New Indian Armed Forces recruits undergo weapons training in Secunderabad, India, on Jan 10. [Getty Images]
China’s rise in recent years has provoked a change in India’s strategic threat calculations—a shift now reflected in public sentiment.
This week, a Morning Consult poll revealed that Indians see China as India’s “greatest military threat.” Forty-three percent of respondents named China, while only 13 percent cited Pakistan, India’s long-standing rival. Strikingly, 22 percent of respondents said the United States was India’s greatest threat.
The survey, based on interviews with 1,000 Indian adults last October, reflects a shift in Indian perspectives—including among Indian officials—on the country’s long-term strategic challenges.
Since its independence, India has fought three full-scale conflicts and one limited war with Pakistan, and bilateral relations remain tense. But growing threats from China, coupled with recent Indian foreign-policy moves, show that New Delhi’s focus has shifted toward Beijing.
The shift underscores the opportunities for India to deepen partnership with the United States and its Asian treaty allies, along with the balancing act that New Delhi must maintain with Moscow, which has drawn closer to Beijing amid the war in Ukraine.
India faces major threats from China on several fronts. It has struggled to deter Beijing on their shared border: Since a deadly 2020 clash in Ladakh, Chinese troops continue to make incursions into India, including one last month.
Meanwhile, China is expanding its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. India also worries about Chinese surveillance. New Delhi has banned more than 300 Chinese mobile apps, citing security—the only major case of India scaling back commercial relations with China since the border clash.
New Delhi remains concerned by Islamabad’s legacy of sponsoring terrorists who attack India, including one incident in 2019 that killed 40 Indian troops and nearly started a conflict between the two countries.
India also worries about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policies, which include the production of tactical nuclear weapons and a refusal to embrace a no-first-use policy.
However, a changing landscape in Pakistan has shifted India’s threat calculations. International pressure has compelled Islamabad to crack down on anti-India terrorist networks in recent years.
Meanwhile, Pakistani public messaging has grown more conciliatory toward India, with calls to push for better relations with India to strengthen Pakistani trade and connectivity. Last year, after an errant Indian missile landed in Pakistan, Islamabad’s response was relatively muted.
Just this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called for conditional talks with India. This all suggests Pakistan wants to keep tensions low with India so it can focus on its own economic and security problems.
Against this backdrop, frequent tough talk against Pakistan from India’s government looks more like an effort to exploit domestic public sentiment for political gain than an expression of serious concern about the Pakistani threat.
India likely agreed to a new border truce with Pakistan in 2021 to allow itself to focus on its China challenge. New Delhi’s foreign policy has turned on China in recent years.
It has embraced the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other efforts to counter China, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. India is all-in on strengthening security relations with the three other Quad members: Australia, Japan, and the United States. This week, India and Japan launched their first-ever joint air fighter exercises
India has also insisted on continuing to do business with longtime friend Russia; the Morning Consult survey finds that Indian public opinion toward Russia soured after the Ukraine invasion, but it picked up again soon thereafter.
Moscow is close with Beijing, but it also provides New Delhi with military equipment, such as the S-400 missile defense system, which can strengthen its deterrence capacity.
Sharpening U.S.-China competition is a dominant story line in global geopolitics. But New Delhi’s intensifying strategic tussle with Beijing is also taking center stage, and it is poised to shape the next century.
>> Source: Foreign Policy