Alka Acharya, Director and Senior Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.
Almost exactly eighteen years ago, in June 1998, after a summit meeting between the Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton of the US, a joint statement was issued in Beijing. It referred to the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in the preceding months and “the resulting increase in tension” as being “a source of deep and lasting concern to both of us”, which they jointly condemned. The statement went on to say that both the PRC and the US “agreed to continue to work closely together, within the P-5, the Security Council and with others….to prevent an accelerating nuclear and missile arms race in South Asia.” India had strongly dismissed this attempt by both to meddle in its affairs. Of course Vajpayee’s famously “leaked” letter to Clinton, had clearly placed the responsibility for India’s nuclear explosions at China’s door – both China’s advanced nuclear capabilities as also its support to Pakistan. India’s dance with the nuclear giants had begun, bringing the three countries into an intricate power-balancing act, with the shadow of the Sino-Pakistan nexus in the background.
The point that must however be kept in mind is that in the closing years of the 20th century, the managers of the global non-proliferation regime had taken a blatantly hard line stance on India’s efforts at breaking out of its hitherto ambiguous nuclear policy and changing the equations, which had not been in India’s favour. The Jiang-Clinton statement had clearly reflected a strategic convergence between them as regards the issue of nuclear proliferation in South Asia and one should not lose sight of the fact that the US had indirectly acquiesced in China’s support and contribution to the Pakistani nuclear program. The question that we need to ask is, whether there is a change in this understanding and if so, whether, this ipso facto implies a convergence in the Indian and US strategic interests – both with regard to the nuclear issue and the implications of China’s rising power. The picture here is far from clear.
Much has changed in global geopolitics and international relations since the later 1990s. The rise of China, which had directly inspired the US pivot to Asia, has over the past decade galvanised the power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific and India has got sucked into this. It is fairly obvious, that it has to often take positions, which may not entirely accord with its own strategic interests. Frequently, Indian official statements appear to pit India and China at great odds with each other. The increasing significance of India in the US calculations as the latter sets about trimming the edges of China’s power and influence needs to be objectively analysed. Hard questions about how – and to what extent – Indian interests are being met by tilting to the US – must be raised.
Ever since the Modi government assumed office, it has had to deal with this unfolding strategic competition. As India gradually improved its standing in the global economic pecking order, it was widely assumed and argued that India had the capacity of a swing state in this competition. But the writing on the wall was equally clear – in its current stage of development, India had to keep its options open, play the multilateral game and benefit from the existing economic globalization. More importantly, it had to keep a sharp lookout for the far more dynamic processes unfolding across Asia, with China unambiguously displaying its capacity to be the politico-economic agenda-setter. There could thus be no question of any hard shifts.
The strategic community in India by and large sees China more as a threat – even as it presents us an opportunity wrapped in a security dilemma. One set of writings strongly argue in favour of sending a message to China by missile exports to select countries and attempting to shift power balances ; others have advocated a hard line on the Tibet question. The Chinese, by and large, have closely watched India’s economic advances, while not taking the Indian security challenge very seriously. But they have been most concerned about the rapidly transforming Indo-US relations. For better or worse, the Modi government has chosen to raise them to “unprecedented levels”, as a commentary in the Chinese newspaper Global Times recently put it. China should however not find this baffling – in 1972, fearing a greater threat from the then Soviet Union, it had sought a rapprochement with the US. The Chinese have of course been following Modi’s US visit and Indo-US interactions keenly; so far, the response has been cautious. Most official comments have been bland; writings in newspapers have on the whole sought to caution India on the limited and limiting nature of such a stance. Differences of various kinds – from the South China Seas to Indian position on the One Belt One Road have been played down. But were this upping of the ante in Indo-US ties to take the contours of “containing” China, we would be looking a vastly uncertain scenario.
Deft diplomacy would have to be exercised so that ratcheting up the scale and depth of Indo-US or Indo-Japan ties are not perceived as a zero sum equation vis-à-vis China. Unfortunately, the perceptions – particularly as they play out in the media – are rather stark. China is invariably projected as the lone power standing in the way of India’s most cherished goal of joining the elite nuclear club. We have no information as to whether the India-China Strategic Dialogue has taken up this issue or that there is any scope for flexibility in the Chinese stand, which India must work on.
History is being shaped in Asia as well – aside from the Indo-US bilateral dynamics, there is a multifaceted engagement happening across the board amongst all the rapidly developing economies – (almost all of them are also balancing their ties with the US and China) – throughout Asia – and China is at the very centre of this modernizing maelstrom. Prime Minister Modi spoke of a “strategic symphony” in Indo-US ties. He used a highly evocative phrase – “shedding the hesitations of history” – in charting the future course of the Indo-US relationship, in his address to the US Congress. This could – and indeed must – constitute the basis of India’s China policy as well. Only then could it be said that India is also among the conductors of the Asian orchestra.