New Lines of Concord

M.L. Sondhi & Ashok Kapur

The Telegraph, June 26, 2001

Asia's geopolitical picture has changed rapidly and radically as a result of several significant developments. The changes have increased India's strategic importance to the United States. The re-positioning of Indo-US relations reflects the new realities which are irreversible in the foreseeable future…..

Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party led to the emergence of democracy in Taiwan since 1996, and this development in the vicinity of the mainland fosters voices of pluralism within China and a belief in the importance of a league of democratic countries in the post-Cold War era.

Taiwanese democracy is a challenge to Beijing's authoritarianism. Also, Taiwan's increasing military capability is a sign that China can rain missiles into Taiwan but it cannot take it by force. China is thus a regional great power in the area: but it is not the natural leader in Asia.

China has special ties with Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, Myanmar and it appears to have a plan to create a wedge between southeast and south Asia through Myanmar, and to maintain access to the Arabian Sea through the Karakoram highway and a new port being built in Pakistan under Chinese auspices. China has different policies for its neighbours. It strengthens Pakistan militarily to contain India and seeks to do the same through its activities in Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and its missiles cover all major Indian cities. It has a policy for the development of naval bases for its use in Myanmar and in Pakistan, so its India-related policy has a naval dimension which eventually also affects southeast Asian countries and the US and its allies in Asia.

With the Koreas however, its policy is to facilitate inter-Korean dialogue. Its long term aim is to replace the US as the primary influence in the peninsula and as the security guarantor in the area. But here China is being hemmed in. South Korea and the US continue to emphasize the ongoing need for US military presence in the Korean peninsula, and the North Korean leadership implicitly accepts this idea. The US-North Korean dialogue is a step towards a strategic bargain that would be likely to extend American strategic and commercial influence into North Korea, across the Yalu. This will hem in China in the north. The historic China-Japan rivalry is resurfacing and Beijing must factor this into its calculations.

China is being hemmed in by alert neighbours militarily and diplomatically, its internal situation is deteriorating significantly and the difference between internal politics and external policies is losing meaning for the Chinese leaders. Its external behaviour has an impact on internal power struggles. By creating situations in China's areas of interest, outside forces can, as they say, "mess with the Chinese mind" and interfere with China's decision-making process and the inputs which go into the decision loop.

Entry into the World Trade Organization will produce more layoffs and to manage the negative impact Beijing is investing in its internal riot police, and it needs to pump billions of yuan into agriculture banks to keep the peasants happy. Growth or corruption and criminal activity add to a picture of social and political decay. This means Beijing must find diversionary activity to mobilise nationalism and to manage growing costs in terms of internal power struggles and external relationships.

A medium to long term element is the fact that the US government assesses India and China as likely major players in the world economy ahead of the Europeans by 2025 if present trends continue and India maintains a 6 per cent annual growth rate. Javed Burki, a former senior World Bank official, sees India's economy at 12 trillion dollars, 40 per cent greater than the US in 2025, with Japan and Germany falling behind.

India also has some political and social advantages over China. It favours pluralism in state and society and it has a legal system which protects property and contracts, the foundation of commerce. So the issue for India is not to be simply content with political democracy. It is to combine political democracy with the build up of capitalism.

Another significant event concerns the Bush administration's plan to develop and deploy national missile defence and theatre missile defence. The international debate centres on the effect of the NMD on Russia and the anti-ballistic missile treaty rather than Japan and China and the outer space treaty. Also the discussion centres on the military requirements and technical problems in mounting a credible defence. There is a view that the NMD is no good technically and politically, and India should not accept it. This is wrong and short-sighted. A broader political view shows that the focus on Russia requires attention to its prestige, and a negotiated termination of the ABM treaty is possible, which has been reinforced by the recent Bush-Putin meeting in Slovenia.

NMD is less of a military problem for Russia than it is for China because Russia can manage to maintain a capacity for both nuclear deterrence and missile defence. It wants to be taken seriously as an international partner of the US. It is not an equal but appearances count.

China's political concerns are different. The TMD stimulates Japanese militarization, encourages Taiwanese autonomy, and signals US determination to be the pre-eminent space cop and a hegemon in Asia, which enjoys the consent of the US's Asian partners. Moreover, the TMD will degrade China's offensive missile capability even if the TMD is not 100 per cent effective. The costs of Chinese defence therefore, will go up and this will play further into the already intense internal power struggles and debates in Beijing.

Also, China calculates that even if it increases the size of its nuclear and missile arsenal against India, India can match the increases, so the argument that China can frighten India if it joins the US on this issue makes no sense. Presently and in the foreseeable future, China has no military advantage over India. It has a capacity to confuse and distract the thought processes of the Indian political class but it does not have an edge on the ground.

These developments clearly indicate that the re-positioning by India and the US vis--vis each other has a deep and broad Asian geopolitical and a modern military-technological framework. The re-positioning is not a passing flirtation rather it is grounded in new realities. Geopolitics and not simply global economy is the new game in many Asian and Western capitals. The Indo-US re-alignment rests on a number of concrete factors which make India important for American interests and strategies.

Foremost, there is a triangular rivalry among the US, Russia and China in Eurasia. Although the US is presently the sole superpower because it alone can project power globally, it is aware that its hegemony is temporary. Experts like Zbingniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger acknowledge this.

Russia, China and India are regional great powers. There is a possibility that India is encouraged by Russia to join the coalition with China and Russia. The US would like to pre-empt this possibility. The new American ambassador is an expert in Russian and Chinese affairs and the choice of a strategist points to the importance of Eurasian geopolitics in Indo-US relations. The other alternative is the more likely.

Historically, India is a rival of China and the civilizational differences along with policy and prestige disagreements will stimulate the rivalry further. So India joins the US without declaring that the common ground is China in addition to the attraction of the market place and the twinning of two democracies. The Sino-Indian rivalry is reinforced by China's policy of special support for Pakistan as a threat to India because China itself cannot militarily upset India.

So as US-Pakistan relations cool over the growing influence of Taliban and Islamic forces in the region which Pakistan supports, and China is seen as a long term problem for the US, there would come to be a natural affinity between the US and India in the strategic and other spheres. The growing attraction of the Indian economy is an additional element.

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