Monday, Oct 03, 2022

The trouble that comes in threes

India should not allow itself to be played by the US as a counter to China.

Henry Kissinger once made a famous remark about the tragedy of the Iran-Iraq war. He said,“The only thing wrong with this confrontation is that only one side can lose.” There is no doubt that Kissinger is one of the geopolitical geniuses of our times. In this one brief remark,he captured a strategy that the West has used for the past two centuries to maintain its global domination: divide and rule.The one region that should understand divide-and-rule better than any other is South Asia. The British used this strategy brilliantly and succeeded. One reason why I published my first book,Can Asians Think? was to find an answer to an obvious question: how did my 300 million Indian ancestors allow themselves to be ruled so effortlessly by 100,000 Englishmen? The answer to this question is complex but one element is obvious: divide and rule.The era of Western domination of global history is coming to an end rapidly,but great powers do not give up their power easily. Anyone who thinks the UK and France will give up their permanent seats in the UN Security Council voluntarily must be smoking opium. And in this urge to retain power,it would be very natural for the West to continue using a strategy that has worked well for centuries: divide and rule.The main challenge to Western domination of world history is not coming from Africa or Latin America. It is coming from Asia. This is natural. Up to 1820,the two largest economies of the world were consistently China and India. It was only in the last 200 years that Europe took off,followed by North America. But the last 200-year period of Western domination was a major historical aberration. All historical aberrations come to a natural end. Hence,it is inevitable that by 2050 (and probably earlier) the two largest economies will once again be China and India.The return of China and India can no longer be questioned. The real big question is: will China and India grow together or grow apart? The natural answer to this question should come from the historical pattern of the years 1 to 1820. Then,when China and India provided the world’s largest economies,they never went to war with each other. Hence,if this pattern of two millennia returns,logically China and India should not go to war.However,from 1 AD to 1820,despite the glories of the Greeks and Romans,China and India never had to deal with a third rival civilisation. In the 21st century,even though Western domination of world history will end,the West will not disappear. Indeed,it will remain the single strongest civilisation for another 100 years or more. And it will have a great advantage,with the United States remaining the world’s greatest military power for a longer time.One does not have to be a geopolitical genius to predict that the most important relationship will be the US-China-India geopolitical triangle. And one also does not have to be a genius to know that the best position to occupy in this geopolitical triangle is to be in the middle position. Hence,for example,if India’s relations with both the US and China are better than the US-China bilateral relationship,this will give India a significant geopolitical advantage.So far,the United States enjoys the position of being in the middle. Despite the obvious geopolitical rivalries and tension,the bilateral relationship between the US and China could not be stronger. The total amount of US-China trade last year was $366 billion. China enjoyed a massive trade surplus of $196 billion in the same year. In return,the US enjoys a massive amount of cheap loans from China in the form of over $1 trillion of US treasury bill purchases.Equally importantly,the common permanent membership of the UN Security Council means that on a daily basis the US and China make geopolitical deals. I witnessed this at first hand when I served on the Council in 2001-02. And when a crisis breaks out in North Korea or Iran,the first impulse of Washington,DC is to call Beijing. India’s exclusion from such permanent membership gives it a geopolitical disadvantage.To secure the comfortable middle position in the US-China-India geopolitical triangle,India will have to work hard to simultaneously strengthen its relations with both the US and China. Its relations with the US are on a good wicket now. The American courtship of India has become a major industry in Washington,DC. Some of it is due to ideological affinity as fellow democracies. But as India learned in the Cold War,a democratic US can support a military-dominated Pakistan over democratic India. Geopolitical interests always trump ideological affinities. And since it serves American interests to occupy the middle position in the US-China-India geopolitical triangle,this may be an even more powerful reason for the US courtship of India.The major questions for India therefore are obvious ones: will it be used as a convenient geopolitical card by the US to balance China? Or will it emerge as an independent actor that can use both America and China to advance its own interests? Will it allow emotions and ideology to influence its decisions,or will it use the wisdom of a Henry Kissinger to make cool and calculated long-term choices? Will India use divide and rule,or will India be used again in divide and rule?

The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of ‘The New Asian Hemisphere’

First published on: 31-12-2010 at 03:11:40 am
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