Wednesday, December 26, 2007

China as a factor in Indo-US Relations: An Exchange

This post is the result of an exchange on orkut in the International Relations community. I post this here as it in many ways is a coherent expression of my opinion and stance on the issues concerning Indo-US relations in our times. For a proper perspective, I paste in italics the response/questions of other members which resulted in my answer.

The key questions that the topic starter asked were:

Indo-US Strategic Partnership have strong tendency to impact the regional balance of power. China is viewing the partnership alarmingly so does Pakistan. USA wants to contain China by using India, where as Pakistan is alarmed about the growing Indo-US defence relations, that could affect the strategic stability b/w the two countries, India and Pakistan. It would be interesting to know the Indian views about this partnership. USA has long history of bullying the countries for her interests. India is an emerging and has long history of "non-alignment" with any camp. How do Indians view this partnership? Can India say No if US tries to imposes its interests on India?

A Backgrounder

The key to Indo-US strategic ties is the regional balance in power. Since the time of independence, the Indian elite have believed that South Asia remains an 'India-centric' region and they ought to be the preponderant power. This was also the key to the Soviet Union-Indian ties, the Soviets agreed to this view of South Asia.

Pakistan was the sole challenger to this Indian belief. Moreover, Pakistan's challenge was propped up by the external powers in the region, first the United States by virtue of Pakistan's partnership in CENTO and SEATO during the cold war years, primarily to contain China. And after that it was China. That turn towards China comes in much later, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Before that and as late as 1959, Ayub Khan was talking with Nehru about the 'threat' from the North. Prior to this period, the Pakistani elite only looked down on China as is illustrated in some of Iqbal's poetry which captures the disgust with the Godless communists.

When the US became an unreliable partner, starting in the Kennedy government's unrequited love for India and Nehru, exhibited during the 1962 India-China conflict, the Pakistani state realised that putting all their eggs in one basket (US) was not wise. Together with Bhutto's China turn, this provided the second major prop for Pakistan.

That is the simple reason why Pakistan managed to keep the Kashmir issue alive for so long. This period after the 1962 border conflict between China and India and the warming up of Sino-Pak ties is a simultaneous occurrence. A look at the history of the 1965 war, wherein notes and border warnings were issued by the Chinese government to India provides ample evidence of deep Sino-Pak complicity. This also explains the war in 1971 taking place in winters. The Indians went to war after the snows blocked the Himalayan Passes.

South Asia since 1962 can never be isolated from China and examined. So the key question is, why should India refrain from tilting the balance of power in its favour by seeking the magnanimity of the United States?

On Indian Non-alignment

While the superficial impression of India remains as an non-aligned state, the past reveals a number of discrepancies. First was the Soviet tilt, primarily due to the convergence of interests between Soviet Union and India in how they saw South Asia and later buttressed by growing difference and later the Sino-Soviet split.

During the Hungry crisis in 1956 or 1959, the Indian government did not say a word on the matter except maybe expressing their reservations in private as was with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the later 1970’s.

Then the trajectory of Indo-US relations is another matter. But here too in the good phases, the policy of non-alignment was abandoned. The 1962 period remains the key example for this where in arms and ammunition were actively bought from the United States. In fact, some people in the Indian government even demanded that the US and British army be stationed in the North East, lest the Chinese invade again.

Over the past decades or so, there have been reinterpretations of Nehru's foreign policy earlier characterized as idealism. These revisionists are of the opinion that hardened realism lay at the basis of Nehru's projected idealism and later studies attest this reading.

But yes, there remain many issues which cannot be explained using the realist framework, especially in the post-Nehru period. Like why did India take so much time to go nuclear after the Chinese. Realism would expect the Indians to react and improve their security, especially considering that just 3 years ago the nations had fought a war. All the Indians did was debate the issue in Parliament but the consensus did not break down, despite some parties Swatantra Party and the Jan Sangha demanding the nuclear option. This has been explained in an interesting article by Kanti Bajpai who calls it modified structuralism (in the Muthiah Alagappa edited Asian Security and Practice: Material and Ideational Factors).


Issues and allegations of Containment have always been deceptive. If the others do it, it is containment, if one's own country does it, it is natural state to state relations.

