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Hu's Visit and the Eternal India-China-U.S. Triangle

Aparna Pande

Most analysts agree that there is an India-China-US triangular relationship. President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States concluded in early January, yet policy wonks are still debating over how to interpret the trip. From India’s vantage point, this visit was critical in light of closer India-US ties.

New Delhi was wary of a repeat of what happened during President Obama’s 2009 trip to Beijing when the joint statement issued stated that the two countries were “ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.” Furthermore US and China would “support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan.” While Pakistan had welcomed the statement, India had resented any third party interference in a bilateral issue.

At the core of the India-US-China relationship is that China is a revisionist power while India is a status quo power and frictions between such powers when they are neighbors are natural. The U.S. too, being a status quo power, has a vested interest in maintaining the world order as it exists today. For decades, many American policy makers, fearful of China’s rise, have tried to co-opt rising powers, including India, to bandwagon with U.S. and its allies against China. India has often been seen as the bulwark of the resistance against China—if America has a democratic capitalist secular India on its side, then taking on China will be a lot easier. Many Indian strategic analysts have the same outlook—the only way for India to stand up to China is with American and allied support. In recent years India’s ties with critical American allies including UK, France, Germany, South Korea and Japan have grown exponentially in economic and military fields.

India and China, two of the oldest civilizations, have rarely had good relations barring a few years in the 1950s. Both countries believe their civilizational heritage confers on them a certain right to the high table, both are sensitive and easily hurt by attacks on or loss of “face” and both have a colonial past that has shaped their foreign policies. Not only are they neighbors but the ‘imperial faultlines’ have led to a long-standing border dispute which has led to frequent border frictions and one all-out war in 1962.

Further, China has never viewed favorably India’s providing refuge to Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader, and thousands of Tibetan refugees. China’s close ties to Pakistan, which have an economic and military (especially nuclear) dimension, are not viewed favorably by India. Furthermore, deepening Chinese influence within other countries in South Asia—like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh—are seen by India as part of China’s “string of pearls policy,” encircling India by having a presence among its neighbors.

India and China are the two fastest growing economies in the world, soon to become the two largest economies by 2050. Both countries are competing for natural resources, especially energy, not only in Middle East but also Africa. China asserts that under the British empire, parts of Chinese territory or territory of Chinese vassals was made part of the British Indian empire and all that China is now doing is rectifying mistakes of the past. Just as India fears an encircling by China in South Asia, China fears an encircling in South East Asia and East Asia, by US and its allies, including India. China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) are very long and pass close to countries—hether India or countries of South East Asia, like Indonesia—which will have the ability, if they so desire, to block China’s SLOCs.

In 2006 President Hu was not accorded a state visit, this time around the Obama administration went all out to ensure it was a spectacle. However, the mood on the Hill, both Senate and Congress, was subdued, bordering on negative, with many congressmen skipping the state dinner. Most of the statements and agreements issued during President Hu’s visit dealt with well-known differences between U.S. and China on human rights, announcement of business deals, the Chinese currency controversy, climate change and military tensions in Asia.

The U.S.-China joint statement of January 19, 2011 while reaffirming the commitment to the 2009 joint statement, does not refer to South Asia, or to India and Pakistan. In the light of President Obama’s visit to India in November 2010 some Indian analysts believe there is a subtle message being sent that while the US would like to maintain its close mainly economic relationship with China, the ties with India will be the defining relationship of this century. Is their analysis correct or is it just another case of India aiming to be an equal of a country, China, that is economically and militarily much more powerful. We must not forget that “all politics is local” and the response of the congressmen has a lot to do with the global economic downturn and loss of jobs.

Even though the two countries are close population-wise, China is a $5 trillion economy while India is only a $1.3 trillion economy. While Sino-Indian bilateral trade stands at $60 billion, Sino-US bilateral trade will reach $500 billion by 2015. There are over 3.5 million Chinese Americans, while the Indian American diaspora is around 2 million.

What the two Sino-US summits, of 2009 and 2011, have showcased is an acknowledgement of parity from both sides. India may have emerged, in President Obama’s words, and four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (except China) may agree to champion India’s quest for a permanent seat at the UNSC but in terms of realpolitik India has a long way to go before we are China’s equal. And yet, the rising theaters of friction between the U.S. and China—whether currency issues or human rights or military balance or geo-political worldview—reflect the salience of the India-US-China triangle for some years to come.

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