Strategic triangle in Indo-Pacific

| | in Oped

India's relations with the US and China have entered a new phase. But, despite growing American support to India's role at the regional level, New Delhi should not show enthusiasm for high-risk, ill-fated actions that may ruin its relationship with Beijing

India’s tradition of navigating an independent foreign policy is being re-adjusted under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, this re-adjustment will require deft management of the most important strategic triangle — India, China and the US. A strategic triangle is a state in which the policy of one country has momentous consequences for the other two, on a continued basis in time and space.

The triangle in question comprises the three largest economies of the world, that form the driving power structure for the entire Asia-Pacific region, accounting for a considerably high share of global economic growth, military expenditures and technological innovation.

The strategic relationship between India and the US received extraordinary attention during US President Barack Obama’s landmark three-day India tour. Mr Obama’s visit made it certain that the two countries will now actively cooperative and interact to deal with a wide range of issues, which includes trade, environment, security, energy and technology.

In paticular, US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, issued during Mr Obama’s visit has been unusually frank in singling out the South China Sea dispute. The Vision has also committed, the world’s most powerful democracy and the world’s most populous democracy, to work with other democracies in the Indo-Pacific region.

This means revitalising a loose security network, which involves the US, India, Japan and Australia. Sceptics have been arguing that, instead of enlarging the room for diplomatic manoeuver, this move has somewhat, restricted India’s room for strategic flexibility.

The National Security Strategy of the US released in February mentions: “We see a strategic convergence with India’s Act East policy and our continued implementation of the rebalance to Asia and the Pacific.” Although China has not been explicitly mentioned, it is widely perceived that a formal India-US alliance, aimed at the containment of China, has been crystallised. The reality is far more complex.

China is one of the most thorniest issue for Mr Modi. It has always been China’s strategic interest to create a border dispute to keep India off-balance. Perhaps, Mr Modi’s real triumph will only be when China decides to permanently settle the border dispute with India. However, resolving the dispute must involve a set of dynamic inter-dependent changes that involve de-escalation of conflict behaviour changes and a positive change in its attitude.

Given the present circumstances, its not going to be an easy task, until an external environment becomes favourable to India. The progress towards normalisation of relations between New Delhi and Beijing has been anything but linear. Rhetoric apart, practical cooperation between the two neighbours is hamstrung by historical suspicions, cultural prejudices, geopolitical rivalry, and competing priorities. Often, it has been about taking two steps forward and one step back. There have been several deviations along the way.

China’s disappointment at India’s growing proximity with the US is understandable. But does it mean, that India will continue to accept the status quo to accommodate itself to the existing situation that favours China? China has been relying on India’s long-held position that it will not ally permanently, overtly or covertly, with any big power.

Just because it suits China, it does not mean that India will not strive to alter this equation. Mr Modi has subtly indicated that his China policy is motivated by the strategic imperative of containing China’s aggressive impulse, while closely cooperating with it to ensure an Asian Century.

High-decibel media coverage of China’s strategic moves generates extreme views and also creates an illusion that India is stuck in a hopeless stalemate. This may not be the whole truth. During President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, China’s deliberate provocation along the disputed border was designed to test the resolve of the new Government.

If the India-US Joint Strategic Vision was India’s counter-move, then the Indian leadership has to be perennially busy, to think and plan geo-strategic moves and counter-moves on the chess board of international politics.

With the Maithripala Sirisena Government coming into power in Sri Lanka, India hopes to push back China’s increasing grip on the island nation’s strategic assets. The signing of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement between India and Sri Lanka during Mr Sirisena’s recent visit to India can be interpreted as India’s counter-move.

If counter-moves drive Mr Modi’s China policy, then Mr Obama’s visit should provide the impetus to pursue a mutually beneficial equation with China. A word of caution is in order here: Immediately after Mr Obama’s trip, one of the major diplomatic responsibilities of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the first official visit to Beijing to clear any possible misunderstanding that might have crept in.

Can India leverage the renewed engagement with the US to improve ties with China? Some strategic pundits maintain that the Chinese attitude towards India combines pragmatism and cynicism. China and India share neither a vision of the world order nor a common understanding of their respective places in it. China’s vision of a post-American order is radically different from that of India. But to a greater extent, the same applies to India-US relations as well.

The surest standard for assessing how both the neighbours are doing in terms of resolution of disputes is to judge whether their resolve is getting weaker or stronger over time. The overall direction has not been entirely unsatisfactory. Mitigating the mutual suspicion through adaptation, conciliation and diplomacy has become the norm for leaders of both the countries.

While China is eying big commercial opportunities in the India’s infrastructure and technology sectors, India is keen to expand the range of its economic relationship with China. India cannot afford to jeopardise the hard-won gains made in this relationship. Positive engagement with China will enable India to keep tabs on evolving threats and to establish a common interest in peaceful coexistence. Both  countries are working on a code of conduct for border control and confidence building measures.

Prudence, caution, and flexibility must become the watchwords of the India-China-US strategic triangle. There is a lot that India needs to learn from the sophistication of the foreign policies of China and the US. China’s economic links with the US are so closely intertwined that it is virtually impossible for either country to disassociate itself from the other.

The American market has been offering great opportunities to China help it rise economically. The National Security Strategy of the US also clearly states that even though Americans are “alert to China’s military modernisation, the scope of their cooperation with China is unprecedented”.

Due to either shortsightedness or tactical opportunism, some Indian opinion-makers may lay down rose-coloured glasses when it comes to looking at the US. But the real picture of India’s deepening ties with the US is vague and full of contradictions.

 India’s interactions with the US and China are entering a phase, which is significantly different from the past. Despite the India-US strategic convergence and growing American support to India’s role at the regional and global level, India should not show enthusiasm for high-risk, ill-fated actions that have the potential to ruin its relations with China.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur)

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