Dancing With The Dragon: Sino-Indian relations and Hans J. Morgenthau
Editorial | Jun 27, 2017 / by Saloni Rao
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As the international sphere exits its fleeting romance with the American imperium, the global balance of power faces a renewed challenge from multiple polarities. China has emerged as the prominent exemplar of such a revisionist great-power challenge, with its robust economy and dominant military enabling economic leverage to be used accost other regional powers into asymmetric sufferance. C. Raja Mohan calls China “the first non-Western power in the modern era to shape the geopolitics of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.” Hot on China’s heels is India, with its emerging market, man-power and military, seeking to secure its own dominance in international politics. Though India and China have often been called “great power rivals,” it is crucial for India to tread carefully when it comes to its relationship with the latter. China still towers over India in many aspects, and for this reason, India cannot afford complacency in its challenge to Chinese hegemony. Therefore, it is important to bring into question what policy measures must be employed by India to balance the global advent of an assertive China.

This article will look to provide Morgenthau’s classical realist perspective to the Indian foreign policy machinery and aim to explain the possibilities of its maneuverability. The classical school of realism concerns itself with the questions of power and national interest as the key concern of a state. Using this perspective, we shall examine the future of Sino-Indian relations and the steps that a classical realist like Morgenthau would prescribe to us for the future. Thus, the article will elucidate the rationale behind India’s future policy towards China using the theoretical framework of classical realism.

Classical realism, as an international relations theory, suggests that political behavior is governed by objective laws of human nature. It argues that all state action in the international realm must seek to serve its national interest. This implies that politics is an “autonomous sphere of action” which sets itself apart from the activities of any other sphere, such as economics where interest can be realised in terms of wealth. Morgenthau assumes statesmen to be rational actors who always act in accordance with the pursuit of interest defined in terms of power. According to him, power is the psychological relationship between the dominant and dominated. It lies in the ability of one man to control the minds and actions of other men. Therefore, a classical realist would argue, that political power is the influence that one state has over the others. When viewed in conjunction with the current relations between India and China, as well as China and the rest of the world, we see that as its abilities grow, it is attempting to establish itself as an influential great-power. In doing so, it is containing the ascendancy of an Indian state looking to emerge from its post-colonial dogma and embrace the Asian paradigm. Both countries cannot continue on the path of such exponential and unbalanced growth without getting into each other’s way. It is as Dr. Tharoor states in his book Pax Indica, “We both think this century belongs to us, we cannot both be right.”

Morgenthau explains this phenomenon by juxtaposing the similarities between the individual and state. He argues that two individuals will always have conflicting interests as a mere fact of their co-existence in a suspended state of anarchy. Since fundamental human nature perpetually exists in a state of conflict, so do states, as the anthropological translates to the national. This means that the inherent tragedy of great power politics remains the ominous prescience of conflict. He, however, clarifies that this conflict may not necessarily be active or direct. What other thinkers may misconstrue as harmony, he calls 'balance of power'. This balance is a state of equilibrium in international politics in which pragmatic states are deterred from a recourse to war through consequence. Changes in the balance of power and subsequently, the status quo, may have two primary inducements. According to Morgenthau, “A nation whose foreign policy tends toward keeping power and not toward changing the distribution of power in its favor pursues a policy of the status quo. A nation whose foreign policy aims at acquiring more power than it actually has, through a reversal of existing power relations–whose foreign policy, in other words, seeks a favorable change in power status–pursues a policy of imperialism.” This means that a nation may either try and make adjustments within the status quo by means of a ‘status quo’ policy, or try and overthrow it, by means of a ‘revisionist’ policy. India's incumbent behavior in the international realm has largely been predicated on a status-quo policy of carving out its place in the current world order, while China’s policies are patently revisionist.

The classical realist would criticise those who chalked down China’s growing economy and international investment to simple economic interests. In order to elucidate how Chinese imperialist policy could be put into action, Morgenthau enumerates three methods of imperialism, that is, three ways that a country can impose or extend its power - military imperialism, economic imperialism, and cultural imperialism. When placed in contemporary times, and we deconstruct Chinese foreign policy, we see a growing trend of all three kinds of imperialism, especially with respect to India. It not only encroaches on our borders using force and military action (military imperialism), it also tries to appeal to the North-Eastern people and try to claim cultural precedence over India in administering these regions (cultural imperialism). The final nail on the coffin is China’s repeated blockage of India from being an important international player. For example, China continues to veto India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and also blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The new “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project which is President Xi Jinping’s pet project, proposes a roadway to connect China to major cities in the world via road (economic imperialism). “Two alternatives await us,” says Chinese thinker Zheng Bijian. “One is trade protectionism. The other is to guide globalisation into a new phase and reform the economic and political order. The first alternative takes the world back to square one. We are at a historical turning point, and we must embrace this new phase.” A classical realist would infer from this statement that China is currently looking to restructure the balance of power equation. They wish to emerge on top, as a regional hegemon, and perhaps eventually even a global one. Classical realism seeks to explain such power-hungry behaviour in the terms of national interest. Since both India and China are currently seeking to maximise their power, and serve their respective national interests, they are bound to conflict. It would be wise to apply such a theory to the current situation and analyse it using the theory’s guidelines. Since classical realism grants state preferences a separate role in their policy analysis, it provides for the right course of action from security-maximisation to power-expansion.

