Triangular diplomacy US-India relations and China

Randeep Ramesh

If proof were needed that the 21st century would be about the struggle to shape Asia’s destiny, then it arrived from the mouth of Condoleezza Rice last month. In New Delhi for the day during her trip across the continent, the US secretary of state told the Indian prime minister that America’s newest foreign policy goal was to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century’’. A state department briefing elaborated by saying that Washington understood “fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement’’. Sealed by the promise of a visit to New Delhi by President Bush later this year, these unequivocal statements imply America wants India to be a permanent friend. The message is India is not a great power, but it has the potential to emerge as one.

Asia is in a period of dramatic change, a time dominated by the breathtaking rise of China. Such upheaval suits the Bush White House, which considers turmoil important because it offers hitherto unrealised strategic opportunities. These moments are America’s chance to determine the future of the world. On the subcontinent the Bush administration tore up its previous policies aimed at denying weapons to India and Pakistan, states engaged in a nuclear-tipped arms race. In a dramatic reversal, the White House announced Pakistan will get F-16 jets, the sale of which was barred in 1990 out of concern for the country’s then undeclared nuclear weapons programme. Simultaneously, the White House announced that it would allow American companies the right to provide India with the next generation of sophisticated, multi-role combat aircraft.

More acute is the talk of large transfers of nuclear reactors to India, currently denied such technologies under the nuclear proliferation treaty. Washington’s latest move suggests that the agreement’s periodic review next month might be more radical than many realised.

By accepting both South Asian establishments as regional partners, US says it has snapped the link between India and Pakistan in policy-making. There is a deliberate echo of the aftermath of the Egyptian-Israeli detente in the 70s, when both sides agreed to peace, got multi-billion arms packages and became US allies. The difference now is that the hotspot of Kashmir still burns. Diplomacy is rarely a zero sum game, but in this case the signal from US is that these gains will be someone else’s loss. Although now cloaked in the language of human rights and democracy, the Bush doctrine is still the one articulated in his first term: to prevent the emergence of a hostile rival.

The only competitor on the horizon is China. Its military rise, economic clout, Beijing’s self-confidence in Asian affairs and its unpredictable behaviour make the world’s largest communist country a real threat in the eyes of the Bush administration. In Europe, the shared perception of a common enemy, which was the foundation of Washington’s cold war alliances, has disappeared. The confusion in Brussels over whether or not to sell arms to Beijing confirmed to the White House that a new set of attitudes needs new allies. US identifies with trends that promote freedom and democracy, although the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and the detention of others at Guantanamo without charges dims this moral claim. New and old US alliances in Asia now encircle China — not that this is openly acknowledged.

Washington’s ties with South Korea, Japan and India are justified on the basis of liberty and shared ideology rather than a balance of power argument. America has not articulated its new Asian policy, but its trusted Asian ally, Japan, has. Tokyo is aware of the threat to its own shores. Chinese submarines slide in and out of its waters, and defence analysts in Japan note that Beijing is developing submarines and missiles not commensurate to the threats posed in its neighbourhood. In a speech in New Delhi, Yukio Okamoto, the special assistant to the Japanese prime minister, spoke of Indo-Japanese cooperation to restrain a powerful China that wishes to alter the status quo to right perceived historical wrongs. As two democracies, where English is the language of administration, India and America share common values. There are reasons for a partnership between US and New Delhi to engage with China. India dreams of great power status, has a boundary dispute with China, is irked by its missile technology transfers to Pakistan, and has lost out to Beijing in securing oilfields in Africa.

India, too, is an element in China’s calculation. The thought of the US becoming a weapons supplier to India would alarm Beijing. Aware that bonds are yet to be forged, China is wooing Delhi with promises of free trade agreements and security pacts. What America wants to do to China in the early years of this millennium appears remarkably similar to what it did to Russia in the last decades of the previous century. On offer to India is an opening — as well as a means to reduce China’s influence — by joining Washington to challenge Beijing. If it sounds familiar, that is because it was another US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who invented this form of triangular diplomacy in Asia. Then the game was played in the 1970s to strengthen China at Moscow’s expense. The question in Asia is whether America’s newest friend will become a tool rather than an ally. — The Guardian