In the continuing debate between Hugh White and Shaskank Joshi regarding US-India strategic cooperation, I would associate myself closely with the views of White and what he sees as the eventual limits of the relationship.
But I would take it one step further. In the long-term, an anti-US coalition consisting of China, Russia and India cannot be discounted.
India presently fears China’s growing power. Accordingly, India hedges by deepening relations with the US and status quo middle powers such as Australia. However, India does not perceive itself as a status quo power, but as an emerging great power. As India’s confidence grows it will be acting in its own interests, not those of the collective West.
Of course there are clear areas of strategic tension in the bilateral China-India relationship. These include unresolved border disputes, China’s patronage of Pakistan and China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean region. But these issues are being managed between the parties and may well be resolved, probably in that order, over the next 10 to 20 years.
It is very hard to see a similar outcome between China and the US.
Last September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping said they would ‘seek an early settlement to the boundary question,’ with both countries subsequently appointing new envoys to help manage the dispute. Despite a recent setback, negotiations continue, and there is no reason to believe they will not ultimately succeed. After all, China has settled its land border with 12 of the 14 countries on its periphery, sitting in stark contrast with increasing Chinese maritime assertiveness in the East and South China seas.
As for Pakistan, India’s view of China’s patronage is complicated. India holds grievances over such issues as China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear program, yet it is dangerous for India if Pakistan feels overly threatened. Making Pakistan feel secure is extremely challenging, especially as India’s power grows. Thus a transparent Chinese role in Pakistani affairs is in India’s long-term interest – transparency that will depend highly on India improving bilateral relations with China.
Finally, China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean is another major concern for India; an expansion due mainly to China’s dependency on energy imports from the Middle East. The long-term trajectory of this issue depends on a combination of China reducing its reliance on sea-borne oil imports, and on the improving strength and assertiveness of India. As China has no maritime claims in the Indian Ocean, maritime tension will likely be a consequence of fissures in the broader relationship, not a cause.
As for India and the US, I find it astonishing that after more than 50 years of being repeatedly burned, some Americans still have not learned their lesson (though many have), and continue insisting that China and India are ‘natural competitors’. This is false. China and India are historical competitors, but such competition is not necessarily ‘natural’ and certainly nothing like the strategic competition that exists between China and the US. After all, any Chinese expansion in the Western Pacific will be at America’s expense. It is hard to argue that India’s expansion into the Indian Ocean is being actively resisted by China.
India is not a pro-Western democratic bulwark, and never will be.
India has one true strategic partner – Russia. That relationship is deep, multifaceted and as old as ANZUS Treaty. Modi calls Russia ‘a pillar of strength‘ and India’s ‘most important defence partner.’ Russia has supplied a significant portion of India’s military hardware, is supplying most of India’s nuclear reactors, and continues to play a significant role in India’s military-industrial complex, including submarine and ballistic missile programs. Likewise, Russia’s relationship with China is ‘the best it’s been in 450 years.’
Once you remove the immediate barnacles in the China-India relationship, an interesting coalescence of interests emerge between China, India and Russia.
All three countries have a strong preference for a multipolar world order and the dilution of American hegemony. All three countries consider the principle of state sovereignty to be the pre-eminent norm of international relations, have a mercantile bent to their economic policies and already cooperate on many of these issues through the BRICS grouping.
There are certainly significant pitfalls and risks in the China-India relationship. But should those be navigated successfully, the US may well find itself with a worse relationship with India, Russia and China than the three have with each other. This is because strategic tension between India and China is finite, while their shared interests are broad and enduring.