US - India Relations: The China Factor


According to economic historian Angus Maddison in his book, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, India was the richest country in the world and had the world's largest economy until the 16th century AD.

In the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the new leader – many scholars predicted that there will be a drastic change in traditional Indian foreign policy. The emerging challenges in South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean have been taken by both the nations as a growing threat to their interest due to Chinese assertive military presence in the area.

Asia, synonymous with China and India, was much developed before the industrial revolution in the west that shaped the European countries and the United States of America (USA). The west could keep on with the pace set by this revolution with technological development. To meet their excessive demand of the raw materials - they encouraged ‘imperialism’ in Asia, Africa and Latin America. USA was once a colony of Britain, France and Spain. India remained as British colony for nearly 200 years. Portions of Indian territories were also occupied by the Dutch, Danish, French and Portuguese imperialists from 1605 AD to 1633 AD.

According to economic historian Angus Maddison in his book, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, India was the richest country in the world and had the world's largest economy until the 16th century AD. Similarly, China - after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 - witnessed the period of instability and disrupted economic activity. During the Nanjing decade (1927–1937) - it could advance in a number of industrial sectors but the war with Japan (1937–1945) followed by Chinese civil war formed People's Republic of China. Again it will be relevant to quote Angus Maddison- as he had published an authoritative study on economic growth in China over the past twenty centuries and comparing the strengths and weaknesses of Europe and China as two of the world's leading economic forces in the past. Whatever the western scholars predict - the Chinese economy is booming from the time of Deng Xiaoping with minor fluctuations at present so is India with an average growth rate of approximately 7 percent over the last two decades.

The Tripartite Relations: US – India - China

In order to evaluate US-India relations, we need to focus on present foundation of their relations based on critical analysis of the tripartite cold war era connection among the US, Former Soviet Union and China. In the cold war era, US instigated China to play with former Soviet Union to escalate border disputes between two communist nations. It was inherent for US to minimise the influence of the former Soviet Union to become the sole super power in the world. So, it understood the psychology of China very well who wanted to lead the left bloc. Former Soviet Union and China both were strong rivals to become number one in that race. In another front, during Sino-India war-1962, USA maintained comparatively neutral position as India was inclined to Soviet Union and communist China was not fully favoured in that war because the US interest was to minimise Soviet Union on direct confrontation. In a very chronicling deal, USA had to compromise many of its interests to support China to become permanent UN Security Council member as well.

It is said that US military leaders had even considered using nuclear weapons against North Korean and Chinese forces in November 1950 as US-led United Nations forces retreated in the face of Chinese entry into the Korean War. The then President Truman administration officials debated the merits of attacking China with atomic weapons without UN approval. The reality was they were unable to identify practical military targets, and global public opinion by that point constrained their use. From this, it is again proven that ‘there is no permanent friend or foe - it is only the permanent interest that prevails for a nation’. After the cold war, the power of New Russian Federation declined considerably, hence US policy to use China against another communist bloc also declined as well.

It was after Deng Xiaoping’s visit in the 80’s to USA, the relations between US - China became cordial to flourish trade and exchange of science and technological know-how for mutual benefit. At present, President Xi Jinping advocating and promoting for ‘One Belt One Road’ and revival of old Silk Road has irritated its South Asian rival, India, and the creation of new island in South China Sea as well as its assertive military activities has annoyed Super power USA as well.

The South China Sea and Indian Ocean are now hotspots in the Asia-Pacific region. As per Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., US Navy, who briefed the Senate Armed Forces Committee on maritime security strategy in the Asia-Pacific on September 17th, 2015, revealed that almost 30 percent of the world maritime trade transits the South China Sea annually. Considering the Chinese assertive military activities in South China Sea and Indian Ocean- the regional stability has been a challenge. The creation of Trans- Pacific Partnership under the leadership of US President Barak Obama is considered to counter the Chinese aggressive posture especially in the South China Sea.

It was assumed that Sino-India relations were improving at the beginning of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure when President Xi Jinping met Mr. Modi the first time in Ahmadabad after a swift visit to Sri Lanka. If we recall our memory - on the same day, People's Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the international border in Arunanchal Pradesh that signifies whatsoever our leaders do - we cannot give away our stand. In the similar way, PLA demonstrated their presence in Siachen on and off whenever some important events go on in their respective capitals.

