and the Future of U.S. – India Relations

With Joe Biden positioned to be the 46th U.S. president, many have begun speculating what it will mean for the future of India-U.S. relations. There are major elements that bind India and the U.S. One is that both states adhere to democratic values, while another is the mutual support towards the current rules-based order. However, the most notable driving force between the two states in recent years has been the assertive rise of China.

As China attempts to revise the current order, both India and the U.S. will continue to balance against it. While some argue that a Biden presidency will not hesitate to make remarks about India’s domestic issues such as human rights violations or communal tensions which may deteriorate the bilateral relations of India and the U.S., the preservation of the international order will weigh far more than the potential risks of deteriorating the architecture of the India and U.S. partnership. It can be expected for both U.S. and India to simultaneously enhance their strategic cooperation in order to balance China’s assertiveness.


Don McLain Gill is an international affairs researcher and author based in the Philippines. He is currently completing his master’s in International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He has written extensively on regional geopolitics and Indian foreign policy .

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