Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

South Asia

Eternal triangle: India, China and the US
By Seema Sirohi

WASHINGTON - The dynamics of India-China relations are as complex as the two competing civilizations they enmesh, and when interests of the sole superpower are introduced into the mix, the triangle becomes loaded with strategic possibilities of vital importance to the world.

Both India and China are considered "rising powers" by the United States, a status acquired more recently by India compared to China, which has been important in American strategic thought since Cold War days. But slowly, Americans are beginning to look at the two Asian giants in a single frame, breaking down the great wall that divided the two countries in US policy-making.

In the past Washington strategists spent quality time on China, while relegating India to the minor seminar circuit. The Chinese encouraged this because it suited them to keep India consigned to the outer periphery of real debate. The Americans hardly bothered with the implications of what happened between India and China. Sino-Indian relations wasn't an area of study many universities embraced.

But no more. There is a growing sense that the US will ignore the interplay of India and China at its own peril. Over the past two weeks, at least two major conferences have been organized on the subject - one by George Washington University, and the other by Woodrow Wilson Center, a prestigious think-tank.

The message: temper the early neo-conservative-inspired Bush administration rhetoric about China being a strategic threat to America and how India should be built up as a counter weight. Since India officially showed little or no interest in playing the role of "balancing" China for the Americans, a more serious and thoughtful approach is coming into play.

There are other more obvious reasons - both India and China are now recognized as economic powerhouses with a potential to grow into even bigger players. Projections show that China will be an equal of the Americans in economic might in the next 30 years. On the other hand, the Indian economy has shown a sustained growth rate in the region of 7 percent and higher, and analysts predict that India will be a future hub of multinationals, providing a variety of high-tech services.

The confidence and sense of optimism currently evident in India is not lost on either the Americans or the Chinese. If the Chinese in the past treated India with condescension bordering on disdain, today they are fine tuning their policies to reflect the new reality. The Americans, too, are looking at India as a hub of future possibilities.

For the first time serious China and India scholars in the US have come together to produce a book that looks at Sino-Indian relations, hitherto an area of sparse scholarship. The India-China Relationship: What the United States Needs to Know is a collection of thoughtful essays by scholars from varied perspectives. The book, released last week, is edited by Francine Frankel and Harry Harding, respected experts on India and China respectively.

"It was our belief that if the United States is to lead effectively in the emergent post-Cold War world, it must better understand what drives national policies and the important dynamic between these two major and still emerging Asian powers," said two of the most eminent American ambassadors in the foreword - Winston Lord, former ambassador to China, and Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to India.

"This is a vitally important relationship which will affect every country. The United States is a critical actor because both nations attach more importance to the US than to any other country," said Wisner, who is now a key member of the Washington-New York think-tank brigade.

Lord echoed the sentiment and said the US should pursue good relations with both. "India had a sense of vulnerability before but now it is dealing with China with greater self-confidence. The US would like to see a stable India-China relationship. We want them to get close, but not too close," he said.

American academics have begun looking at the two Asian giants and their multi-layered interactions with a new interest to draw lessons for the coming decades. There is a growing sense that the world's two largest countries will play not only a big role in Asia, but also in the world. What China and India want or do not want matters more today than it did during the Cold War, when the two countries were locked into roles determined by superpower politics.

According to Harding, the triangle of US-China-India existed throughout the Cold War, but each arm shifted in importance depending on the crisis at hand. No two countries ever crystallized their alliance against the third because the threat wasn't overwhelming. "After the Cold War, there was an attempt at forming an axis of India, China and Russia against the United States, but the need for good relations with the US for each country was greater than the perceived threat," he said.

Now that China and India are both rising powers, will the dynamics change? "A China-India alliance against the US is neither necessary nor desirable for New Delhi. Their own dynamics are far too complex for such a simple dyad," says Harding.

Specially important is the tentative rapprochement between India and China which began with the visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in June 2003, and is said to contain within it the seeds for further progress. There was some movement on the seemingly intractable border dispute and rewording of the Indian position on Tibet to favor the Chinese. China claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast and India claims the region of Aksai Chin on the northern border, which is occupied by China. Glacial progress has marked the border talks.

Chinese strategy, according to US experts, has been to keep India tied down in South Asia by providing Pakistan with nuclear and missile technology in the past. Lately, the Chinese have begun to worry about the internal instability of Pakistan because of rising Islamic fundamentalism, but they are in no way ready to abandon Islamabad as their "all-weather friend".

But Vajpayee's visit was important in several other ways. It reflected a growing feeling in New Delhi that China did not constitute a "direct military threat to India in the near term", something that India said China did to justify its nuclear tests in 1998. Other points of convergence include the belief by both India and China in a multi-polar world - a worldview that obviously must interest the leader of today's unipolar world, the United States.

But the interest in a multi-polar world will always come second to national advantage.

Ashley Tellis, a strategic expert on India with the Carnegie Endowment, writes that India could become a major regional rival of China in Central and Southeast Asia and in the Persian Gulf with its growing naval capabilities. It could play off its growing links with the US for advantage over China. "American unipolarity offers India geopolitical advantages that are far more attractive to New Delhi than any prospective multi-polarity," says Tellis.

In the end, American academics recommend that Washington must increasingly treat India on a par with China, rather than simply as a counterpart to Pakistan in a South Asian balance of power. It would be a major policy shift from the past. The US should see Asia as a single region in which the India-China relationship will play a major role. The US government must reorganize itself to acknowledge the links in the region.

In the end, the future relationship among the three countries may occasionally resemble a "romantic triangle" in which one tries to benefit from the tensions between the other two, according to Harding. If relations between India and China deteriorate, the US will benefit and enjoy its curry and Peking duck in the same meal. But if US-China relations head south, India might try to take advantage. China has enjoyed the benefits of lukewarm US-India relations in the past.

But the times, they are changing.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Apr 29, 2004

The EU's arms sanctions triangle
(Apr 27, '04)

US smarts over India-China ties
(Apr 3, '04)

India doubting its US 'strategic partnership'
(Mar 27, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong