As a rising China challenges American primacy in Asia, navigating between Beijing and Washington is a major strategic challenge for us. India’s default option, many assume, is to reaffirm non-alignment — neither with Washington, nor Beijing. That conventional wisdom is under a cloud as India draws closer towards America, amidst a rather difficult phase with China.
Contrary to the mythology of non-alignment, tilting to one side or another has been very much part of the Indian diplomatic tradition and the Chinese. As he founded the People’s Republic of China, it is known Mao Zedong insisted Beijing must “lean one side” — towards the Soviet Union. But within a few years, he fought Moscow and leaned towards the other side, Washington.
Nehru proclaimed non-alignment but reached out to the US amidst the war with China in 1962. In 1971, Indira Gandhi signed a security treaty with the Soviet Union as the American embrace of China altered the regional balance. If Delhi railed against the US-China-Pakistan axis in the 1970s, Mao fulminated against the Russian bear mounting the Indian cow.
The geopolitical churn continues. Delhi now fears Russia joining the China-Pak axis; Beijing campaigns against Delhi’s partnership with Washington and Tokyo. In this story of shifting Asian alliances, Delhi and Beijing had one unchanging objective — to construct a favourable external balance of power. In pursuit of that, India and China found themselves, more often than not, on opposing sides.
Those who want to return to a presumed “golden age of non-alignment” ignore the imperatives of geography. It was easy to be “non-aligned” in the Cold War between America, the distant power, and Soviet Russia, once removed from India’s borders. China, in contrast, has a long and contested border with India and now looms larger than before.
Beijing’s GDP is nearly five times larger than India’s. Its military spending is thrice that of Delhi. In the last few years, India has struggled to cope with Beijing’s political expansion, military modernisation and power projection in India’s neighbourhood. India’s territorial disputes with China have also endured. After decades of negotiation, Delhi and Beijing don’t even agree on the length of their border. China says the border is about 2,000 km — the Indian count is nearly 4,000. Thereby hangs a tale of two nationalisms, so deeply attached to territory.
The territorial question is further complicated by the disagreement over Tibet and its relationship to Delhi and Beijing. Delhi worries about China’s deepening alliance with Pakistan and frets over Beijing’s growing power in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. India has a massive trade deficit with China. Beyond the bilateral and regional, Beijing has tripped up India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and is unenthusiastic about India’s claim for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
Despite their best efforts, India and China find it difficult to mask their multiple differences with anti-Western rhetoric. The slogans on Asian solidarity were of no help in bringing India and China together in the Cold War. Delhi’s more recent joint quest with Beijing for a “multipolar world” (code for limiting American influence) has begun to rub up against India’s new fears of a “unipolar Asia” (code for a Sino-centric region).
India’s messy relationship with China stands in contrast to growing political convergence with the United States. India has a significant trade surplus with America; its dynamic IT sector is deeply connected to America’s Silicon Valley. The US ended its pro-Pakistan tilt some years ago and has moved towards neutrality; Washington is more forthcoming than China in helping India counter cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. Unlike China, America supports India’s membership of the UNSC and the NSG.
Washington says it wants to see India emerge as a great power; China seems to block India’s rise on the global stage. No policymaker in Delhi can avoid the asymmetry in India’s relations with Washington and Beijing. Of course, this is not the end of the story. Despite the dramatic advances in India’s relations with America, there is much residual mistrust of Washington in Delhi. Some Indians are concerned about the unpredictability of US policies towards China and Pakistan. Meanwhile, India can’t forget the imperatives of maintaining reasonable relations with a powerful neighbour like China. The biggest problem, however, is the fact that Delhi has no control over all the variables in the rapidly shifting distribution of power in Asia, especially between China and America.
Some in Delhi might be pleased with the US president-elect Donald Trump’s threat to adopt a more muscular approach to China. Others worry that Trump’s real objective is to work out a new deal with Beijing after creating leverage over economic and political issues.
Delhi is acutely aware that Washington and Beijing have a stronger economic partnership with each other than they have with Delhi. For the near future, therefore, Delhi’s emphasis will be on making the best of expanding the partnership with the United States while limiting and managing the differences with China. Delhi has just begun this high-wire act — and there is much distance to cover.
The writer is Director, Carnegie India, Delhi and consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’
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