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Past as Prologue : South Asia in China-India-US Strategic Competition
By Syed Mahmud Ali, Kings College London, War Studies, Alumnus, Trilogy on South Asian affairs.
Contemporary International Security Studies literature relating to geopolitical turbulence emanating from systemic transitional fluidity affecting Southern Asia highlights Sino-US competition, Sino-Indian rivalry and Indo-Pakistani adversarial tensions. While the current strategic landscape bears particular characteristics, its evolution is rooted in post-1945 systemic restructuring. In the ’Indo-Pacific’, that rearrangement was shaped by three key developments: decolonisation of European empires and the Partition of British-India into successor states founded on the bases of mutually-inconsistent ideational rationales, dominant-systemic polarisation along a capitalist-vs.-communist diarchy, and the renascence of China as both a communist and nationalist power seeking strategic autonomy within both the Soviet-led communist bloc, and the adversarial post War geopolitical architecture being fashioned by the superpowers. Both India and Pakistan, often belying their declaratory policies, bandwagoned with external protectors with a view to advancing their conflicting interests. That pattern has recently been reinforced.
Triangular power-politics in a dynamic landscape
Security and economics, twin-pillars of interstate interactions, shape the strategic milieu. Positive resonance, reflecting strong security affiliations and extensive economic transactions, encourage alliances and strategic-partnerships. Negative resonance, with strong mutual insecurity mirroring poor economic intercourse, can presage conflict. Strong security affiliations can overcome negative economic exchanges, but mutual insecurity usually trumps strong economic relations. As each party seeks to improve its relative position, this last permutation is unstable. Britain and Germany faced this asymmetry-born fluidity before 1914. As suspicion and mistrust colour elite perceptions, fluidity generates anxious uncertainty. This is the landscape of strategic competition, in which each state-actor constantly acts to advance its own interests, by supplementing ‘internal-balancing’ with ‘external-balancing’, i.e., securing the support of others with a view to overcoming its rival’s ‘comprehensive power’. Such binary insecurity-driven relations are called security complexes. Examples: US-China, China-India, India-Pakistan and similarly competitive relational dynamics.
Post-Cold War systemic shifts transformed major-power dyads. After two decades of tacit anti-Soviet collusion, in 1999, America identified China as a ‘constant competitor’. China would ‘get old before getting rich’ while India enjoyed a ‘demographic dividend’. Southern India and the Malacca Strait would dominate Gulf-East Asian energy SLOCs; India would replace Russia as a central player. China sought ‘to undermine the US foothold’ across Asia; India-Japan cooperation offered balance. ‘China’s resurgence and belligerence prompts tacit US-India cooperation.’ Chinese control of Taiwan, Senkakus and the SCS would enable a ‘Chinese Monroe Doctrine.’ Given India’s potential, a Sino-Indian condominium would threaten US interests; Indo-US collusion would advance these. In 1999-2000 Washington sought a China-focused Indo-US partnership. Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh exchanges laid the foundation for collaboration. President Clinton’s 2000 visit was followed by the 2005-2008 Civil Nuclear Agreements tacitly granting non-NPT signatory India a Nuclear Weapons State-status. Presidents Bush and Obama formalised defence technology-transfers, joint training, hardware sales and, in 2016, a basing agreement reviving India’s status as an anti-China US ally.
Security complexes characterise China-India and US–China interactions. In contrast, since 2000, Indo-US relations have rapidly developed in mutual-security alignments. As each pole in a dyad seeks the support of allies to boost its confidence and erode its rival’s, strategic triangles emerge. China-India-US relations have, as a result, become a competitive strategic triangle, with China confronting a tacit India-US front.
US pursuit of perpetually-extended post-Soviet systemic primacy, and Chinese determination to prevent its permanent subordination, precipitated systemic transitional fluidity. As the USA incorporated China’s regional rivals Japan and India into a counter-China coalition, the China-India-US strategic triangle assumed salience within the competitive dynamic reshaping both Indo-Pacific subsystemic, and the global/systemic orders. Leaders and officials have forthrightly articulated conflicting perspectives. The Trump presidency and its predecessor, semantics aside, betray notable consistency on US-China rivalry:
Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call. Donald Trump, December 2016
We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops; and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed. Rex Tillerson, January 2017
We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea. Barack Obama, November 2015
Islands in the South China Sea, since ancient times, are China’s territory. We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty, and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests. Xi Jinping, September 2015
In contrast, following President Bill Clinton’s 2000 visit to India, his successors rebuilt the early-Cold War era counter-China coalition with Prime Ministers AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now, Narendra Modi. Obama incorporated India into his ‘Asian Rebalance’:
The relationship between the United States and India, bound by our shared interests and our shared values, will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. This is the partnership I’ve come here to build. We want India not only to ‘look East’, we want India to ‘engage East’, because it will increase the security and prosperity of all our nations. Barak Obama, November 2010
The US is an indispensable partner. A stronger and prosperous India is in America’s strategic interest. Let us work together to convert shared ideals into practical cooperation. There can be no doubt that in advancing this relationship both nations stand to gain. Narendra Modi, June 2016
US-Indian and Sino-Indian relations were starkly different. Practitioners avoid discussing Sino-Indian rivalry, but recently-retired officials and academic analysts do not. Former Indian NSA Shivshankar Menon’s observation that ‘China is today a significant factor in every one of India’s major relationships and most aspects of Indian policy’ rationalised Delhi’s drive to secure the Indian Ocean Region as its security-envelop from Chinese influence. Former Army commander, General Deepak Kapoor, explained:
In a world where nationalism is at the core of international relationships the possibility of confrontation is not only inherent but inbuilt. Unresolved boundary issues between the two further enhance this possibility…China’s ‘String of Pearls’ policy, its strategic relationship with Pakistan, the extensive infrastructure development in Tibet, an increased footprint in the Indian Ocean and the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and its aid to fledgling insurgent movements in India are some of the irritants that are not conducive to good relations.
US analyses of China’s growing will and ability to assert its interests resonate with Indian anxiety. India and America share interest in countering China’s challenge to America’s post-Cold War systemic primacy. Challenges from this ‘near-peer-rival’ to America’s determined extension of its ‘all-domains dominance’ into the indefinite future was countered with military, diplomatic and economic pressure dubbed the ‘Asian Pivot/Rebalance’. What China saw as its legitimate right was viewed by America as a profound threat to planetary order undergirded with US power. This contradiction was most clearly visible in the South China Sea (SCS). Indo-US security cooperation vis-à-vis China reflects and reinforces the fluidity triggered by state-actors’ power-assets evolving, changing geospatial footprints, and resultant tensions between status quo-oriented forces and revisionist tendencies. Mismatch between aspiration and capacity, perceptual asymmetry, and the fog of coded signalling leading defensive measures being misread as aggressive ones, generate insecurity-driven dialectics, triggering spirals whose escalatory potential can turn a dialogue of the deaf into avoidable bloodbath. ##