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How India, China and US manage their ties will shape future of east Asia

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India now views China as a greater direct security threat than the US.

The rapid rise of China starting in the late 1970s and India two decades later has stirred the geostrategic situation in Asia. Unanswered questions are (1) to what extent will the US accept the rise of China and (2) to what extent will China accept the rise of India and (3) to what extent will China and India accept the US as a player in this region?

This uncertainty has produced what I call a triangular hedging system among these three powers aimed at getting each other not to take steps that undermine their core interests.

How India, China and the US manage their relationship will shape the future of east Asia, if not beyond. China and the US are the world’s first and second-largest economic powers and the Indian economic growth rate, currently at 7 per cent-plus, is the highest among these three countries and higher now than that of any other major power. The sea lanes of the maritime region they face carry over one half of the world’s trade.

Also read: The many ways India must NOT think about China

Any hedging system requires certain elements:

1. All member states calculate that it is important to sustain a relationship with the others.

2. All member states consider the other two as consequential because of their military capabilities, their economic strength and a large measure of political stability at home – and wish to avoid any rupture in this triangular relationship.

3. All will react negatively to threats of core interests by one of the members by moving closer to the other (and sometimes to a power outside the triangle) to convince the offending side to back off from its threatening acts.

Three factors have led to this strategic triangle:

1. The phenomenal economic growth of China triggered by the market reforms managed by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. A similar set of market reforms by India two decades later set in motion by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao also unleashed a much faster economic growth rate in India. By the new millennium, these two countries mattered economically to the US and to each other.

2. Each has developed nuclear weapons and possesses missiles that are able to carry them for long distances; and so, India and China matter to each other and to the US for strategic reasons.

3. The US, a major presence in the region since WWII, has always been important to the two – with the US seen, at one time or the other, by China and India as a threat to core interests. But with the end of the Cold War and the simultaneous collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, the US, facing a more peaceful situation in the Indo-Pacific, made moves to improve ties with both India and China – and reduced its military presence in the region.

During the 1990s, all three powers were basically oriented inwards with prime goal of economic growth. China was still in the phase of growing the economy and, following the advice of Deng Xiaoping, placed foreign policy tensions on the backburner so it could focus on economic growth and encourage investment and develop markets. India under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao did much the same thing with the added commitment to the long-time policy of strategic autonomy (that is no military pacts or stationing of foreign troops on Indian soil)—and this policy had national support across political boundaries. China since the split with the Soviet Union in the late 1960 has had a similar policy.

So, what changed?

The major factor is an economically resurgent China that overshadows its neighbours. Between 1990 and 2015, growth averaged about 9 per cent a year, and China replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy a few years back. Economic strength has always been a potential path to international influence and many of China’s smaller neighbours desperately need economic assistance for infrastructure development. Hence, the attractiveness of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) as a source of capital.

Also read: As US and China battle it out, India stands to gain

Regarding China, one could argue that the Indo-Pacific region is naturally China-oriented, and the OBOR project is a logical extension. Several of its neighbours (and the US) are concerned that China’s rise gives it the potential – and confidence—to undermine the status quo in pursuit of national interests. Like Bismarckian Germany in the late 19th century, China is an unsatisfied power. For India, this is reflected in China’s refusal to accept the 100-year-old McMahon Line that separates India from Tibet. Another is China’s claim to the South China Sea, which many in the US – and elsewhere – see as potentially threatening sea lanes through which a large part of US trade flows. Still another concern is Chinese funding of port facilities around the Indian Ocean that have potential to be used for strategic purposes.

Also challenging for the security of China’s neighbours is their inability to create effective regional systems to serve as a balancer because of internal divisions. Both ASEAN in Southeast Asia and SAARC in South Asia have very limited levels of cooperation, especially on security issues. China is concerned by what it perceives to be American reluctance to accept its rise as a major world power – and by related moves to limit its power

This is where the India-China-US triangle comes into play. China’s neighbours need an outside power to serve as a force multiplier. The only feasible power to fill this role is the US – and it is ready to do so.