This is something the Chinese need to understand. Their own relations with Pakistan-Nepal-Bangaldesh-Myanmar-Sri Lanka is interpreted as containing India in South Asia.

The only explanation for Pakistan-China relations for the past 50 years remains their anti-India stance. Especially considering that across regime changes, across, dictatorships and democracy and leaders of a different persuasion, the relations remain unchanged and largely state directed with no ramifications for society at large.

As to how India would help contain the rise of China is something the Chinese really need to explain.

It would be interesting to know the Indian views about this partnership. USA has long history of bullying the countries for her interests. India is an emerging and has long history of "non-alignment" with any camp. How Indians are viewing this partnership? Can India say No if US try to impose its interests on India?

The deal about any country's bilateral relationship with the US is that, everybody needs the US more than they need each other.

For example if you examine the state of Russia-US relations or even Sino-US relations, it would be important to sieve through the rhetoric and analyse the real intensity of linkages and the US-Country A relations would outscore all other bilateral relations that country A may have with others.

This has primarily due to with the process of globalization and the outward growth strategies adopted by most nations. The US remains the largest market; it remains the most important investor in the developing world, the leader in technology and will remain so for the half a century for sure. Together with this is the national power backing of US allies, namely Japan-Taiwan-Australia and to a large extent even the EU together with Britain. Not to forget that the US remains the sole arbitrator of maximum of the energy resources in the world, whether we like it or not.

If for example we take the India-China-Russia triangular relationship, while not very short on substance, it falls dramatically into the rhetorical mode if you compare each of these countries relationship with the United States.

The issue of bullying is a fact of life we have to live with. Considering the anarchy that plagues International System, one or a group of states will rise to hegemonise it to provide order and public goods as the realist say. In our times it is the turn of the US of A.

Secondly, the US of A, still offers a far more attractive world view and society than any of the competing ones, Russia or China. So is it about rejoicing in our good luck? This is a question I would not even hazard to answer. It is something we ought to think about.

As my points mentioned that no country is non-aligned if it affects its vital interests, and so I would think in similar turns about India.

India stands to benefit enormously with closer ties to the US. While not very similar in nature, the two societies share some features which make such relations smoother. Namely, a disparate agglomeration of people who call themselves Indians, and the United States has a similar profile of being the melting pot of immigrants. Secondly, the two countries share democratic space. Thirdly and perhaps the most important reason is the shared Anglo-Saxon world view, which India continued with after British colonialism. There were differences regarding this in the post-WW2 period but with the dying relevance of issues of colonialism, race and backwardness, one is likely to think that the shared past would be some sort of a convergence point.

The down side is that no relations are unconditional. Each country wants its pound of flesh for the benefits and favours it provides. In this regard I would go back to the NAM days of India and assert that considering the tradition of leadership and independence that India has exhibited in International fora and many times against the US, it would be difficult to 'bully' India into doing what Delhi does not want to do.

If I am not wrong, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was keen on serving US interests in Iraq, in what capacity, I am unaware of but this issue was debated and even came up in the Parliament. But there is no way this would have been possible and this was well realized by the NDA government which killed the issue before it could suffer any damages. If its the Iran case which is the quid pro quo people have in mind when framing questions of bullying, then I would actually suggest that it is against Indian interest if Iran goes nuclear, never mind what the Left parties in India say.

There is just so much you can impinge on a country of this size, space and democracy ensures that if any one differs with Delhi's policy, they will raise a hue and cry about it and some sections of the media are likely to lap it up. Under such circumstances bullying is well impossible. The debate and the current impasse on the nuclear deal is a gorgeous example of how it would be difficult to impose on a democratic country, and what makes it even more difficult is that, India is getting prosperous. So even the debt crisis payment like the 1992-93 type of situation is not expected.

The warmth in Indo-US ties are also very importantly societal driven. India sends the second largest number of foreign students to US Schools. The Indian-Americans are a highly prosperous and influential in American politics and it has grown steadily in the last two decades, in larger proportion despite the comparative low numbers but due to the higher income group in which they come from. Now when someone is going to fund your domestic campaign and he expects you to pay attention to India, it would be but natural that US interests on India would be expected to continue.

