There is widespread agreement that the defining strategic triangle of the twenty-first century will be the one involving the United States, China and India. The three most populous countries, they also represent three of the four biggest economies in terms of purchasing power, and boast three of the world’s largest militaries. For some commentators and analysts, the emergence of this dominant triangle is not a foregone conclusion. They point to Russia’s resurgence, the rise of Brazil and Indonesia, Japan’s hypothetical “normalisation”, and greater European integration as factors that might upset calculations regarding the geopolitical future, based as they are on extensions of current trend lines. Questions also remain about the long-term structural stability and viability of the United States, China and India, although each is naturally of a different character. But even for those who buy into a future in which the United States, China and India loom large, there remain questions about the nature of their evolving triangular relationship. Will it be roughly equilateral, isosceles or irregular? Just as importantly, will it be primarily co-operative or competitive?
A three-sided problem
The past two months have been busy ones for all three constituent bilateral relationships. In May, the United States and China conducted their second Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), a forum that brought virtually every senior US official having dealings with China to Beijing. Yet for all the hoopla surrounding it, the end product was underwhelming, a fact US officials readily acknowledge. At one level, Washington and Beijing appeared to be returning the relationship to a semblance of civility after several months of diplomatic sniping. China agreed to support further sanctions on Iran, and backed up their word with their vote at the UN Security Council on June 9. President Hu Jintao also indicated a willingness to reconsider revaluing the renminbi. But while subsequent moves have been made to float the currency, US officials remain sceptical about China’s long-term willingness to co-operate in this regard.
It would therefore be inaccurate to say that mutual suspicion has substantially decreased, let alone dissipated. The Chinese leadership remained extremely protective of Pyongyang following revelations that the South Korean corvette Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Beijing has advocated the sale of civilian nuclear reactors to Pakistan in violation of its prior non-proliferation commitments. And the People’s Liberation Army has continued to strike a hard line, with General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff, publicly blaming the United States for the absence of military trust and co-operation between the two states.
Only weeks after the S&ED, the United States held its Strategic Dialogue with India. While President Barack Obama’s decision to attend a reception at the State Department in honour of External Affairs Minister SM Krishna received the bulk of public and media attention, the dialogue also witnessed a clear—and very public—repudiation of some of the criticisms of Washington’s handling of relations with India, in the form of a speech by William Burns, undersecretary of state. Mr Burns made it clear that India was indeed important for the United States, and would remain a significant priority as a partner in Asia and beyond.
However, while some of the conversations—particularly pertaining to Afghanistan—appeared to have gone well during the Dialogue, the security and defence side still seemed underdeveloped. There were also no indications that the two sides had found a central organising framework for the relationship, one that might fill the vacuum left by the India-US nuclear deal. This gives the impression—perhaps unfairly—of the relationship being on steady auto-pilot.
The role of domestic politics is often overlooked as an aspect shaping bilateral relations between India and the United States. After November, there is a high likelihood of their being two Indian-American state governors in the United States, both Republican—a factor that will no doubt register with the president’s closest political advisors. Considering the growing financial clout and political activism of the Indian-American community, it would be little surprise if the administration steps up its efforts to engage India over the coming two years. Nevertheless, a central organising framework that renders substantive benefits to both sides will still need to be identified.
Finally, there is the China-India relationship, one that has witnessed turbulent ups and downs over the past years in a similar, if sharper, manner to those between China and the United States. In terms of economic and cultural ties, China-India relations appear to be on a positive track. Trade continues to boom between the two growing economies, capital flows are gradually increasing, and Indian culture is making significant inroads into China for perhaps the first time. But political differences remain with regard to Tibet—which China considers a “core interest”—and by extension (as Beijing sees it) Arunachal Pradesh. Indian commentators continue to be fixated on Chinese expansionism on the Asian continent and in the Indian Ocean, but they overlook insecurities China continues to harbour with regards to India’s greater potential for qualitative military-technological improvement. India, after all, unlike China, is not subject to an arms embargo by the leading providers of military technology. Another dimension of competition, over resources, is also often cast incorrectly, with parallels readily drawn between the activities of China’s state-owned enterprises and Indian private-sector corporations, which often act independently of their government’s guiding hand.
The developments of the past few months represent, at best, tactical repositioning by Washington, Beijing and New Delhi. As such, these events may not impact the long-term triangular relationship. Nevertheless, several questions can legitimately be raised regarding how the three countries, and their various interactions with one another, might shape the geopolitical landscape.
First, as the economies and societies become increasingly intertwined, how will the three states reconcile their political instincts with their material interests? China’s leaders state repeatedly that a peaceful and harmonious world order is in their country’s interests. But at the same time, China has yet to completely shed the trappings of a revisionist power that is intent on replacing American unipolarity with bipolarity and, eventually, Chinese hegemony.
Second, as China’s ambitions grow along with its wealth, to what degree will Washington and New Delhi accommodate it? In a related vein, how much with China’s behaviour shape the United States’ outlook towards India? The Bush administration made little secret of the fact that it intended a strong India to provide balance to a rising China, even if not in conventional balance of power terms. The gradual realisation that India is the only Asian power willing to resist Chinese expansionism, Japan and South Korea included, may make this a lasting policy fixture among future occupants of the White House.
Finally, while the broad contours of the US-China and China-India relationships can be predicted safely as involving some level of both engagement and hedging, what kind of ties will the United States choose to forge with India? This issue has received considerable attention in a purely bilateral context by the wider strategic communities in both countries, but has yet to be thought of fully in a strategic sense, that is, in relation to other powers.
Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution and programme officer for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He blogs at Polaris