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India-US relations: The elephant in the room

June 07, 2016 13:51 IST

US President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

The greatest challenge before India is how to strike a fine balance of its relationship between its neighbour and strategic rival China, and the US, says Rup Narayan Das.

One country that will closely watch every word and move of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the United States is China. In the triangular India-China-US relations, combination of any two of the three is a matter of strategic anxiety to the third.

China is as much worried about a strategic embrace between India and the US, as India would be concerned about a G-2 between the US and China, and similarly a trustworthy strategic tie between China and India is not palatable to the US.

Hence, each watch the moves of the remaining two in this game of chess, and at the same time try to reassure the other that their strategic ties is not aimed against the third.

As far as India is concerned, it is evident that India has neither the inclination nor the capability to contain China. India knows well that China is its neighbour with whom it shares an undisputed border of 3,488 km.

For India, engaging China is not an option, but a strategic imperative. In fact, India's relationship with China had been consistent even before the country achieved Independence in 1947.

India was only the second country outside the Communist bloc to recognise China immediately after its birth in 1949 as a Communist country. When the US was containing China in the Korean peninsula in 1950s, India proactively engaged with China to defuse the crisis. India also strongly pleaded for China's admission to the United Nations Security Council. India-China relations reached its apogee during the Bandung Conference 1955.

The Tibetan crisis and the border war in 1962, however, inflicted a severe blow to the trust and ties between the two countries. It was in this context that the US chipped in to beef up India's security and defence wherewithal at India's request.

The relationship between India and the US, however, couldn't progress much due to the US support to Pakistan in terms of supply of defence equipment and its stance on Kashmir, and its criticism of India's nuclear tests.

From the US side, India's tilt in favour of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the signing of Treaty of Friendship with the USSR in 1971 estranged the relationship between the world's oldest and the world's largest democracies.

It was only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that there was new direction in India's foreign policy and economic policy. In fact, India's liberalisation of its economy and its 'Look East' foreign policy coincided at the same time in the early 1990s. On the other side of the spectrum, the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the rise of China impelled the US to mentor India to soft-balance China.

India's economic liberalisation and dismantling of a socialist pattern of economy and the new orientation of its 'Look East' policy in the 1990s goaded the US to engage India in a more robust manner to engage with its burgeoning economy.

China's rise and India's persistent security dilemma with China propelled India to forge and deepen a strategic partnership with the US.

History turned full circle when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee described the US as a 'natural ally' in 2003. The India-US nuclear deal initiated in 2005 was a milestone in the strategic partnership between the two countries.

No established power will ever like a rising power challenging it and that explains the discomfort between the US, the reigning power, and China, the rising power.

Similarly, India's recent rise in spite of the gnawing economic and military gap with China is anathema to China. It is not only that the two countries are strategic rivals, but more importantly the two have different and competitive political systems.

If India can achieve high economic growth adopting a democratic system, this has the potential to debunk the Communist system. It is against this backdrop that the relationship between the two countries has become more delicate in recent times.

China and India are, however, managing the complex relationship very deftly, often invoking that both have the wisdom to manage their relationship. What is required is the effective strategic communication to avoid misperception and miscommunication.

President Pranab Mukherjee's recent visit to China ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US should be seen in this strategic context.

In order to understand how the Chinese can behave towards India, some understanding of its strategic culture will help us in drawing a tentative inference. There are two broad strands of Chinese strategic culture, no matter whether it is imperial China, nationalist China, Mao Xedong's Communist China, Deng Xiapoing's and Xi Jinping's contemporary modern China.

One is that China has reached the present position in a very hard way through intermittent warlordism, civil war, armed struggle and through violent means. The Chinese are also highly pragmatic at the same time.

The philosophy of Buddhism, Taoism and the teachings of Confucius has taught them the virtues of harmony and harmonious living and the collective goal as opposed to the individual goal.

No wonder much before India and the Western world learnt the virtues of coalition politics, Mao practiced the 'United Front' tactics during the civil war while fighting the nationalist Kuomintang prior to its birth as a Communist country by aligning with social and political forces opposed to the KMT.

In fact, Mao made a distinction between what he called 'antagonistic contradiction' and 'non-antagonistic contradiction,' pleading that one can make a tactical understanding with non-antagonistic forces to fight antagonistic forces.

Later, Deng redefined these ideas when he said that 'It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white so long as it caches mice,' and 'sought truth from fact'.

China's outreach to the US and Deng's modernisation can be seen in this perspective of China's strategic culture. China befriended the US to take on the Soviet Union and strengthened its economy. The intertwining of the economy of the US and China unleashed the economic prowess of the Chinese economy, which subsequently emerged as the world's second largest economy.

Now that the US wants to befriend India to take on China and India finds itself in an enviable position. The greatest challenge before India is how to strike a fine balance of its relationship between its neighbour and strategic rival China, and the US.

Both the US and China know that India has strategic autonomy of its foreign policy and it won't succumb to pressure to take any step to jeopardise its national interest.

Thus, a churning is taking place in the triangular relationship among the three countries. The relationship among the three countries should not and need not be seen through the prism of a 'zero sum game.'

There is room for a win-win situation and a new equilibrium is bound to take shape taking cognisance of the emerging dynamics of geo-politics.

Dr Rup Narayan Das is a Delhi-based China scholar and former senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.

Rup Narayan Das
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