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  A strategic triangle

A strategic triangle

Published : Apr 23, 2016, 6:33 am IST
Updated : Apr 23, 2016, 6:33 am IST

India has engaged in a series of high-level political meetings with both the US and China and more are in the offing over the next two months.

Here & Now
 Here & Now

India has engaged in a series of high-level political meetings with both the US and China and more are in the offing over the next two months. To briefly recap — US secretary of defence Ashton Carter was in India earlier this month and met his Indian counterpart, defence minister Manohar Parrikar, and there was a certain breakthrough when both sides announced that an “in principle” agreement had been reached apropos a long-pending logistics supply protocol.

Soon after Mr Carter’s visit, Mr Parrikar was in China on a maiden trip after assuming charge of the defence portfolio and this was supposed to enable greater political contact as many security and strategic issues remain unresolved on the bilateral agenda. No issue is as complex and intractable as the long-pending territorial and border dispute between the two large Asian neighbours and the Indian national security adviser, Ajit Doval, was in Beijing for the 19th Special Representatives’ meeting. Opacity is the abiding characteristic here and there is little in the public domain about what has transpired in the last 18 rounds!

Concurrently, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj met her Russian and Chinese counterparts in Moscow on April 18 — and the commitment to a trilateral political consultation and a multi-polar world order was reiterated. And even as these visits and meetings are being reviewed for their substantive import or lack thereof, it is understood that US President Barack Obama will receive Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early June for a state visit and this may well be the last high-level summit with all the trappings that the White House reserves for such occasions. It may be recalled that the first such state-level visitor in the Obama term was then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The symbolism being accorded to India by the US merits notice.

In keeping with the omnibus engagement that the Modi government is pursuing, President Pranab Mukherjee will visit China in May to reciprocate the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in 2014.

What do these flurry of visits mean for India, its uneasy bilateral relationship with both the US and China and, finally, what will be the texture of the emerging strategic triangle over the next two decades A couple of tangible indicators offer some clues about the pattern that can be discerned.

At the outset, despite the current global economic slowdown and the bleak political economy outlook, the macro trend lines are clear. Over the next 15 years or so, the world will see the emergence of a tri-polar single state economic order comprising China, the US and India. While the first two interlocutors will have comparable gross domestic product profiles, India will be a slightly distant third.

The caveat that must be added is that all three nations are going through a complex political transition currently and the consolidation of a nationalist, Right-wing orientation may introduce a degree of brittleness that augurs ill for the triangle. China is going through a Xi-led internal wobble and the final outcome remains unclear. The economic slowdown and the fiscal challenge of bad bank debts are a complex double-whammy to Mr Xi image of being “supremely” in control and the high-level purges over corruption and the reduction in military manpower is adding to the domestic turbulence that the Xi team has to contain.

The US political system is going through its periodic convulsions over the race to the White House and the Trump phenomenon has exposed certain unsavoury and unexpected strands of the American underbelly. Fixing the US economy in a sustainable and equitable manner even as terrorism and immigrant-related anxieties swirl calls for a kind of political perspicacity that currently appears elusive. Consequently, in January 2017, the new White House incumbent will have to begin the task of putting together a new team — and the bilateral with India will be on a modest auto-pilot mode.

For India, the Modi government will complete two years in May 2016 and while this is short of the half-way mark for the National Democratic Alliance government, the many expectations aroused in the summer of 2014 remain earnest objectives but are still “works in progress”. China and the US are critical strategic interlocutors for Delhi and the track-record of the last five decades is marked by a tenor of deep unease over a range of issues.

It is pertinent to note that during the later phase of the Cold War, China played the role of an astute swing-state and embarked upon a rapprochement with the US that was initiated by the Nixon-Kissinger team and adroitly reciprocated by the Mao-Zhou Enlai duo. Hence, India did its own realpolitik trapeze and entered into a friendship pact with the former USSR and in a limited regional context — this enabled the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, in the face of bitter US-China opposition.

The Indian predicament in dealing with these two interlocutors has to consider a wide range of exigencies. The most challenging would be a G-2 arrangement where the US and China arrive at a grand strategic bargain of mutual accommodation, but there is low probability of this happening. An uneasy US-China relationship where they engage/compete in the economic-trade domain and remain wary over security issues is the current contour and India will have to maximise its own opportunities in this framework.

Issues like terrorism and the support to Pakistan (where the US and China are paradoxically on the same page) will continue to challenge the Indian leadership and the challenge for the Modi government will be to find the skill-set to simultaneously manage the opportunities and the contradictions.

Another exigency is the possibility of a US-China breakdown either inadvertently, or due to unexpected escalation or deliberate design that leads to an exchange of ordnance. This is fraught with many negative consequences and while all sides agree that such an exigency must be avoided, the question is: “At what cost ”

It is instructive to note that Beijing reacted angrily on April 20 when a senior British official made what could be described as a mild and diplomatically routine observation about the South China Sea and the reference by Manila to the Hague for international arbitration. China rebuked London for its temerity and reiterated that it will not accept the verdict of the Hague.

The outcome of the Parrikar-Doval visit to China will be reviewed carefully in South Block, but it is unlikely that the current opacity that shrouds it or the unease in the larger triangular India-China-US relationship will change in any radical manner in the near future.

The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi