Understanding the principal contradiction, keeping China at the Centre

Prelims level : International Relations Mains level : GS-II International Relations | India & Its Neighbourhood - Relations
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Why in News?

  • If principal contradictions must determine strategic priorities, New Delhi should decide what its principal contradiction is. China is contemporary India’s principal strategic contradiction. Every other challenge, be it Pakistan, internal insurgencies, and difficulties in relations with its neighbours, fall in the category of secondary contradictions.

What is principal contradiction?

  • The concept of a principal contradiction is one that poses the most intense challenge to an individual/organisation, and has the power to shape its future choices and consequent outcomes useful method of optimising and prioritising strategic decision-making.

Principal contradiction with China:

  • Straightforward question over the decisions taken by the policymakers: Major decisions in New Delhi’s strategic decision matrix should pass the China test, which amounts to asking and answering a rather straightforward question: “does x or y decision / development / relationship help deal with the China challenge, or not?”
  • China test a tool for policy making: A perspicacious ‘China test’ can help prioritise strategic decision making in the longer run, at least as an analytical tool with potential policy utility.

Elements of ‘China test’:

  • From an operational point of view, the ‘China test’ consists of three distinct elements.
  • Assessment of Indian decisions: an assessment of how a certain Indian decision or a specific regional development square with Chinese regional strategy or interests.
  • Assessment if the decisions need Modifications: An assessment of whether India’s decision or a certain regional development would require India to make modifications at the level of secondary contradictions.
  • Assessment if it requires a major policy change: An assessment of whether this would require any major policy changes internally. Let me highlight the utility of the ‘China test’ using a few examples.

Analysis of India-U.S. relations applying the China test:

  • Relations are more of Interest driven: New Delhi has had a complicated relationship with Washington which is increasingly getting normalised and interests-driven. Despite its withdrawal from the region, Washington is seeking to re-engage southern Asia (Pakistan, South Asia in general, the Indo-Pacific, and perhaps even the Taliban).
  • India’s growing proximity to the U.S: It appears that one of the lessons New Delhi learnt from the standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control in 2020 was that it was perhaps a consequence of India’s growing proximity to the U.S.
  • lack of/lukewarm India-U.S. strategic engagement in the region may help China: Given that Beijing seeks to dominate the region, it is clearly not in its interest to see an American reengagement of the region or growing India-U.S. proximity. If so, the lack of/lukewarm India-U.S. strategic engagement in the region is precisely what would help Beijing’s long-term objectives.

Analysis of India-Russia relations applying the China test:

  • Relations in the wake of Ukraine war: India-Russia relations in the wake of the Ukraine war are among the most debated bilateral relationships in the world today.
  • Question arises by applying the China test: India-Russia relations in the face of western pressure on India to decouple from Moscow. “Does continuing its relationship with Moscow help New Delhi better deal with the China challenge?”
  • What the U.S. and its allies offer India to condemn Russia: The U.S. and its allies would like India to stop engaging with Moscow and condemn its aggression against Ukraine which India has refused to do so far. In return, there is on offer greater accommodation of Indian interests including perhaps diplomatic and political support against Chinese aggression.
  • The challenge of growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing: There is also the growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing which reduces the robustness of India-Russia relations. So, does the China test require New Delhi to continue to engage with Moscow against all these odds?

What could be the consequences If India chooses to accept the US offer and deviate from strong India-Russia ties?

  • Sino-Russian cooperation is likely to strengthen: In the absence of an India-Russia relationship, the extent of Sino-Russian cooperation is likely to strengthen, and India will be cut out of the continental space to its north and west.
  • China may replace India as a Natural beneficiary of energy at discounted price and thereby support to Pakistan: New Delhi continues to get discounted energy, cheaper defence equipment If India decides to break away from Russia, many of these could come to a grinding halt, and the natural beneficiary of such an eventuality will, undoubtedly, be China. This could also push Moscow towards Pakistan with or without some nudging from Beijing.
  • India a trusted partner for Russia: It is also important to note that Moscow is not keen to have China dominate the strategic space around it and has been keen to balance the growing influence of China in Central Asia with partners such as New Delhi. New Delhi’s turn away from Moscow will ensure that China gets a free hand in Central Asia too. In one sense, therefore, the China piece best explains the enigma called India-Russia relations.

What the China test suggests?

  • Avoiding the short-term temptation and look a bigger picture: New Delhi should not give into the short-term temptation of not being on the wrong side of China given its long-term implications. While the fears of such a relationship irking China may not be entirely unjustified, they invariably play into the Chinese strategy of boxing India in the region.
  • Break away from Russia may likely to play in Chinese strategy for Boxing India: If indeed New Delhi was to completely break away from Russia (as India’s U.S. and western partners have asked India to), Such a decision is most likely to play into China’s hands. India-Russia relations are on the wane, there is a strong rationale for New Delhi to continue its relationship with Moscow which is China.
  • China test require India to pacify its relationship with Pakistan: The question to ask here is “does making (relative) peace with Pakistan help India better deal with China?”. For China, the best-case scenario is an India vigorously preoccupied with Pakistan which ensures that India is not focused on the growing threat from China, thereby providing Beijing with the opportunity to displace traditional Indian primacy in South Asia. So, for India, a course-correction on Pakistan, even if it is only post facto, is a strategically sensible one.
  • Focus should on China, more than the Pakistan: What India should actively seek is not a balance of power in South Asia with Pakistan but balancing Chinese power in Southern Asia. Hence, India’s objective in South Asia should be to seek a pacification of conflicts with Pakistan, so that it can focus on China.


  • For New Delhi, the message from the China test is a rather straightforward one that the smart balancing China in Southern Asia and beyond must form a key element in India’s grand strategic planning and decision making.
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