CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


India’s Message to China and the United States: We’ll Go It Alone

by Elizabeth C. Economy
October 19, 2011

A signboard is seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on November 11, 2009

A signboard is seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on November 11, 2009. (Adnan Abidi/Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, I joined my colleagues Paul Stares, Dan Markey, and Micah Zenko in Delhi for a few days of discussions with senior Indian officials, experts, and journalists. We covered a fair amount of the U.S.-India political waterfront, including bilateral relations, China, Pakistan, and broader Asia. The discussions were quite lively: a great thing about foreign policy experts in India is that there are as many opinions expressed as there are people—a breath of fresh air after more constrained or sometimes just strained discussions with Chinese counterparts. While the variety of views we heard makes it hard to generalize, some common themes emerged. Put in rather stark terms, they boil down to:

Beijing is not trustworthy

An overarching theme was China’s growing “confidence, hubris, and economic ascension.” Some Indians argued that China is challenging the existing power equation and trying to limit the extent of any other power in the region, particularly the United States and India. Not surprisingly, worry over China’s intentions in South and Southeast Asia was paramount—and continued Chinese territorial claims to Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India were a central source of concern. (India has reportedly just sited missiles in the region.)

At the same time, the Indians with whom we met generally admired China’s ability to get things done, particularly in terms of modernizing the country and developing the infrastructure. They would like to benefit more from China’s market (wouldn’t we all?) and are pushing hard to get the Chinese to open their doors to Indian pharmaceuticals and IT industries. Trade with China is booming, but India is rapidly looking at the same type of trade imbalance that the United States suffers with China. The Indians apparently spend as much time as we in the United States do in WTO adjudication over Chinese intellectual property rights infringement.

The United States is also untrustworthy

Generally, our Indian interlocutors—many of whom have spent significant time living in the United States—appreciate the free and frank dialogue that they have with their U.S. counterparts. They recognize the shared value of democracy as a key component of the relationship and see cooperating to advance common ideals such as freedom of navigation, transparency, etc.

They worry greatly, however, about the steadfastness of America’s commitment to India, particularly if the United States is forced to choose between India and China. President Obama’s failure to meet with the Dalai Lama before his trip to Beijing in 2009 was cited as one example in which the United States sacrificed principle (and presumably India) in order to improve relations with China. They also wanted to know the U.S. position on Arunachal Pradesh, and whether Washington would be willing to take on Beijing on this issue. Some of the calls for greater demonstrations of U.S. fealty to India may well have been a bit of political gamesmanship, but there was a core of not unreasonable concern over the extent to which the United States is a dependable political partner.

Ergo India will find its own way forward

Not surprisingly, the end-game is that India will chart its own course, relying overwhelmingly on no-one but itself. It is true that much of Indian foreign policy allies nicely with U.S. aims at the moment. For example, India is expanding its relations with countries throughout Asia, such as Australia and Japan (apparently a favorite of PM Singh), as well as advancing ties with more politically sensitive players, such as Taiwan and North Korea. Such a strengthening of relations among various Asian nations is precisely what the United States is seeking to keep Chinese assertiveness at bay. At the same time, on issues that cross business with politics, such as Iran, Sudan, and Burma/Myanmar, India is far more inclined to see common interest with China. India, unlike China, might support democratic transition in Burma, but unlike the United States has strong reservations about breaching sovereignty to promote democracy. In the United Nations, for example, India is far more likely to ally with China’s position on sanctions and sovereignty than with that of the United States.

All of this suggests to me that however much Washington would like to partner with India in much the same way that it cooperates with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, that scenario is probably wishful thinking. Instead, Washington can take advantage of where interests with Delhi overlap—on China for example—but move cautiously on issues such as advancing India’s desire for a seat on the UN Security Council, where our interests diverge far more than coincide.


Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Rajendra Kalkhande

    India will always support US where sound logic and principals are involved. India is cautious about dual US policies on terrorism. How come USA was quite on Pakistani terrorism in Kashmir since 1989? Whole world knows that 9/11 plan and execution was done by Pakistan. How come Pakistan has not been punished for that till date? Honestly as an Indian I won’t like India to waste energy on becoming permanent UNSC member. We should focus on our economy and defense if we have to survive and progress as a nation. Utility of UNDC in its present form is coming to an end anyway.

  • Posted by Tsering Topgyal

    The United States has been busy coddling either Pakistan or China for the last 40 odd years.India has good reasons to worry.

