Chinese Whispers - by Dingli Shen Back   Home  
There is ample evidence to support the contention that India is getting closer to the US. At the political level, President Bill Clinton became in 2000 the first US head of state to visit India since 1978, thus signalling Washington’s recognition of India as the major regional power in South Asia. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visits to the US in 2000 and 2001 were also well received by the US government. At the military level, then secretary of defence William Perry, through his visit to New Delhi in 1995, initiated the process of US-India defence exchange. Again, in 2001, the then joint chiefs of staff chairman Gen Henry H. Shelton’s visit to India promoted bilateral military relationship. It has been reported that Washington will sell military hardware to New Delhi. It’s as interesting to note that India tacitly changed its tone last May on Washington’s National Missile Defence project, while President George W. Bush listed India along with Russia and China in his recent State of the Union address as countries the US is working with to "achieve peace and prosperity".

These developments raise some very pertinent questions: is India getting too close to the US, too fast? Are Washington and New Delhi warming up to each other to contain China? Obviously, these perceptions are gaining currency in India, China and elsewhere, making it only natural to stoke suspicion in China about New Delhi and Washington’s intentions.

Yet, it must be said at the outset, it is unnecessary to design a strategy to contain China, nor should Beijing be concerned about it. For one, a containment strategy is bound to prove futile. China’s stupendous growth will certainly change the distribution of wealth in the world and consequently tilt the balance of power in favour of Beijing. But Washington and Beijing share innumerable common interests in stabilising the region as well as bringing about political and economic stability worldwide. Even in the short term, the two countries have a stake in the stability of East Asia, South Asia and West Asia.

Obviously, it isn’t incomprehensible to conceive that Washington would adopt a hedging policy in order to prevent China from challenging the US in the next 20 years. Simultaneously, though, it is beyond Washington’s ability to build a circle of containment around China, largely because it boasts a formidable amount of human resources that measures a whopping one billion on the scale. Political elites in Washington understand this reality. This is precisely the reason why the US, irrespective of who is the occupant of the White House, has opted for the realistic approach of integrating China into the world system.

As far as India is concerned, it is justified to pursue its rightful status commensurate with its ambition, strength and the contribution it can make to the world order. The end of the Cold War has presented it a great opportunity to claim its prominent role in the subcontinent. Its quest would surely receive a fillip because of the partnership New Delhi is forging with Washington. Apparently, working with an external power may also help ease India’s concern about China’s rapid economic development and ensuing security implications.

But New Delhi should realise Beijing is committed to improving bilateral ties. At any rate, a stable subcontinent serves both India’s and China’s interests. Premier Zhu Rongji’s recent India visit shall have helped promote the process of tension reduction. Beijing’s recent diplomatic move to address common concerns of anti-terrorism with Islamabad is also constructive. After all, it will best serve India’s interest to engage both Washington and Beijing in its long-respected tradition of pursuing an independent foreign policy.

One should not forget that New Delhi’s relations with Moscow is a unique asset it possesses. With the US, Russia and China paying tremendous attention to New Delhi, there’s no denying that this is India’s special moment. Yet Moscow is already concerned about India’s reported interest in acquiring US weaponry. India could gain more in being careful about developing fast its ties with the US while sustaining its Russia bond. Former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov once suggested that Delhi look at the trilateral cooperation between India, Russia and China. A Moscow-Delhi-Beijing partnership, if not axis, shall enhance Eurasian stability as long as it does not target any other states. India needs to reassess how best to maximise its interests, given the many opportunities it has.

It is also unnecessary for Beijing to be concerned about a possible India-US containment plot. First, China is too big to be contained. Second, China shall have the confidence that a containment endeavour against it only serves poorly the national interests of those who conceive such policies. Third, any improvement of relations between the US and China’s neighbours could help enhance stability in the region, thus serving China’s interest adequately. Fourth, even if the US increases its military presence along China’s periphery, most recently evidenced through the war in Afghanistan, it may not necessarily pressure China, as Beijing and Washington can only wage a war over Taiwan. But then both countries would never allow a collision to take place as both states are endowed with sane leadership.

In other words, never believe in a containment policy against China and never waste resources building it. And yes, China need not worry about India and the US becoming too close to each other, too fast
Published in OutlookIndia. Dingli Shen is a professor and deputy director at Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, Shanghai. He directs the university’s Program on Arms Control and Regional Security.