Some in New Delhi fear that expanding the military partnership with the United States might have huge negative consequences for Delhi’s engagement with Beijing. The idea that India must unilaterally cede a veto to China over its partnership with America reveals an enduring strategic diffidence in Delhi. It also shows little awareness of either China’s geopolitical tradition or of modern India’s diplomatic practice.
Amidst the new tensions between the US and China, Delhi would surely be wise to carefully calibrate its relations with Washington and Beijing. But the problem begins once commonsense is turned into a policy of self-denial with the US.
Will Beijing really go “crazy” if Delhi warms up to Washington? To answer that question, consider for a moment China’s relationship with Pakistan. If military cooperation with the US was the defining factor in China’s relations with other countries, Beijing should be utterly hostile to Islamabad.
What we have had over the decades, instead, is China’s “all-weather partnership” with Pakistan, a longstanding military partner for the US and enduring friction with non-aligned India. Pakistan was a member of the US Cold War alliances on China’s periphery in the 1950s. In the 1980s, Pakistan was on the frontlines of America’s Eurasian wars. After 9/11, America designated Pakistan as a “major non-Nato ally” and showered it with assistance worth $30 billion.
Beijing seems to have had no problem at all with this record. Even as China now challenges American primacy in East Asia, it seems quite happy to join Pakistan and America in shaping Afghanistan’s future. Do also consider China’s shifting alliances with other powers. In 1950, just after the proclamation of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong visited Moscow on a rare foreign visit and refused to leave until Stalin signed off on a military alliance with Beijing.
A decade later, Mao condemned Russia as a “social imperialist” and began to make advances to America. China, which denounced America’s military presence in Asia during the 1950s, was quite happy to justify it in the 1970s and 1980s as a useful counter to Soviet power and an antidote to Japan’s rearmament.
China is now back in a strategic partnership with Russia and is trying to push America out of Asia. That does not mean China foregoes partnerships with America’s Asian allies. For China, this is about careful tailoring of its policies to specific contexts and not judging everyone by their ties with Washington.
Beijing, for example, mounts solid political pressure on Japan, America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, while maintaining close economic relations. It woos South Korea that hosts nearly 28,000 US troops on its soil. Beijing deploys a carrot and stick policy towards Vietnam that is getting closer to America.
Some Chinese analysts seems to have better appreciation of Delhi’s changing policies than India’s own strategic community. They think Delhi today is playing a sophisticated game like Mao’s China that “aligned with the far” (America) to “balance the near” (the Soviet Union).
That nations have no permanent friends or allies but only permanent interests was not original to Lord Palmerston, who served as British prime minister in the 19th century. It’s very much part of the ancient statecraft in China and India. Like modern China, India has not been averse to switching partners or creatively reinterpreting the foreign policy mantra when the need arose. The inventor of non-alignment, Jawaharlal Nehru, turned to America for military assistance when China attacked India in 1962. His daughter Indira Gandhi signed the 1971 treaty of peace and friendship with the Soviet Union, as America and China became buddies. She and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, recast India’s great power relations in the 1980s by reducing the pro-Soviet tilt and improving ties with the US and Western Europe.
As Asia’s power balance undergoes profound shifts today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like Indira and Rajiv Gandhi before him, is reordering India’s great-power relations. But those in Delhi wedded to a crude foreign policy schema appear as unprepared for a surprise today as they were in 1971. Then, like now, Indira’s political opponents accused Delhi of abandoning non-alignment.
Neither Delhi nor Beijing, then, are innocent to geopolitical jousting. In the end, America is by no means the main problem between India and China. That lies elsewhere in their contestation of each other’s sovereignties across the Himalayas — in Kashmir, Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh.
India’s slogans in the 1950s on non-alignment, Asian solidarity and “Hindi-China bhai bhai” did not dampen the security dilemmas with Beijing. Delhi’s rhetoric on strategic autonomy and self-abnegation with the US today are not going to do the China trick for India.
Delhi should focus instead on managing, if not resolving, the territorial issues and expanding economic partnership with Beijing. When India and China are not a political threat to each other and can make money from the markets of the other, they will have less reason to worry about their relations with third parties.