    President Obama’s insult towards HH Dalai Lama is just the right recipe for China to flex their muscles,China is the classic bully and Obama a weak leader has unfortunately shown that he can be bullied.

  • Posted by Arun

    It is not clear to me – it seems e.g., you’re saying that South Korea, Australia, Japan, all agree with the US that breaching sovereignty to promote democracy is important. Is that really so?

  • Posted by tjwh85

    India will eventually be on UN-permanent security council precisely because of its independence and the strength of its regional alliance. Towing US/European whims in the hopes of a permanent seat is silly.

  • Posted by Cyrus Howell

    If India is going to “Go it alone” they should be kept off the UN Security Council. We may like Indian People but they want leverage against Pakistan in the UN, which is self defeating as a peace initiative in South Asia. Aside from the fact China and the US pay their bills at the United Nations I doubt India pays theirs. Landlords and credit card companies like the Chinese people.
    I can remember when average Chinese people were hungry for prosperity in 1995. They accomplished their mission for several reasons, and one of them was being willing to make the needed sacrifices – something Indians are not wiling to do.

    The Congress Party is riding on the back of the Elephant. So many Indian farmers are committing suicide, and so many young children are slaves in India that it is heart breaking. America stopped using child labor 100 years ago. India wants to make it look as though it is a modern nation.
    “No child left behind.” Right? Wrong! India is a meat grinder and Indian farmers are mud people. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. The reality of what Indians want the World to believe is quite different than they say it is. There are many communist guerillas in Central India. They have to fight or starve.
    Anyway, let them wheel and deal with Japan. They will get a big surprise. The Japanese will teach them a trick or two when India notices it’s newest technology is being stolen by the Japanese Trading Companies.

    China does not have India’s problems. For all of China’s supposed faults the Chinese have a proverb Indians will never grasp –
    “We are the same family.”
    India is a dis-functional family. The Chinese can be trusted. They are not as greedy and cut throat as Indians are. The Chinese make honest deals, but let the buyer beware. Don’t cheat yourself. The Chinese are not junk dealers.
    A lot of Indian goods are rubbish. They need Western business more than we need them to learn manufacturing. Buying carpets from India means helping enslave children. Junking computers and selling them to India means giving kids cancer. In Mexico and India people and farmers are worthless. they are overstocked.
    If the Congress Party tries to stop injustices they will be looking for work themselves. The fishy smell is not the lunch they just had. It is still the Caste System all over again. They need landless Indian people to sharecrop, be enslaved and do the shit work and labor in the lethal occupations. Something will be done about that only if Victor Hugo is reincarnated as an Indian legislator.
    …. The Congress Party has not broken the Social Contract because Indians never had a contract.

  • Posted by Jon Bolthon

    Hmmm… Cyrus I think by your comments India and the US should have an even deeper mutual understanding

    After all Americans have been doing to African Americans and Hispanics for centuries what you accuse the Indian state of doing to its farmers and child workers!

    … maybe we’re just taking a page out of the ‘American Dream’

  • Posted by Arun

    In reply to Cyrus Howell: Chinese economic growth is achieved at the cost of the American worker. India is growing using internal demand – maybe slower, but more sustainable and not at the cost of anyone else.

    As to the countries in arrears at the UN – one shouldn’t respond to such silliness, but,

    Central African Republic
    Sao Tome and Principe

  • Posted by Wanderer

    In so far as South Asia is concerned, the US has a history of making poor choices. Most notable among these was its opposition to India’s intervention that resulted in the formation of Bangladesh. Imagine for a minute if the present state of Pakistan were twice its present size.

    Bangladesh has a growing economy, was able to maintain its unique identity and is not counted among the radicalized Islamic states.

  • Posted by Shoshaama

    In reply to Cyrus Howell: It seems like you fell down slipping on cow manure when you came to India & spoiled your costly clothes..

  • Posted by Atul Mehta

    Only when the US faces the “Death By China” challenge today after a long series of political and diplomatic blunders over the last three decades starting with Kissinger, and despite being home to hundreds of world-class institutions such as the CFR, now it suddenly dawns on to “experts” that it’d have been much better to partner with democratic India instead. Perhaps the wandering sheep got lost in the forest but it’s refreshing to know they are slowly finding their way back! Pity the US — for its lack of genius talent. And pity India — it still doesn’t have a UNSC seat in the 21st century!!

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required