China is normalizing its relations with India since the late 1980s. It has distanced itself with Pakistan stance on Kashmir and apprehensive about the rise of fundamentalists in Pakistan that is affecting its province Xinjang too. First time in a decade Chinese premier visited India and asked for “strategic partnership” with India. China has also supported Indian Nuclear deal in NSG. This shift is very positive for India. China is playing its cards very sensibly. It has very much clear its intentions that China want to cooperate with India and do not wanna loose India to USA. China does not want this partnership to harm its security and change the balance of power. India has managed till yet to play “China Card” in its relations with USA or the strategic ambiguity in its relations with China and USA. But for how long India will remain successful to maintain this policy is another question. Would India choose China or USA?

It is true that the Chinese have over time made efforts to normalize relations with India. The movement over Kashmir is rather obvious. I think no country is on the side of any country especially in this China-US-India triangle, they are all hedging their bets. They all have eggs in each others basket and each bilateral relationship is trying to balance the other with natural growth or state/foreign policy directed one.

It would also be incorrect to assume that India is playing the China card. I am sure the Americans can read into Indian interests and vice versa. It is in the interest of both India and US to enrich their ties and therefore that is taking place, it has got nothing to do with the China or the US card. All rising powers run into firewalls. Just like Germany in the two world wars and Japan in the second war. That it appears would happen to China as the realists point out and the most crucial area in this regard remains energy. The mad rush for energy is quite an interesting development in the past decade. But there would be a point where the Chinese owing to their rapid growth would have to push for more and would run into the Americans. It would be fascinating to notice how they play their relations then.

Similarly this would happen to India, huge population, rapid growth and development, together with China it would create two mammoths fighting for space in all spheres and that is why it is said that a China-India conflict is inevitable in the future owing to structural limitations of growth as seen from today.

The China aspect to India's security is of recent origin, dating back perhaps to the occupation of Tibet which lead to the border issue and the 1962 conflict. People in the know would tell you that the Indian elites have since independence had aspirations of global power. To be one of the powers who matter in the world. This can be examined by the extremely energetic and active Indian diplomacy in the Nehru years which had disproportionate influence compared to Indian strategic space. Then India talked in moral terms. Partially owing to the civilizational ethos, the Indians like many others think they are the best, never mind China or for that matter even the United States.

Most of the nuclear debate and the missile reach issues have their share of hardliners who see USA as the primary threat to Indian ambition, but they seem to have lost space in the past decade or have changed their stance with changing times. Indian Ocean Security in many ways brings together all these disparate elements. The Indian Navy has its own ambitions dependent upon funding to secure this strategic space for India, to ensure the safety of Sea Lanes of Communication, oil supplies and not to mention power projection. The importance of the aircraft carrier is crucial here as is their desire for a SLBM. In short, to make the Indian Ocean, an Indian lake.

The Indians also have a view that the Americans are comfortable with letting the Indian space grow in the Indian Ocean region owing to their preoccupation in other crucial areas. This also provides the US an important device to be a strategic partner for India and let the Indians take care of their interest till the near future. So you see there is a sizeable convergence of interests.

The Chinese are doing their bit for their own space, Gawadar, Burma and Coco Islands, then the Chinese privileges at Triconmelee on the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka. But it would be important to point out that this maybe a rather positive reading of the situation today. How and what will push relations in the future remains to be seen.

To conclude, it would be important to mention the development in Sino-Indian relations which are also growing at a rapid pace, from political, security ties to trade which is growing at a breathtaking pace. India and China are conducting their first ever military exercise in the Yunnan province of China as I write this. Secondly, political contacts and cooperation on issues of trade, tariffs at the WTO, environment and other issues of common developing concern see the two countries as allies opposed to the alliance of the developed states led by the United States. Political contacts, energy dialogue, people to people contact while restricted by the total population figures, are growing at a rapid speed. A large number of Indian students travel to China for studies, an increasing number want to invest in China and travel for tourism. China’s brand in India is rising. I see all these different bilateral relations as enmeshed into each other, without giving the impression of being allied in the First World War or the Second World War sense. Any of the three countries going to war with each other is going to hurt the other too.

Please read this in tandem with this other piece which I wrote on the security in Asia, titled, The Future of Asia : Changing Security Architecture. I am open to receiving comments on the discrepancies in my thought process and these two pieces are important in many ways as they examine the wider picture of the future of Asia in security terms as seen by the standards of current developments.

No comments: