Asia’s Fragile Special Relationship

NEW DELHI – “Tzu-Ch’in asked Tzu-Kung a few questions; Tzu-Kung answered: …Our Master gets things (done) by being cordial, frank, courteous, temperate, deferential. That is our…way.” But will Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao live up to that standard, as conveyed in the Analects of Confucius, on his current visit to India?

The world has a variety of “special relationships.” The United States’ partnership with the United Kingdom is one forged in war – and a pillar of the West for more than a half-century. The US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War era was special in that relations between those two countries shaped the fate of the world until the USSR imploded. The US and China are said to be forging a new special relationship.

But, in looking toward the future of Asia – and, indeed, the future of world diplomacy – it is the relationship between the world’s two most populous countries and largest emerging economies, India and China, which will increasingly set the global agenda. Japan’s change of military doctrine for the first time since the start of the Cold War – a shift that implicitly makes China the greatest threat – suggests that the Chinese leadership needs to take a hard look at its regional grand strategy.

Wen’s priorities for his trip to India are clear: trade, security, and, far behind, the territorial disputes between the two countries. Such an approach might make tactical diplomatic sense, as long as there is no background clatter. But it lacks a sense of strategic urgency, which, given rising international tensions across Asia, amounts to a serious strategic blunder.