The latest spat in the South China Sea, in a first, involves China and India. An Indian naval ship, INS Airavat, transited through the sea claimed by China as its “territorial waters”. It had left a Vietnamese port after a spot of maritime diplomacy. While at sea, it is reported to have received a radio transmission asking it to explain its presence. The Chinese maintain that they have no record of this incident. Vietnam insists that it has no information. The story broke in the Indian press over a week after the incident. It serves as a useful entry point into discussing the India-China strategic equation, with India’s relationship with the US serving as backdrop.

India’s presence in the South China Sea dates to 2000 and is part of its strategy of engaging with East Asia and South East Asia. The hawks have it that the strategy must be pursued with a vengeance so as to counter what they perceive as China’s encirclement of India. The moderates prefer to view the incident in perspective, concentrating on engaging China and the region rather than prematurely ruffling feathers.

In the background is the most fundamental geopolitical change underway over the past two decades, that of a rising China. The relative decline of the US, of more recent vintage, has led to fears of a vacuum emerging. India has in tandem enhanced its profile in the region, a move some see as a balance to China. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, during her recent five-day visit to India for a “strategic dialogue”, said, “As India takes on a larger role throughout the Asia Pacific, it does have increasing responsibilities…In all of these areas, India’s leadership will help to shape positively the future of the Asia Pacific. That’s why the United States supports India’s Look East policy, and we encourage India not just to look east, but to engage East and act East as well…”

The debate between the hawks and moderates is essentially about the extent of proximity to US and corresponding distance from China. It is played out at two levels: the strategic and operational.

At the strategic level, the two positions are in a democratic contest within the national security system. The chairperson of India’s National Security Advisory Board, K. Shankar Bajpai, a tier for recommendatory input from professionals and thinkers in the National Security Council system, in a recent trenchant criticism bemoaned, “That…our wider priorities currently include…the changing power equations to our East (of which the global consequences of China’s ascension is a vital, but separate issue), and several interests in the Indian Ocean. In which of these are we intellectually, much less militarily, equipped to do anything?”

His argument, representative of the more assertive position, is that India’s strategic frontiers stretch from Suez to Shanghai, an expansion from the earlier stretch from Aden to Singapore. Answering the question he poses himself, “How to develop influence within our strategic frontiers?”, his counsel is: “the one option we still shy away from is America”, the reasoning being, “until we are able to do more on our own, we must develop partnerships, or at least ad-hoc collaborations…”

The National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, on the other hand, has a more nuanced take. To him the issue most likely to affect India’s future ability to transform itself is the rise of China. His argument is that, “India’s interest is clearly in an inclusive world order, with China as one of its cooperative members…. But this will require much better communication between India and China and no misunderstanding of each other’s actions and motives.”

At the operational level, the attack by India’s strategic community on what they see as Delhi’s desultory policies is intense. A representative opinion, voiced by a military funded think tank, has it that, “The first requirement is to upgrade India’s military strategy of dissuasion against China…. Genuine deterrence can come only from the ability to take the fight deep into the adversary’s territory through the launching of major offensive operations.” The recommendation is therefore for offensive and firepower capabilities.

India’s NSA, no doubt already having deliberated over such demands, has it in response that, “Our goal must be defense, not offense, unless offense is necessary for deterrence or to protect India’s ability to continue its own transformation. We must develop the means to defend ourselves.” It is no wonder then that the defense ministry has reportedly returned a Rs. 1200 billion (approximately US$25-30 billion) plan to refurbish the military for a face-off with China, for reconsideration.

Summing up, the two views are at odds on two counts. Hawks would prefer taking on China more assertively and in partnership with the US. The moderates, who currently control policy, prefer engagement with China and, in respect of the US relationship, as the NSA put it, India “will continue to walk her own path in the world.”

There is a third view, less visible these days largely on account of the Left parties having been eclipsed in the last polls. It is that the discussion is subject to the limitations of international relations theories that see the world as anarchic and balancing as the only recourse. Instead, in this perspective, Asian values need revisiting to bring about a regime of tolerance and non-violence. Reliance on western perspectives of how nation-states behave in a power-reliant world makes for a tension-filled future. The interest of the US is in seeing a self-perpetuation of suspicion in order that its relevance extends indefinitely. Working towards a pan-Asian identity and interaction can serve as an antidote.

How the debate turns out in India between the two mainstream and one marginalized position may prove consequential to the future strategic movement in Asia. Future crises, for which the current ‘crisis that isn’t’ serves as a precursor, can be expected to lend energy to the debate.