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Clarifying Asia to America

A new book by Gilboy and Heginbotham carries forward the work of Harold Isaacs

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
June 23, 2012 3:51:25 am

Book: Chinese and Indian Strategic Behaviour: Growing Power and Alarm

Author: George J. Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 346

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Over half a century ago,the American journalist Harold Isaacs produced a highly influential work on Asia’s image in the United States. Unlike the European colonial powers,the interaction of the US with Asia was limited and the ancient continent befuddled ordinary Americans. By dispelling American stereotypes about China and India in the first half of the 20th century,Isaacs’s book,Scratches on our Minds: American Views of China and India,made Asia a lot more accessible to the US elite.

Much like Isaacs in the late 1950s,George Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham set out to challenge a dominant assumption in the current American debate on the geopolitics of Asia. They question the widely held proposition in Washington that China is a strategic rival while India is a reliable partner.

But unlike Isaacs,who tried to nudge the Americans out of their ignorance of Asia,Gilboy and Heginbotham enter the debate at a moment when China and India have begun to loom large in the American mind. Amidst Asia’s expanding economic weight and the emergence of China and India as military powers of consequence,the challenges from the East are now at the very top of America’s national security discourse.

In his recent visit,US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta called India the “linchpin” of America’s new strategy in Asia. This,of course,has made many in the Indian defence establishment rather nervous about being drawn into the unfolding Sino-American rivalry.

Gilboy and Heginbotham argue that a rising China and an emerging India pose equally difficult challenges to the US. They call for a less ideological American approach to the Asian giants and greater realism in dealing with both.

One important source of Washington’s benign view of India’s emergence and the growing fear about China’s rise is the nature of the internal political orientation of the two Asian powers. America celebrates shared democratic values with India and is deeply suspicious of the authoritarian Chinese political system. Gilboy and Heginbotham argue that there is no empirical basis to believe that the national interests of democratic powers will always converge or that countries with divergent political systems are destined to fight.

The heart of the book is a solid and very valuable empirical assessment of the international behaviour of China and India since the middle of the 20th century. Looking beyond the question of political values,Gilboy and Heginbotham offer a systematic comparison of the strategic cultures,foreign policies,military strategies and foreign economic orientations of China and India.

Cutting through the national narratives of China and India,the book lays out the many real similarities in the international behaviour of Beijing and Delhi. While they do not ignore the differences between Chinese and Indian strategies,Gilboy and Heginbotham affirm that Beijing and Delhi are equally focused on pursuing their own narrow self-interests and in deploying military power to achieve national objectives.

“In the twenty-first century,” the authors conclude,“the United States faces a complex,dual challenge from Asia’s rising powers….” Its political realism is refreshing. While this insightful volume is addressed to American audiences,it should also help the Indian strategic community develop a pragmatic view of the possibilities and limitations of the partnership with the US in coping with the rise of China.

Delhi has never been dazzled by the proposition that the US is bound to align with India against China. Delhi’s policy establishment has seen the Obama administration swing from the notion of a strategic partnership with China to manage the problems in Asia and beyond in 2009 to a definitive policy of balancing Beijing’s rise by 2012.

While India recognises the sharpening contradictions between the US and China,it is acutely aware of the extraordinary economic interdependence between the two and the fact that Sino-US ties today are thicker than Delhi’s bonds with either Beijing or Washington.

India has dealt with the many twists and turns in the US-China relationship since the end of World War II; India’s growing power potential has,for the first time,put Delhi in a position to influence the balance between Washington and Beijing. The realism that Gilboy and Heginbotham recommend to the US in dealing with China and India is equally applicable to Delhi,which now finds itself in a triangular dynamic with Washington and Beijing.

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