Why the US Should Encourage Closer Sino-Indian Ties
Image Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

Why the US Should Encourage Closer Sino-Indian Ties


My colleague, Ankit Panda, did an excellent summary of the nine major takeaways from U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to India. He concludes that “this visit is a strong indicator that U.S.-India ties will follow a positive trajectory over the course of this year.” He also notes that both countries are strategically converging, although the pace of that convergence has been sluggish due to the low priority assigned to India on the foreign policy agenda of the Obama White House and New Delhi’s innate skepticism of U.S. intentions in the region.

Part of this innate skepticism stems from the fact that India suspects it will be used as the United States’ shield to check Chinese ambitions and counterbalance Beijing’s influence in the region. India is trying to counter China’s influence in Asia by fostering closer ties with the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially in the field of naval cooperation, which adversely affects China’s position in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Beijing’s immediate response to President Obama’s visit  to the subcontinent was Xi Jinping’s announcement that China will seek to lift the Sino-Indian strategic partnership to a higher level this year and that the Indian government should avoid a “zero-sum trap” set by the United States and its allies pitting New Delhi against Beijing.

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I would like to offer the counterintuitive (realist) policy suggestion that the United States should encourage stronger Sino-Indian ties as propagated by Xi Jinping. Such a relationship would fit the textbook definition of a “deadlocked” alliance, a term coined by Dr. Marco Cesa in his book Allies Yet Rivals – International Politics in 18th Century Europe and originally referring to the Austro-French alliance from 1756 to 1792. On the one hand, the inherent nature of a deadlocked alliance is little relative growth of power of the countries who have entered such a union; on the other hand, such an alliance breeds strategic stability by creating additional channels for dispute settlement.

Back in the 18th century, the Austro-French alliance was in many ways counterproductive and an unhappy experience for both countries. Because of their divergent interests and continuing rivalry, Paris and Vienna paralyzed each other, and they could not effectively cooperate during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Yet Dr. Marco points out that both parties decided to “preserve their union, since their alliance gave each a means with which to control the other, and also because without such an alliance they would probably have ended up fighting each other.” The great doyen of diplomatic history, Paul W. Schroeder, called such an alliance a “pact for management and mutual restraint of one’s partner, not for capability aggregation and aggrandizement.” Austria and France were at peace between 1756 to 1792, not a small achievement given the volatility of European power politics at the time. Once the alliance dissolved in 1792 both countries were involved in a life and death struggle that lasted until 1815.

Consequently, India may think that she is better off seeking closer ties with a continental military power and a neighbor rather than with the United States, which cannot compete with China’s power projection capabilities on mainland Asia. Plus, by deepening ties with China, India could promote strategic stability. Since both Beijing and New Delhi are mutually restraining each other, the United States should actively encourage a deeper partnership.

There are a host of issues that could undermine closer Indo-Sino relations in the years to come: unresolved border issues, China-Pakistan relations, energy security, cyber-espionage, Tibet, India’s eastward expansion of its economic ties, and Myamar, just to name a few examples where both countries’ interests are at variance.

But there are also factors that could unite the two neighbors. China and India are interested in peace in their respective peripheries and a “peaceful rise.” Both depend on each other for economic development. For example, 80 percent of China’s total oil imports pass in proximity to India’s southern coast through the straits of Malacca. More importantly in the short run are China’s deteriorating relations with Japan and the United States’ grand strategy for Asia during President Obama’s second term, both of which will weigh heavy on Beijing’s motivation to create a Indo-Sino alliance.

Despite the recent success of President Obama’s visit to India, former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal’s remarks from January 2013 still ring true today: “ India and the U.S. will neither enter into an embrace nor disengage; they will continue to shake friendly hands as Obama’s second term unfolds.” The loose nature of India-U.S. cooperation leaves plenty of room for diplomatic maneuvering between China and India, which in fact is good news for U.S. policy makers. Based on the experience of “deadlocked alliances” as described above, closer Indo-Sino ties mean a more stable Asian security environment.

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