Copyright – International Herald Tribune
WASHINGTON The state visit to Washington this week by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India is of considerable bilateral and global significance. But there is a silent third party in the room: China.
Indeed, 10 days ago, the heads of all three states met at the G-8 summit meeting in Scotland. The intensive interaction will continue over the next six months as President Hu Jintao of China visits the United States in September, and President George W. Bush has committed himself to visiting both China and India by early 2006.
Washington’s current courtship of New Delhi takes place against the backdrop of a similar Sino-Indian entente, as well as thickening U.S.-China ties. Just in the last week the U.S. secretaries of state and commerce were in Beijing for intensive talks on security and trade issues.
Sino-Indian exchanges have also intensified since Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s highly successful April visit to New Delhi, including progress in sensitive border negotiations. Singh’s visit to Washington also symbolizes deepening interaction between American and Indian governments and society – most notably in the defense, trade and high-technology realms.
Washington’s engagement of the world’s two most populous nations (which together represent a third of humanity), each experiencing strong economic growth and a raised profile on the international stage, is strategically smart. As the U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council pointed out earlier this year in its report “Mapping the Global Future,” “the likely emergence of China and India as new major global players … will transform the geopolitical landscape in the early 21st century.”
Nowhere will that be more apparent than in the economic arena. One highly respected Wall Street banking firm forecasts that by 2050 China, the United States and India (in that order) will have the world’s largest economies and be in a position to dominate the global marketplace.
Thus, a new interactive dynamic has begun between the United States and Asia’s two continental powers. The task for all three is to manage ties as a virtuous circle rather than a competitive triangle.
There are some geopolitical thinkers in each capital who seek to use improved bilateral relations against the third party. Some in Beijing and New Delhi see strengthened Sino-Indian ties as a constraint on American hegemony. Others in Washington and New Delhi are suspicious of China and seek to build U.S.-India relations (particularly military ties) as a strategic counterweight to growing Chinese power.
These manipulative temptations should be resisted. To its credit, the Bush administration has publicly stated that the much-improved relationship with India, begun under the Clinton administration, has its own strategic logic and imperatives, and is not part of a China containment strategy.
On his way to meet Bush, Singh offered a similar assessment: “I don’t think our relationship with the United States is at the cost of our relationship with China.”
Indeed, the U.S.-India relationship is important for many of its own intrinsic reasons. Shared democratic values and political systems make the two countries, in the words of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “natural allies.” A shared entrepreneurial spirit has also made these two countries the world leaders in information technology.
Similarly, the U.S.-China relationship has its own inherent dynamics. The relationship has a longer and deeper base than U.S.-India ties, insofar as they have developed in all spheres over the past three decades. The two societies are deeply intertwined economically and in other ways, while the two governments interact extensively over a wide range of bilateral and global issues.
Engagement is a fact of life, not a policy preference that can be turned on or off (as some in Congress seem to believe).
However, while the U.S.-India and China-India relationships steadily improve, Sino-American relations seem to be entering another strained and fractious phase in their long roller coaster relationship.
A new wave of anti-China acrimony is currently gripping Washington, especially in the Congress, fueled by allegations about China’s military buildup, threatened nuclear war, unfair trading practices, product pirating, human rights violations and attempted buyouts of U.S. companies (including Unocal).
Despite these concerns (and U.S.-India ties will also not be immune to ups and downs in the years ahead), there is no turning back from the growing interdependence of the three countries, including in the vital area of energy supplies.
Managing these expanding relations will increasingly be a key challenge for Washington, Beijing and New Delhi.
(Karl Inderfurth served as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997-2001. David Shambaugh, worked on China in the State Department and National Security Council during the Carteradministration. Both are on the faculty of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.)