Placing Indo-China relations in the Regional Security Complex Theory: Understanding the future of Indo-China interactions in West Asia.

By- Siddhant Nair;

What is RSCT?

In their book titled “Regions and Powers: The Structures of International Security,” Barry Buzan and Ole Waever coined the term ‘regional security complex (RSC)’. A regional security complex is a group of regionally clustered states where each state is interdependent for their national security concerns, with each regional security complex consisting of a unique security-based interaction with one another. The security dynamics present in each RSC are unique and cannot often be changed.

Furthermore, they categorize states into three categories: superpowers, great powers, and regional powers. A superpower is a state capable of defining the polarity of the world; a great power is a “state that is more powerful than a regional power and can project their power into a region outside their home region, but is not yet a superpower”, and regional powers are the states that influence the polarity of their regional security complex.

How does it apply to Indo-China relations?

Since India’s independence, the South-Asia complex consisted of Pakistan and India and the subsequent hostilities and rivalry. The two countries’ security concerns closely interacted with their policies directly formulated to counter each other. The two countries also engaged hostilities in wars fought in 1947-48, 1965, and 1971.

After the conclusion of the Cold War and the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, Indian power and influence was far superior to Pakistan’s. Due to India overshadowing Pakistan as it could no longer balance India in the South Asian complex, India’s primary security concern shifted from Pakistan to China. While India and China went to war in 1962, China far exceeded India to even consider India a competitor in the region. On the other hand, while wary of the threat China posed, India was mainly occupied with Pakistan and worked to stabilise and improve ties with China. 

Great powers, East Asia and West Asia

As India started to grow into the role of great power, its status as a rising power was recognized globally. China, on the hand, downplayed India’s great power status, borrowing arguments from Michael Pröbsting, the author of “Is India a New Emerging Great Power?”. Using India’s socio-economic characteristics, China argued that due to India’s high rate of social inequality, a small contribution to the global GDP (at 3.2%, compared to China’s 14.5%), the largest poorest population in the world, increasing indebtedness and low per-capita income did not qualify India as a great power. Therefore, China did not see India as a competitor or a strategic concern. For the large part, Chinese scholars and political elites believed that India was an important neighbor, despite having bilateral issues. This perception changed as China became wary of India when New Delhi grew closer to the United States. 

After India’s economic liberalization, it outgrew Pakistan in the South-Asian complex, compelling United States to change its stance towards India. The “Agreement for Co-operation concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy” was signed between the two countries (2007) as the US also halted its military support to Pakistan. In 2011, the Obama administration announced the US pivot to Asia policy. While China and US shared good ties, China saw this as an attempt to contain China’s rise and growing influence in the region. Coupled with BJP’s rise to power in 2014 and its previous experience with BJP in power in 1990, China grew increasingly wary of India and the growing Indo-US relations. Under Prime Minister Modi, India grew increasingly assertive and outspoken about its dissatisfaction with China’s proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China was also under the impression that India had long abandoned its non-alignment policy by choosing to ally itself closely with the west to become a great power in the region and counter China’s influence. 

Through its “Act East” initiative, India started interacting with the Southeast Asia complex, promoting economic, cultural, and strategic ties in the region. Through its Act East Initiative, India launched and built multiple institutional mechanisms to expand, strengthen and cooperate on energy, cyber security, counter-terrorism, and maritime rights. Indian scholars argue that India’s Act East was aimed at containing China’s growing economic and military influence in the region.

India’s economic growth since liberalization, followed by India growing into a great power, the United States of America’s changing ties with India, and its announcement of the “Pivot to Asia” are all factors that contributed to changing Indo-China ties. While under Modi, there were moments of India-China cooperation, S. Jaishankar notes that Indo-China ties are characterized by collaboration and competition. He also pointed out that even before the Galwan valley clash, India had restricted access to Chinese markets, China opposed India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, blocked attempts at adding Pakistani non-state actors involved in the 2009 Mumbai attacks on the UN terrorist list and has faced increasing trade deficit from China. 

Iran’s role in India-China competition: 

As India and China are globally recognized as great powers, both have looked at neighboring Regional Security Complexes to project their power. West Asia has proven to be the next realm of Indo-China competition. 

For India, West Asia is an essential source of oil and remittances. The percentage of Indians in West Asia grew exponentially after the “oil boom” in the 1970s, leading to the creation of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. India also increased its engagement with Israel, Iran, and other Gulf countries under its “Look West” policy. 

On the other hand, China has been increasing its economic cooperation in the region. China’s economic cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stood at US$170 billion in trade in 2020. China has also expanded its ties with the GCC to include defense, nuclear technology, and health. China has also expanded its Belt and Road Initiative, a global strategy, to include the Gulf countries. So far, seventeen countries in West Asia have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Iran has been the latest country in West Asia to become a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, joining its regional Arab rivals. For both India and China, Iran is a crucial source of cheap oil and is central to accessing Central Asia. For China, specifically, Iran was the last key member in West Asia to be inducted into its Belt and Road Initiative. China bought more than 850,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Iran in 2021 alone. Experts point out that China underreports the exact number of oil imports due to the current US sanctions on Iran. On the other hand, India was forced to wean off Iranian oil and trade with Iran in 2019 after the waiver issued to it by the US expired. India has also partnered with Iran on the Chabahar Port project. 

As highlighted, the Gulf (and Iran) are essential to both India and China’s foreign policy. As Sebastian Goulard points out, by bringing Iran into BRI through its $400 million, China hopes to “present itself as a possible peace-broker,” bringing together Shia and Sunni majority countries to work on projects that will be introduced through BRI. China is hoping to change the security dynamics of the region. However, as the theory points out, each RSC has its unique security dynamics. During the Cold War, security dynamics remained unchanged despite superpowers directing interacting and interjecting themselves into the region. 

Competition between India and China in the Gulf region for regional influence will likely be at the forefront of Indo-China relations. While China through the creation of a global strategy, has solidified its influence in the region, India, on the other hand, could struggle to employ its “Link West”. Unlike India’s “Act East” policy was based on concern over China’s growing increasing assertiveness and influence in the region. “Link West”, could be created to establish and expand bilateral ties, however, it is unlikely that it will be used as means to counter China’s influence. West Asia, and more specifically the Gulf, are not aware of a Chinese threat, instead welcome the economic investments it brings in. 

Siddhant Nair is a post graduate student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Research, specializing in International Relations. He has previously interned in ORCA, The Gateway House and Chennai Center for China Studies. You can find him on twitter @siddhant__nair

One Reply to “Placing Indo-China relations in the Regional Security Complex Theory: Understanding the future of Indo-China interactions in West Asia.”

  • Sanjay Verma

    By Sanjay Verma


    Interesting article and well written…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *