The serial failure by two Democratic presidents of the U.S. – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – to forge an alliance with India that is acceptable to both sides has given an opening for an India-China partnership that would include Russia, thereby bringing into being the long-talked about India-China-Russia triangle, an alliance which would be at least as powerful as NATO. What is also needed is to work out ways in which India, ASEAN and China can join hands to get control of resources across the world.
However, this would entail Chinese President Xi Jinping going beyond the border-centric, military-focussed view of Sino-Indian relations that has characterised Chinese policy towards India since the fadeout of Deng Xiaoping, a leader who had the vision to appreciate the importance to Beijing of close ties with Delhi.
But Indian foreign policy too has been a saga of missed opportunities such as the turning down of the suggestion that Delhi join with Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila in forming ASEAN, which grouping was later expanded to include Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei.
When ASEAN was formed in 1967, India was informally approached by the prime mover behind the alliance, Singapore, to join. At that time, the economy of India was much bigger than that of the ASEAN countries, and nearly twice that of China. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was informally advised by Moscow that the new pact was an “anti-communist” alliance and she should keep her country out of it, which she did.
Only in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, did policy planners in India acknowledge that a new world had dawned with the fall of the Berlin Wall. They began the ‘Look East’ policy; in reality, this was an offshoot of the ‘Look West’ policy of the (1992-96) Narasimha Rao government, which sought to replace Moscow with Washington as the strategic partner of India. It was thought that closer ties with the pro-U.S. ASEAN would help persuade Washington to accept Delhi as an ally. The effort failed because Bill Clinton insisted on impossible preconditions, such as a solution to Kashmir on Pakistan’s terms and the rollback of the Indian nuclear programme.
Apart from India, Clinton was also responsible for the loss of the opportunity to get Russia as a strategic partner, because of the scorched earth policy vis-a-vis the Russian economy and science that he sought to get followed through his friends in Moscow and St Petersburg, and the eastward expansion of a NATO that pointedly excluded Moscow.
Although there was a brief flurry of acceptance of India as a strategic partner on the same level as France and the UK during the second term of George W Bush, with the nuclear deal being the centrepiece of the new engagement, under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has returned to the Europeanist policy of seeing India as deserving of a lesser status as a prospective ally than key EU states.
The consequence has been a continuing – albeit largely backstage – effort by Obama to take off from where Clinton left off, to get Delhi to make concessions on Kashmir and the nuclear issue. Hopefully, a future government will reveal the secret diplomacy between India and the U.S., so that the public may be enabled to judge just how far both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh went in seeking Washington’s goodwill.
Just as Clinton missed the opportunity of cementing a full-scope partnership with India when a U.S.-friendly prime minister (Rao) was in charge and the Soviet Union had collapsed, so Barack Obama has (so far) failed to utilise the positive momentum generated by the U.S.-friendly duo of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, who have been in office in India for nine years, but face elections early next year.
Economics is at the heart of policy in Asia, or ought to be. India, like China, needs huge quantities of natural resources for economic expansion on a level that can do away with widespread poverty. Unfortunately, till now India and China have been competitive rather than collaborative in securing natural resources. Chinese and Indian companies routinely bid against each other in oilfields and other resource pools across the world. This causes prices to rise for both, whereas if they had a mutual understanding, they could jointly force down prices while getting enough resources for both economies.
Indeed, when this columnist proposed in 2005 an ‘India -Taiwan Oil Alliance’ leveraging the diplomatic strengths of India with the financial power of Taiwan in order to jointly secure petro-product resources, then Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar countered with the suggestion of an India-China Oil Alliance, which would combine the strengths of both countries to gain access to oil resources. Nothing came of the minister’s suggestion, which was ignored by both Beijing as well as New Delhi, and vested interests – presumably linked to NATO-bloc oil companies – made sure that Aiyar was removed from the Petroleum portfolio by 2006.
Although much has been made of India teaming up with Vietnam in the South China Sea, or forging closer links with ASEAN, the reason is not to “contain” China but to generate traction for higher growth. If India, ASEAN and China join hands to control resources, there is enough for all these countries. The prices will be less if there is an understanding between the two giants of Asia rather than rivalry in bidding.
The ‘Winner Takes All’ strategy being followed by Beijing in the China Seas indicates that too many of that country’s policy elite have cut their intellectual teeth in western institutions and consequently have begun to adopt the traditional Zero
Sum approach of the West rather than replace such a construct with the Win-Win approach publicly favoured by China’s leaders. The challenge before the new leadership headed by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping is to work out a matrix that will ensure fast growth in India as well as ASEAN. Such an acceleration of growth would immensely benefit China as well.
But its actions and words in the China Seas indicates that Beijing is copying the NATO playbook rather than adopting a strategy more in tune with its culture and its overall national interest. Such a policy would welcome a partnership between ASEAN, India and China in the China Seas and elsewhere, damping down tensions and promoting growth. Should Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian or Chinese blood get spilled in any of these misadventures, the setback to the unity and progress of Asia would be grave.
M. D. Nalapat is vice-chair of Manipal Advanced Research Group and UNESCO peace chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India.
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