Foreign Policy Blogs

Balancer Needed in Asia

Memo to Obama Administration: Now would be a good time to re-hyphenate your India policy, less India-Pakistan more India-China. Rising Sino-Indian tensions are causing people, including this blogger, to wonder whether Obama has a plan to deal with a pivotal security challenge of the 21st Century: the management of Chinese ambitions and Indian anxieties. It doesn’t look like it.

Obama, busy with withdrawals in Iraq, surges in Afghanistan, settlements in Israel and the coup in Iran, seems to have missed the growing urgency in New Delhi. This past June has featured Indian troop and air force redeployments to its disputed border with China. Prompting the Chinese state media to lash out with a mixture of India bashing, saber rattling and condescension. The Indian move was preceded by feverish reports of Chinese border violations, the fingering of China as India’s number one threat by the outgoing Air Chief, and media reports of Chinese involvement in countries in India’s immediate neighborhood.

Even the twin hopes of liberal institutionalists, trade and international institutions, have been arenas for conflict. A trade war looms, as China threatens retaliatory measures for a continued India ban on imports of Chinese milk products after the discovery of widespread melamine contamination last year. Meanwhile in the Manila meeting of Asian Development Bank, China vetoed a loan for a development project in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian border state claimed in its entirety by China.The neighbors meet

Surveying the rising tensions, Jeff Smith, of the American Foreign Policy Council, writes that the Indo-China border dispute is the canary in the coal-mine:

…[T]he Sino-Indian border dispute should be viewed as a test for proponents of China’s “peaceful rise” theory. If China becomes adventurous enough to challenge India’s sovereignty or cross well-defined red lines, Washington must be willing to recognize the signal and respond appropriately.

But the coolness of Obama’s India policy (especially in contrast to its heated engagement with China) has many in India fretting. Writing in The Japan Times, security analyst, Brahma Chellaney sees the absence of a strategic orientation in Asia leading the Obama administration into the trap of seeing India solely as part of the Af-Pk strategy:

Nearly six months after U.S. President Barack Obama entered the White House, it is apparent that America’s Asia policy is no longer guided by an overarching geopolitical framework as it had been under President George W. Bush. Indeed, Washington’s Asia policy today appears fragmented. The Obama administration has developed a policy approach toward each major Asian subregion and issue, but still has no strategy on how to build enduring power equilibrium in Asia — the pivot of global geopolitical change…

Washington now is looking at India not through the Asian geopolitical prism but the regional, or Af-Pak, lens a reality unlikely to be changed by secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s stop in New Delhi six months after she paid obeisance in Beijing. While re-hyphenating India with Pakistan and outsourcing its North Korea and Burma policies to Beijing, the US wants China to expand its geopolitical role through greater involvement even in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Looking past the Middle Eastern wars and insurgencies of the Bush era, many Indian and American strategic thinkers have urged a more China centric US-India relationship to counter relative decline in American power. Robert Kaplan, for example, recently channeled Mahan to lay out how the US could defray its relative decline and balance China through naval cooperation with India.

There are great opportunities to be reaped from the simultaneous economic development of India and China. But as opportunities rise so do dangers. Negotiating these dangers will require the Obama administration to employ a Bismarkian appreciation for power relationships to keep competition from souring into conflict. But first it must articulate a plan.