Starting in the late 1990s, the US and India, for example, began to look for ways to cooperate – and the underlying goal was a balance of power that stopped short of a military alliance, but would hopefully manage the rise of a China so that it would become a supportive player in existing international institutions.

What made India a willing participant in the triangle was the prospect of using it to convince China not to ignore India’s core interests. And also to use the US to convince the Chinese that the US was open to closer ties with India should it choose to get closer to the US – and so help manage the rise of China. Several recent Chinese moves have added to Indian determination to send a cautionary message to China. Among China’s actions are (1) its veto of Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group; (2) its military supplies to Pakistan; (3) the construction of OBOR through contested Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and (4) Chinese investment in port facilities around the Indian Ocean.

Also read: China wants sweeter trade ties with India as its relationship with US sours

The US-India nuclear deal of 2008 signalled Washington’s de facto acceptance of India as a nuclear weapons power and bolstered India’s status as an emerging power in Asia. India’s “Look East” and Washington’s “Pivot to Asia” were thus seen as complementary moves.

An early sign of the gradually growing relationship was the US Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and the first significant project for joint development agreed to in 2017 was technology for war planes designed for aircraft carriers. The groundwork for DTTI was laid the previous year with the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), permitting US and Indian ships and planes to use each other’s facilities for repair and supply purposes. This agreement took a decade to conclude because of the Indian determination not to appear aligned (and thus preserve the triangle).

This incrementalism has been acknowledged by the Donald Trump administration. The most recent national security document issued by the Trump administration, for example, gives India rather high priority for a non-ally. The US has thus approved India for Strategic Trade Authorization permitting sale of sophisticated military equipment to it. Further, Section 12940 of the Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2019 gives the President the right to make exceptions to countries such as India on military sales for national security reasons. Another significant step was the signing of the Communications and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (usually referred to as CISMOA but termed as COMCASA in this case to underscore the India specific nature of the agreement) this September that permits sale of US avionics equipment that would enhance communication between ships and planes of the two sides.

All these moves fall within a hedging strategy to which India, China and the US subscribe.

First, China does not want India to move strategically closer to the US, and at the 26-27 April 2018 Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan, the Chinese press wrote of two leaders removing misunderstandings and thus laying the foundation for improved Indo-Chinese relations. Since that summit, the official statements, echoed by the state-controlled Chinese press, have voiced optimistic predictions of the future of China-India relations. Chinese strategic thinkers argue that the Indian doctrine of strategic autonomy makes sense; it signals that India is not to be a party to any scheme to contain China. While India and the US have an ever-increasing number of sea, land and air military exercises, these fall far short of a military alignment. But they do send a signal to China that India can get even closer to the US if China takes steps that significantly undermine India’s core interests.

At the same time, China remains ambivalent about India’s rise. One the one hand, India’s rise strengthens the multipolar structure of world politics and so limits American power. A rising India is a potential market of 1.3 billion people now engaged in a massive infrastructure expansion where China has special expertise. India also agrees with China on the need to reform international financial institutions. Meanwhile, India’s strategic compulsion as the weaker power confronting unresolved Sino-Indian territorial disputes draws it closer to the US and more recently to Japan; Japan was invited, for example, to be a participant in the annual US-India naval exercises.

Also read: The big 2+2 talks takeaway: China has brought India and US much closer

There is little doubt that India now views China as a greater direct security threat than the US. Despite periodic US-India tensions, this assumption has probably been the case since India’s defeat by Chinese forces in 1962 along its northern frontier with China and the significant strengthening of Sino-Pakistani relations in the new millennium.

Finally, will the India-China-US strategic triangle minimise possibility of war among them? My guess is yes, but I am an optimist who guessed wrong on India’s nuclear testing in 1998. I am not confident that the US fully accepts the rise of China or that China fully accepts the rise of India – and at least China is wary about a strong US presence in the western Pacific. This guarantees periodic tensions among the three powers and the risk of confrontation, but I am still cautiously optimistic that they will not allow these tensions to morph into what would be a highly destructive conflict.

Walter K. Andersen is a faculty of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. He is one of the authors of “The RSS: A View to the Inside“.

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