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
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
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 email@example.com. This article first appeared in South Asia Monitor on June 10, 2012.)