The power triangle in the India-Pacific region
The evolution of US-India-China relationship will shape geopolitics of the future
The US-India-China relationship is like an uneven triangle with mismatched sides. The longest side representing the greatest strength in all its meanings represents the US; the second side which is quite a bit shorter represents China and the smallest side represents India. This also means that India has to cover the maximum distance to catch up with the other two. Relationships are variously described as Chimerica in the context of US and China, Chindia for India and China and to this one, would now have to add Amindia representing the US and India.
The strategies are defined as containment, or what’s called ‘congagement’, or pivots, cogs, rims and wheels in relation to how US and China see their relationships and interests in the world and notably Asia. While the region may be in a flux with rising powers and declining powers, neither of which will happen overnight, the one aspect of these three relationships is that neither India nor China will jeopardise their relationship with the US for the sake of preserving their own bilateral equation. The US may be withdrawing from Afghanistan after having done so in Iraq, its military clout has impeded but it still remains a force as the leader of humanitarian causes in West Asia with the Arab Spring is still a work in progress.
These bilateral relationships be zero-sum games even though disproportions in military economic and technological strengths the comparisons in figures of GDP, military budgets and technological strengths will remain huge. The US is still by far the biggest military spender globally which is way ahead of the Chinese budget which in turn is thrice as large as the Indian budget. The American intelligence budget is larger than our defence budget. Various and opposing interests are at play in Asia in a world undergoing economic, military and political change. The 20th century ended with a beginning of the decline of the West and the beginning of the rise of the East even though India may be seen to be floundering currently. Asia’s share of global GDP was 34 percent and that of the US and the West was 43 percent. It is projected that by 2015 this would reverse almost exactly.
How the three relationships evolve in the next few years would be crucial to what geopolitical shape the world would acquire in the next few decades, beginning now.
The US and China- The big two.
The contest of the 21st century will be between the US and China. The two got together during the Cold War years and economic interdependence in later years has sustained this relationship despite deep ideological differences which may never disappear. Prof Aaron Friedberg says there were seven factors that could shape US China relations. Two of these – the narrowing gap in national power and the continuing deep differences in their ideological beliefs and domestic structures – will tend to push the two towards competition. The other five – economic interdependence, the hope of a possible evolution China toward liberal democracy, its ongoing integration into international institutions, the presence of common threats and the existence of nuclear weapons – could favour peace and cooperation.
Friedberg asserts that “Deep-seated patterns of power politics are driving the US and China toward mistrust and competition, if not yet toward open conflict.” The Chinese are paranoid of a Soviet style collapse and apprehensive the US may be trying precisely that through its friends/allies in the region. The need for resources, markets and even friends makes China seek out Iran, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
The nuclear deterrent between the two powers means that both China and the US will continue to enhance their conventional capability and their allies/friends. As China continues to rise and its power grows while the regime remains unchanged, there will be greater chances of competition between China and the US driven by zeal to democratise the world and shape it to its own image. The Chinese sense that their continued “peaceful” rise in the first decade of this century is accompanied by a relative decline of the power and reach of the US. This is probably reflected in the Chinese attitude in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific even as it makes quiet inroads in West Asia and Afghanistan.
China and India- Nuclear neighbours or civilisational rivals?
There were many hopefuls influenced by the western hype, who believed that India would one day catch up with China or even overtake it. These hopes are best buried because the manner in which we have shaped our policies in recent years, ensures that India is nowhere near the Chinese economic, military and research and development statistics. We are not just behind China; we are falling behind further at an ever faster rate. It is best and far more realistic for India to put its own house in order and compete within itself. Nevertheless, since both countries are rising at the same time, in the same region and separated by a long undemarcated boundary, there are enough ingredients for rivalry and conflict.
Sino-Indian bilateral political relations will not attain their complete fulfilment until the border issue is solved and the Chinese sensitivities about how New Delhi treats the Dalai Lama cease however much trade between the two may flourish. The boundary continues to linger and China, as the stronger power, would be in no hurry to resolve this. The Himalayan watershed remains the most natural border and the Brahmaputra Plains can never be an alignment that India will accept, despite Chinese formulations like Southern Tibet used in reference to Arunachal Pradesh. The best resolution of this would be to make the present de facto holding as de jure, including Aksai Chin, with some adjustments.