If a classical realist was asked what India’s future course of action should be in the case of the growing pressure on Chinese imperialism, they would first weigh out the risk and the reward of challenging China’s power. Though India is a rising power, and has often been viewed as China’s contemporary in Asia, the country still has a long way to go. India is inferior to China in terms of both, brute force and economic leverage. Therefore, the question that we must ask is whether India should follow a policy of engagement with China, or try to contain the threat on its borders and power. Since we have already established China is at a power advantage, a classical realist would consider it unwise to take any kind of direct military or strategic action. This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, as China and Pakistan are India’s immediate neighbours and have close economic-political ties with each other, an Indian instance of aggression may face serious backlash. Secondly, India is currently pursuing a status quo policy, and is trying to make adjustments within the system rather than openly challenging the power structure. This is a prudent strategy because it allows India to be involved in economic activity with a number of countries, and strengthen itself in the case of an attack from China, if and when China’s revisionist imperialism becomes tinged with military hostility.

China has made inroads into a number of countries, using infrastructure and aid as the means of gaining power and a stronghold in these countries. For example, Venezuela is currently in 50 billion dollars of debt to China. It also has a 60 per cent share in the FDI of Ecuador, with investment in mining, oil drilling, and dams, and in Nigeria, it has acquired one of the world’s biggest uranium deposits, Husab. This would mean that these countries are engaging with China, and allowing them into their economy. China is now using this engagement to impose its superiority in these countries, establish military bases, and consolidate their position. President Jinping’s campaign slogan was what he calls “the Great Chinese Dream” (zhongguo meng) of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (zhongua minzu de weida fuxing)”. Therefore, from a classical realist’s perspective, it is easy to see that China is using these different spheres of influences as the means to its end. The prudent step for India would then be to follow a containment policy, in which India seeks similar alliances with other countries to balance the power equation between India and China. According to Morgenthau, states that follow this policy of status quo, and preserve their power would be “likely to protect their common interests from a particular source not by a “Holy Alliance,” but by a “system of collective security” or a “treaty of mutual assistance” This means that India must ally with other powers that could possibly be in the same position with regards to the threat of Chinese imperialism. This would ensure that India wouldn't be on precarious footing anymore. A policy of containment would also be a show of solidarity on the part of India and its allies, and would be symbolic of India standing its ground in the face of growing Chinese pressure, especially in regions where the countries share a common border. India must look to ally with other growing powers in the world, or countries with power that has already been established. For example, Russia and India have always had friendly relations, and a propitious alliance may be formed to contain the arm-twisting of China. Other global powers, including the United States, grow wary of China’s share in the international power equation, and will also, therefore, seek to contain it. This is because it will disrupt the status quo which these countries have desperately sought to maintain since the end of the Cold War. India’s renewed activity with the United States may end up beneficial to both states since India would have a powerful country’s backing, and the United States would have an all to counter China with.

Liberals would argue that it is detrimental for India to take such a recourse to containment against China, and would propose a more harmonious and cooperative policy. A liberal would argue that India seeks to gain more from China than from opposing it. They would propose that China and India work together, with Chinese investment in Indian projects and infrastructure. Since India currently attempts to mitigate a shortage of investment, liberals might even suggest these funds be facilitated by China. Classical realism, however, would see the faults in this policy. By giving China a foothold in India and its economy, India would become dependent on China. This would not be conducive as China would be able to use its position to take advantage of this dependence, and eventually impose its own will. This was also one of the reasons that Delhi boycotted the OBOR plan. The model which China proposed was too asymmetrical and would afford all power to them rather than divide the power among the states involved in the project.

Classical realism is a prescriptive lens of human nature in international politics that claims to describe the objective truth of mankind's meta-narrative. It brings the Hobbesian state of nature and the insatiable need for power from the anthropological to inter-state relations. It is not a normative account of what the world must aspire towards, but rather a reflection of our innate desires and the evils that govern our appetite. History, as Mark Twain explained, does not repeat itself but often rhymes. The rise of the Chinese dragon is part of an age-old tale of great-powers aspiring for their place in the sun. In his seminal text, ‘the rise and fall of great powers,’ Paul Kennedy described the future as belonging to the ‘Chinese dream.’ But should the elephant dance with the dragon? If India is to maintain its own trajectory and fulfil its long-held tryst with destiny, it must pay heed to what Morgenthau has to say. Prudence dictates a policy of containment. The incumbent Indian government has shifted bilateral policy towards China from one of subservience and restraint to relational balancing. At this historical juncture, India’s foresight or lack thereof will decide its future in global politics. If the country prescribes to the classical realists, the much-desired foothold into the world of superpowers is a real possibility. If the country ignores the writing on the wall, it could well prolong its desired destiny and be forced to acquiesce to the impending Chinese hegemon. To paraphrase John Mearsheimer, in the anarchic realm of international politics, "it is better to be Godzilla than Bambi."


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  4. Morgenthau, H., Politics Among Nations, 4th ed.(1967) New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 36-37
  5. Morgenthau, H. J. (1948). Politics among nations the struggle for power and peace. New York: Knopf, pp. 38, 64
  6. Krishnan, A. (2017, June 5). The Chinese Are Coming. India Today, XLII(23), pp 30-38.
  7. Rynning, S., & Ringsmose, J. (2007, December 20). Why Are Revisionist States Revisionist? Reviving Classical Realism as an Approach to Understanding International Change. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800217#Sec2

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Written By Saloni Rao

If I knew myself better, I would tell you.

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