Assessing US-India Relations: A Perspective from China

20 Aug, 2014    ·   4619

Bo Zhen weighs in on the dual character of the bilateral relationship

Three US political heavyweights - Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel - just visited India successively within a fortnight. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit the US for the UN summit in September. The Obama administration has been making every effort to bring the US and India closer by covering significant grounds for bilateral cooperation. What are the reasons for this?

First, there seems to be a re-establishment of the US-India relationship. This bilateral relationship has not been developing smoothly since President Barack Obama assumed the office. In December 2013, just five months before the new BJP government was formed, the Khobragade incident occurred. In July this year, India publicly criticized US surveillance of the BJP, calling it ‘unacceptable’. The recent US diplomatic endeavour can be seen as a remedial effort therefore to turn the unhappy page over and re-establish a working relationship with India.

Second is maintaining the US strategic interest in Asia. The US considers China an emerging threat, and it has historically attempted to make India its pawn in the Asia-Pacific ‘rebalancing strategy’. Its long-term strategy therefore is to use India to contain the rise of China. The fundamental aim is to contain China by developing friendly but utilitarians foreign relations with India and maintaining its dominant role in the Asia-Pacific region. However, this is not going to be an easy task.

Third is the attempt to create a friendly atmosphere for Modi’s visit in September. For a long time, the US-India bilateral relationship was neither hot nor cold, and the different policy orientations of the two countries caused suspicion that the mutual, relatively independent strategies of the two giants pushed each other further apart rather than closer. Against this background, US wants to reinforce its partnership with India and pave the way for future cooperation. Since Modi formed the new government, the Obama administration has extended an olive branch to India by inviting him to pay a visit to the US and actively engaging the Indian defence industry.

While the US needs India to be a part of its rebalancing strategy, India also considers China as an important partner at at least two levels. First, China is one of the most crucial trade partners of India and bilateral trade reached USD 65 billion in 2013. Cooperation in the areas of energy, telecommunications and infrastructural construction have become prominent. In addition, India and China have a common interest in South-South cooperation. The Brazil BRICS summit caught the world’s attention, and the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping was highlighted. Since the BRICS has become an important economic cooperation organisation and is posited to plays a key role in the world arena, mutual economic relations between these two countries will definitely be enhanced in the future.

Needless to say, India’s independent strategic tradition will not let it get easily involved in any country’s containment strategy. US-India relations are therefore of a dual nature. The two countries need each other for future developments in global politics, economic growth and military cooperation. The US worries that it will not be able to ‘control’ India in the future once it becomes too strong, and at the same time India doubts US strategic intentions in South Asia. This is another major limiting factor for the two countries.

Restricting the development of US-India relations further is that there is no common military threat for US and India, and therefore no possible foundation for a military alliance. Although the ‘China threat’ is somehow popular in India and the US, China has been actively promoting cooperation with the US and India in handling non-traditional security problems and its efforts have been quite fruitful. In the aspect of traditional security cooperation also, China maintains stable military relationship with the US and India. For instance, China joined the RIMPAC naval exercise with the US in 2014 for the first time and held the joint military exercise, ‘Hand-In-Hand’ in Chengdu in November 2014. Another joint military exercise is scheduled with India on counter-terrorism on the borders of Pakistan in November 2014.

Additionally, the visions of the two countries of the world order are conflicting. India wants a multipolar world in which it can become an important pole in the future. However, the US wants the status quo and since another emerging power can become too challenging. The attitude of the US on India have been swayed by considerations of gains and losses since the Cold War, and it is not easy for US to change its mind now and treat India as a real strategic partner.

The US is bound to remain an essential partner for India. However, the future development of the US-India bilateral relationship will not be very smooth, and cooperation and conflict will be the norm due to historical and current factors.