US - India Relations - Historical Perspective

With such a milieu, US - India relations have developed with the changed scenario in the world politics. Pakistan and China are the major factors that dictate their relations after Russia got sidelined in the race of power politics in South Asia. Russia’s after being discredited in the Ukraine factor and the annexation of Crimea resulted in facing the UN embargo to sale its surplus gas in the European market. Recently, Putin paid a visit to Greece, which is seen as a potential market for its surplus gas. To recover its lost image - Russia was also trying to hold a new foot in Middle-east through President Basaral- Assad supporting his campaign in Syria. But in South Asian power politics - Russia is almost invisible after Soviet disintegration as such.

India, after independence in 1947 from British East India Company - divided on the basis of religion into two as India and Pakistan. Pakistan was further divided geographically into two as East and West Pakistan. At the time of division, the tiny states were given liberty whether to remain free and independent or to accede with India or Pakistan on the basis of religion.

Due to this reason, in the entire cold war era - India remained close with former Soviet Union and concluded 20 year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1971 which enabled it to stay close with Soviet and away from the west. After the Soviet disintegration, being an ally - India too became isolated along with it. The elements of capitalism and socialism too played a part in India’s foreign policy.

India and Pakistan both are also opting for membership in Shanghai Cooperation organization (SCO) which is semi-military bloc formed under the leadership of China and Russia with majority of the states from Central Asia.

US- India Relations: Challenges

BRICS shaped its structure only after India was enrolled into it. It is obvious that India does not want Chinese influence in Asia-Pacific region. In this respect, the Russian intelligentsia perceives it differently. They foresee that the US involvement in this region will increase tension and a new security threat will emerge. The US who has huge trade partnership with China is not likely to break all its relations at the cost of India. In this scenario, it will be untenable for India even to remain in BRICS.

In 1974, India tested nuclear arsenal despite of the repeated US commitments that it will not interfere in South Asian affairs for peaceful use of nuclear energy. As a consequence, Pakistan too opted for nuclear power and tested its arsenal in 1998 - hence, a new atomic race started in South Asia.

With the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the new leader– many scholars predicted that there will be a drastic change in traditional Indian foreign policy. The emerging challenges in South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean have been taken by both the nations as a growing threat to their interest due to Chinese assertive military presence in the area. Trans - Pacific Partnership (TPP) as advocated by President Barak Obama has excluded China and India in its forum (although India does not fall in this region). The problem is connected with Indian Ocean and beyond. This partnership should have been more inclusive in its nature.

It is obvious that the US wants strategic alliance with India and its neighbours to contain China. On contrary, China is trying to expand its interest in the name of ‘One Belt One Road’ and through old Silk road not only limiting to South Asia but also to Africa and Europe. The common interest of India and the US matches here as how the latter wanted to minimise former the Soviet Union in the cold war era by provoking China against Soviet Union - in the similar line it wants India’s support to minimise China’s influence as well.

As to what the top think tanks predicts - the growing tension between US and China in South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean may encourage regional powers to take sides. As South Asia will be, undoubtedly, affected once India signals the US to take part – a new vicious circle of conflict is likely to brew up in this region. According to Henry Kissinger, in his article in Herald Tribune - India cannot be a partner of the US to counter China because of its peculiar geography, history and cultural affinity. It is also obvious that the strategic alliance between India and the US against China will deteriorate relations between India and China which is improving considerably after a war in 1962 over the border disputes. Russia - a credible global power may claim its stake against the US with whom it has love and hate relation from the past. India being a close ally for almost half a century tilting towards former rival against neighbouring China may not be acceptable to Russia. In retaliation, if China adopts assertive position through military presence in any of the neighbouring South Asian country to India - it will be detrimental to security and stability for the entire region.

The writer is an Ex-Brig General as well as PhD in Political Science. He has Master’s Degree in Defence Studies from Madras University, India. He is qualified Combating Terrorism Course from Special Operations University, Florida, USA. Presently, he is teaching as a visiting faculty at Master's Program in International Relations and Diplomacy of Tribhuvan University, Nepal.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.