INDIA, CHINA, U.S. TRIANGLE: A CONTRA-POLAR WORLD?



Author : C.Uday Bhaskar


India and the United States have been in rapid, high-level political contact and dialogue over the last 10 days and this pattern will continue as Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna leads a composite ministerial team to Washington for the next Strategic Dialogue on June 13.

On June 2, the Defense Minister A.K. Antony was in Singapore for the annual Shangri-la Dialogue that brings regional defense ministers together and, soon after that, Delhi hosted U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (June 6) on his first visit to India since assuming this position.

Concurrently, India has also been in dialogue with the Chinese leadership as part of the SCO deliberations and again, Krishna was in Beijing (June 6) and had what appear to be satisfactory consultations with the new Chinese political leadership that is expected to take over the reins of government in Beijing later in the year.

It is instructive that while China was the focus of attention in the Shangri-la Dialogue, where the South China Sea and the assertive profile adopted by Beijing received considerable attention and comment, the Chinese leadership chose not to participate at a high political level – and sent a relatively junior official.

The U.S., represented by its Defense Minister equivalent, Panetta, made some very robust and unambiguous assertions in Singapore about the U.S. strategic intent to “re-balance” towards the Asia-Pacific. In military terms, it means that up to 60 percent of U.S. naval assets would be positioned in this theater – which is the Pacific-Indian Ocean combine, also now being referred to as the Indo-Pacific continuum. The U.S. also reiterated that while it has no intention of seeking to “contain” China, it supported the concept of freedom of the seas and the commitment to respect international maritime legislation and related norms.

The Indian stance on maritime freedoms, as outlined by Defense Minister Antony, was along the same lines – that maritime freedom should be ensured in the South China Sea – the sub-text being that no single state could claim exclusive sovereignty and restrict the rights of others.

Thus by the time Panetta was in Delhi, the nature of the U.S.-India relationship received extensive comment and interpretation and his public remarks that the U.S. perceived India as “a lynchpin” in America’s unfolding new defence strategy were translated to mean that India was now joining the U.S. in seeking to “contain” China.

However, this view was denied and dispelled by both Panetta and his Indian counterpart – even as there were irate murmurs from Beijing about the new U.S. strategy towards the Asia-Pacific. The nature of the complex triangular relationship between China, the U.S. and India was reflected in the manner in which the Foreign Minister Krishna was received in Beijing for the SCO meeting.

Vice premier Li Keqiang, who is slated to take over as the next Prime Minster of China, conveyed to his Indian guest that Sino-Indian ties would be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st Century. Astute observers may recall that U.S. President Barack Obama, while addressing the Indian Parliament, had characterised the ties between the world’s oldest and largest democracies as the “defining partnership of 21st century”.

In short, India has acquired the status of an important swing-state in the complex and contradictory relationship between the U.S. and China on one hand, and has the distinction of enjoying a robust strategic partnership with Moscow – going back to the last phase of the Cold War decades, when China chose to be part of the U.S. led constituency that was ranged against the former USSR.

Despite the many challenges it has had to face and the more recent political dissonance that is associated with the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Delhi, since the stewardship of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, has been adroit in ensuring that it has had either stable or very good relations with the major powers – that is, the U.S., Russia, EU, Japan, and to a reasonable extent, with China.

Over the next year, there will be complex domestic political factors at play in the U.S., China and the EU nations – even as Russia consolidates under President Putin. How Moscow proposes to position itself on various global and regional issues was on display briefly in Beijing at the SCO meeting.

Three bilaterals will be critical for the strategic orientation of the increasingly globalised international order over the next three decades. These are: U.S.-China, U.S.-Russia and Russia-China. On current evidence, the first two axes are likely to be testy and turbulent; complex and contradictory. The U.S. has to assuage both Russia and China about its strategic profile and presence against the backdrop of a major fiscal and economic decline in its overall national power index.

Paradoxically, Moscow and Beijing may draw closer to resist the U.S. and this would be a re-play of the shifting affinities in the Cold War era. India will have to study these complex and inter-related bilaterals both objectively and with informed perspicacity. While Delhi has identified strategic “autonomy” as an abiding objective, its policy options will range from the cooperative to the competitive -- and the challenge will be to ensure that they do not inadvertently slip towards the confrontational.

While globalisation introduces its own dynamic, where the primacy of the state has to yield to the macro non-state entity, managing contradictory and contrarian impulses and undercurrents is the new challenge for the India-U.S. relationship. Welcome to the “contra-polar” world and its attendant policy challenges which will be on display in Washington this week.

(C Uday Bhaskar is Adviser, South Asia Monitor and Senior Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at cudayb@gmail.com. This article first appeared in South Asia Monitor on June 10, 2012.)
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