Nervous India contemplates shelter under extended wing of eager US

By Liu Zongyi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-3-15 18:10:00

Illustration: Liu Rui

With the US "return to Asia" and the growing economic gap between China and India, the Sino-Indian relationship is seeing subtle changes these days. Some Indian scholars trumpet an alliance under the US leadership to counterbalance China. For example, Harsh V. Pant, a professor of defense studies at King's College London, argues that India's strategic interests can only be realized by an Asia-Pacific arrangement where the US retains its predominant status, while the Indian Express columnist C. Raja Mohan advocates that India should shift its policy of strategic autonomy and strategically cooperate with the US.

So far, India has strengthened its "Look East" Policy. It has enhanced strategic and security cooperation with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam and has taken a high profile in the South China Sea disputes. In December 2011, the first trilateral dialogue between the US, Japan and India was presided over by the US and one of the discussion topics was China's growing military and political global position. It's no wonder many think that India may abandon strategic autonomy in order to ally with the US and contain China.  

Within India, there are different opinions on the direction of the Sino-Indian relationship. Optimists believe that the two are likely to form a cooperative partnership, a minority among whom even advocates building an anti-West group to balance global power.

But more are realists. They hold that competition between China and India is inevitable because of both countries' huge populations and demands for resources, but that competitions are not necessarily cutthroat and zero sum, therefore the two should try communication rather than confrontation. Realists are prominent in India's diplomatic decision-making.

There are also pessimists, who are supportive of a China containment policy. According to one estimation by Professor Wu Yongnian of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, 20 to 30 percent of the Indian diplomatic and strategic circles support Indian confronting China. But since Indian scholars know relatively little about China and are vulnerable to Western and domestic media keen on hyping China's threat, the number of those who support confrontation is growing.

Currently, Indian policymakers have a relatively clear judgment on Sino-Indian relations and India-US relations. India doesn't have the ability to directly confront China yet, and as a country prioritizing economic development, India is in need of a peaceful neighboring environment.

History shows that the US is not a reliable ally for India. Affected by the economic crisis, the US is heavily burdened by its domestic economic problems. It anchors its hope on the strategy of "offshore balancing" to achieve balance with China or even contain China by stirring up tensions between China and its Asian strategic partners. It is just taking advantage of India's strength to balance China.

So, at present, we see the ironic sight of articles in both the US and Indian media trying to provoke the other side into tensions with China. The Indian media highlights that Uncle Sam is well-prepared to battle China, while the US media points out that India is engaging in military expansion in preparation for possible Sino-Indian boundary conflicts.

Confronted with a rapidly rising China and the increasingly widening gap between the two Asian giants, India is enhancing strategic and security cooperation with countries like Japan and Vietnam constantly and developing its military strength to take advantage of the US returning to the Asia-Pacific region. But this is risky.

India is making these changes to gain a better position for future Sino-Indian competition and global competition. But India hasn't changed its position as a hesitating and swaying nation in the international system.

Although it has become more pro-US, India will not abandon strategic autonomy to ally with the US. The Sino-Indian relationship is in essence a competitive symbiotic relationship. China's development and rise is the prerequisite for India's rise.

If India is really embroiled in conflicts with China, it's hard to say whether the US will stretch out a hand to help India. But if India surpasses China, it will definitely replace its neighbor as the target of the US. Strategic speculation is a high-risk game. India should be cautious.

There are certain problems in Sino-Indian relations. But as two emerging powers in Asia, China and India share extensive common interests in many global affairs, such as reform of international systems, climate change, and regional economic cooperation and security. The Sino-Indian relationship should jump out of the confinement of geopolitics characterized by narrow-minded confrontation.

China and India should enhance strategic mutual trust and make full use of cooperative platforms such as BRICS, G20, and SCO to promote international financial system reform, solving climate change and the Afghanistan problem.

China should further open its information and pharmacy sectors to India to boost mutual investments by enterprises of both sides. China and India should also strengthen cultural exchanges to promote both countries' civilizations and values spreading around the world. These actions could help deepen mutual trust and realize the common rise of both countries.      

The author is a research fellow of Center for South Asia Studies at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

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