Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Balancing Asia's Rivals

OXFORD – George W. Bush is approaching the end of his presidency mired in low popularity ratings, which partly reflects his policies in the Middle East. But Bush leaves behind a better legacy in Asia. American relations with Japan and China remain strong, and he has greatly enhanced the United States’ ties with India, the world’s second most populous country.

In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared a visit to Delhi by Bush the following year in which he announced a major agreement on US-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation, as well as a variety of measures for commercial and defense cooperation.

The nuclear cooperation agreement was criticized in the US Congress for not being strict enough on non-proliferation issues, but it looked likely to pass. In India, the Communist Party, a small (but important) member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ruling coalition, has blocked the agreement. But, as one Indian friend explained to me, this is mainly symbolic politics for India’s Left.

Even if the nuclear agreement fails, the improvement in US-India relations is likely to continue. Some attribute this to the fact that India and the US are the world’s two largest democracies. But that was true for much of the Cold War, when they frequently talked past each other.

More importantly, with the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was no longer available as an Indian ally, and the US began to assess India and Pakistan in terms of separate interests, rather than as a pair linked in a South Asia balance of power. As Evan Feigenbaum, the top State Department official for South Asia recently said, “the world of 2008 is not the world of 1948. And so India really has the capacity, and, we think, the interest, to work with the United States and other partners on a variety of issues of global and regional scope.” This change began under the Clinton administration and is likely to continue regardless of who is elected president in 2008.

Personal contacts between Indians and Americans have increased greatly. There are now more than 80,000 Indian students studying in the US, and many have stayed to establish successful companies. The Indian diaspora in the US constitutes roughly three million people, many of whom actively participate in politics. For example, Louisiana’s governor is of Indian origin, and has been mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain. In addition, India’s economy has begun to grow by 8% annually, making it more attractive for foreign investment. Trade between India and American is increasing, and reached $26 billion (11% of India’s total trade) in 2006.

In addition to these practical reasons for the improvement in bilateral relations, the rise of China poses a strategic consideration. As Bill Emmott, the former editor of The Economist argues in his new book The Rivals , “where Nixon had used China to balance the Soviet Union, Bush was using India to balance China. Like Nixon’s move, with hindsight Bush’s approach to India made perfect sense.” And the concern is reciprocated on the Indian side. As a senior foreign ministry official told Emmott in 2007, “the thing you have to understand is that both of us [India and China] think that the future belongs to us. We can’t both be right.”

Official pronouncements stress friendly relations between India and China, and some trade analysts argue that, given their rapid growth, the two giant markets will become an economic “Chindia.” When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in 2005, he signed eleven agreements, including a comprehensive five-year strategic cooperation pact. In addition, Wen announced that China would support India’s inclusion as a permanent member of an expanded United Nations Security Council, and oppose Japan’s inclusion, which the US supports. As Singh put it during Wen’s visit, “India and China can together reshape the world order.” 

The two countries’ recent rapprochement marks a considerable change from the hostility that bedeviled their relations following their 1962 war over a disputed border in the Himalayas. Nevertheless, strategic anxiety lurks below the surface, particularly in India.  China’s GDP is three times that of India, its growth rate is higher, and its defense budget increased by nearly 18% last year. The border dispute remains unsettled, and both countries vie for influence in neighboring states such as Myanmar.

China’s rise has also created anxiety in Japan, again despite professions of good relations during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Tokyo. Thus, Japan has increased its aid and trade with India. Last year, the US suggested quadrilateral defense exercises including US, Japanese, Indian, and Australian naval units, but the newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has pulled his country out of such arrangements.

Rudd wisely believes that the right response to China’s rise is to incorporate it into international institutional arrangements. Or, as Robert Zoellick, currently the president of the World Bank, put it when he was a State Department official, the US should invite China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

Improved relations between India and the US can structure the international situation in a manner that encourages such an evolution in Chinese policy, whereas trying to isolate China would be a mistake. Handled properly, the simultaneous rise of China and India could be good for all countries.

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