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