By Arun Sahgal

The rise of India and China seems to be a bit of an overplayed cliché. No doubt China and to a lesser extent India are fast-emerging economies.  But within the time frame of 2030 they will remain consumed with managing internal social dynamics and their respective economic models to become serious players of consequence.  They will nonetheless yield considerable economic and political influence in shaping the new international economic order as well as impacting policies on the global commons.

If economic projections are to be taken seriously then both economies are likely to taper to around 6 percent GDP growth rates.  These will be extremely robust in comparison to others but will not allow China, in particular, to create a military-industrial complex that could alter the current geopolitical dynamics of the Asia-Pacific. The tussle to carve its own sphere of influence between the U.S.-led alliance system and its periphery will persist, as will jockeying for influence in the maritime domain, including the South China Sea. A politico-economic balancing game is likely to continue to ensue, trapping the Southeast Asian countries, and to an extent India, in hedging strategies.

With regard to India-China relations, the military balance during the period 2015-2030 will be one of strategic vulnerability for India if it fails to develop the dissuasive military capability to manage its asymmetry of power with China.

Relative pathways of China and India could include the following:

China

(a)                A strong, reformed China enmeshed in growing economic interdependence and thus constrained from posing a strategic threat to the region;

(b)               A repressive political system (return of Maoism) employing nationalism to legitimate China’s growing power and assertiveness internationally;

(c)                An internally weak and imploding China that would not constitute an external threat but could be the source of many regional problems.

India

(a)        An economically strong India that overcomes its current economic and political inertia to post sustained growth rates above 7 percent. Political expedience gives way to much more nuanced governance, resulting in reforms to the industrial, infrastructural, and social sectors. Defense expenditure keeps pace with the growth in GDP and even at 2.5 percent of GDP, defense expenditure quadruples in real terms to reach a figure of 110 billion dollars by 2030. Growing Indo-U.S. defense cooperation, including transfer of important dual-use technology, provides a boost to the Indian defense industry with significant enhancement in capability.

(b)  A meandering India whose pathway is an extension of the current situation of drift in the context of a shifting geopolitical environment. An indecisive India emerges which is unable to assertively configure its strategic power and is unable to dissuade the Chinese strategic challenge or manage own internal security contradictions. Failing states and adverse demographic trends heighten cross-border migration and the flux of refugees in search of better economic opportunities.

Beyond the regional pivots, Asia’s alternative futures will be dictated by the nature and impact of U.S. regional engagement.  The following pathways of U.S. regional engagement are possible:

a)                  A United States on an economic upswing decides to deal actively with the growing Chinese regional threat. Deterrence based on greater military deployment is put in place. The Air-Sea battle concept is fully operationalized. There is visible economic and military support to allies with aggressive diplomacy against North Korea and China. The United States exercises more basing options in continental East Asia. Integrated AD and Missile defenses, redundant C4ISR and anti-submarine capabilities are boosted. It goes in for deterrence based on escalation using longer range weapons.

b)                  The U.S. economy remains sluggish with only episodic improvement. The United States adopts a diplomatic approach to tackle Chinese competition and leverages ASEAN partners and regional allies by upgrading their military and technological capacities, facilitating more intra-regional trade, and providing stronger diplomatic and political support. Robust economic cooperation is used as an instrument to keep Chinese ambitions in check. The United States exercises control of sea lanes through strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam and Indonesia, in addition to alliance partners. There is deterrence based on direct defense of its interests and allies in the Western Pacific.

c)                  A new administration in the United States raises the ante in the region by undertaking aggressive steps to isolate China regionally. A sign of such is enactment of a new regional architecture in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which attempts to rally democracies and like-minded countries that are U.S. economic partners while conspicuously excluding China.  The United States flexes its military muscle in the region to reassure its friends and allies about its political and security commitments. Its regional commitments are also shaped by the nuclear factor and stridency in terms of developments in North Korea that erode security commitments to U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

It can be surmised that there are multiple pathways that could define Asia’s strategic future and the place of the two rising giants within it. The key drivers of these strategic trends will be the United States, China, and India. Countries and regional groupings like Japan, South Korea and ASEAN are important — but the nature of uncertainty in their pathways and their impact is directly linked to the future roles of the United States and China in the wider region.

Arun Sahgal was the founder and director of India’s Office of Net Assessment and continues to consult for the Indian security establishment.