For India, China-Pakistan bilateral relationship has been a source of concern, especially its military, missile and nuclear aspects. Quite often the threat to India is seen through the String of Pearls concept where China is portrayed as encircling India. Chinese assertiveness in its neighbourhood, including with India, in recent years can only be partially attributed to premature hubris. China is definitely making its moves as it sees a lowering American profile, but also this is the way “elections” are held in China by nuance and signals. It is a way of telling the PLA that the Party is just as nationalistic. As China readies for the 18th Party Congress, Indian strategists would undoubtedly accept that the Chinese Communist Party remains a powerful machine quite unlike anything we have in India. Therefore, unless there is a total breakdown of leadership in China, it will retain control of the military, intelligence and propaganda. The only issue is how best to retain this control. The issue is not whether this is desirable or otherwise.
India, in its present state of drift will continue to have to deal with a powerful cohesive political and military machine. India’s Agni V test earlier this year is only a step forward in the long march against a country that has at least twice as many as India and with a far more powerful yield. Any euphoria on this would be misplaced. Nevertheless, as India’s economy and global standing have grown, China has come to view India as a legitimate threat and in some ways it is also a sign of a more assertive India China willing to flex its military and economic muscle in our neighbourhood.
The Chinese remain averse to India-China comparisons and comments vary from being scathing to condescending. They no longer say it in so many words, but the attitude is that India-China relations could improve if India gave up its hegemonic approach in the region. Chinese remain suspicious about the India-US relationship being aimed at them but do not want themselves to be questioned on their relationships with either Pakistan or Myanmar.
India and the US- Natural allies of just good friends?
India-US relations have for long remained mired in the Cold War rhetoric where India was seen to be in the other camp for long. This was true, especially during the Afghan Jihad where Reagan’s America saw India as a confirmed Soviet surrogate and looked the other way, as Zia nuclearised and abetted the Sikh insurgency in Punjab. The collapse of the Berlin Wall did very little to enhance India-US relations. It took the destruction of the World Trade Centre, the fiasco of the Iraq War, the unending war on terror in Afghanistan and India’s new profile as an emerging economic power- for George Bush to discover India with the civil nuclear deal.
Faced with implacable foes, India viewed other relationships from the prism of how these powers treated Pakistan and China. Circumstances have now changed and India needs to evaluate its relations with the US regardless of Pakistan and China and with China regardless of Pakistan. Just as much that though the US-Pakistan relations may be in a trough currently, it is unlikely that America would let Pakistan become a failed state. India-US relations have to look beyond these restricted prisms. The next decade is going to be crucial for India’s economic development if we are to make the grade as a major power. India would need to put its bilateral relations on a different plane even though there may not be strategic cohesion on many issues.
Yet despite hopeful pronouncements from both capitals about being natural allies the two countries actually have difficulty at times, of being even good friends. The style of governmental functioning, attitudes towards Iran, trade and climate, defence related issues where India remains cautious, are some of the abiding issues. Indians are wary of the American style- coming at them strongly assuming what they recommend is for India’s good. The usual formulations of growing contacts between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy continue as India and the US met for their strategic dialogue in Washington in June. Here again, the journey is long and we should not be looking for dramatic breakthroughs on every occasion.
The present debate about Chinese assertions in the South China Sea could at a later stage lead to similar assertions in the Indian Ocean Region. Security of the Indian Ocean Region would be necessary for India for access to energy sources, and trade as well access to Central Asia and Afghanistan because Pakistan is likely to remain. These relationships are necessary even though schemes like TAPI pipeline are what they are – pipe dreams. In the context of US military budget shrinking it is now looking for partners in IOR in India and we too should be seeking stronger relationships with Japan, Australia, Indonesia and South East Asia.
There has been a new found enthusiasm for India as a partner with the US in Afghanistan. The US seeks an active participation of other states in the Western Pacific for the security if the region as it looks to India on the west. There is increasing reference to the region as India-Pacific. Simply because others have thought of this in their interest does not make this undesirable or suspect for India. On the other hand this should be seen as an opportunity for India to strengthen its strategic options.
Yet strategists in New Delhi would have to factor in that a two front confrontation with Pakistan and China cannot be ruled out. US response in this case is an uncertainty. We need to remember that in the ultimate analysis, China is the resident power and the US is a distant power. Over time the military gap between China and India will widen rapidly.
Also perhaps for first time in recent years US relations with both China and Pakistan are frosty. But if we are linchpins today, then Pakistan was a stalwart ally not too long ago. Equations can change fairly rapidly.
Russia has been a strong factor in our strategy in the past, it still is and it would be good to remember this fact. That could be a window for us to capitalise on because post elections, the equations may change. India has to do perspective planning for the next ten years but maybe more. But a statement attributed to the nuclear physicist, Neils Bohr, sums up the predicament – “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future”.
Vikram Sood is the Vice President , ORF Centre for International Relations