"[The] very fact of China's rising economic and military power," Robert Kaplan concludes in an essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, "will exacerbate US-Chinese tensions in the years ahead. To paraphrase the political scientist John Mearsheimer, the United States, the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, will try to prevent China from becoming the hegemon of much of the Eastern Hemisphere. This could be the signal drama of the age."
If Kaplan had written this any later, he would be like the earnest police inspector who arrives in the penultimate scene of a Hindi movie, with handcuffs for the bad guy and a cliche for the hero.
Part due to the wishfulness of the rhetoric surrounding Barack Obama's campaign and part due to the economic crisis it sunk into, it became fashionable in the United States to ignore geopolitical realities, and instead engage in a fresh bout of fantasising about China. Influenced by intellectuals such as Zbigniew Brzezinski it became fashionable to believe in the existence of a tidy bipolar world where the United States and China, the G-2, would sit together and shape the twenty-first century. Tidy and familiar as this world may be to Cold War-era strategists, it does not even begin to mirror reality: it took, for instance, no less than a Group of 20 countries to co-ordinate economic policies to combat the global recession.
While the United States is caught in its Brzezinskian bipolar disorder, China continues to do what it has been doing for the better part of the last two decades-systematically preparing itself for an adversarial relationship with the United States. After the 1990 Gulf War, the Chinese leadership became acutely aware of how far behind the People's Liberation Army (PLA) actually was. In his book on China's military modernisation, David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University, documents how, since Norman Schwarzkopf stormed the Iraqi desert, the PLA has methodically focused its doctrines, capabilities and strategies with its eye on the United States.
Instead of blindly emulating its rival, Beijing has sought to gain asymmetric advantage: for instance, if the US Navy has a formidable surface fleet, the PLA Navy (PLAN) went in for the submarines that neutralise it. If the United States has the capacity to project power globally, China has nurtured proxies like Pakistan and North Korea to tie it down both indirectly and inexpensively. If the United States outguns it in traditional areas of warfare, China has sought to gain an advantage in cyberspace and outer space. The waters of the Indian Ocean therefore, are merely one of the several theatres where China and the United States will challenge each other.
To be sure, the United States military establishment is aware, concerned and preparing for a confrontational relationship with China. However, even at the best of times Washington-like New Delhi-finds numerous domestic vectors pulling in different directions to be able to fashion a focused strategy. Worse, at this moment, the Obama administration is not only confused by the dissonance between its beliefs and reality. It is also constrained by a weak economy, fiscal pressures and a mountain of debt that it owes to its geopolitical rival.
What does this mean for India?
First, despite irreconcilable differences in the way India and China view international relations, the high Himalayas prevented large-scale military conflict between the two civilisations for nearly two millennia. While the Himalayas are no longer the physical barriers they used to be, the presence of nuclear weapons in both countries makes war unattractive and unrewarding. The India-China contest has, instead, shifted to other domains: in and around the Indian Ocean, in cyberspace, and for access to resources and markets.
Second, given the relationship with China, it is in India's interests for the United States to remain the predominant power in the world. Yet, despite ongoing attempts, it is uncertain if the two countries can achieve collaborative "win-win" solutions to common challenges. The United States, after all, continues to be the principal benefactor of a state that has long conducted a proxy war against India. Sure, there is an increasing convergence of long-term interests but the political processes in both the United States and India often produce contradictory outcomes. Don't be too surprised if US troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, leaving Kabul to the Taliban under appropriate obfuscations. Don't be surprised too if New Delhi purchases multi-role fighter aircraft from Sweden, ignoring the strategic aspect of the deal. In New Delhi as in Washington, it is not strategic sense, but political sense that counts.
If strategic sense were to prevail in Washington, the United States would do everything to woo India into a tight alliance. There was a period during the much-maligned George W Bush administration that it appeared that the United States had chosen just such a course. No longer-given its bipolar fantasies, the Obama administration has substantially abandoned the project.
The implication for India is that despite an alignment of interests, it must not always side with the United States. It must swing.
To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India's options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other. It serves "our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other." Isn't this-by design or by default-what we're already doing? Not really. That's because until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won't be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking.
Consider two contemporary issues. Despite India's effort to support his Af-Pak strategy, President Obama has remained insensitive to India's interests, going so far as to issue a directive "that concluded that India must make resolving its tensions with Pakistan a priority for progress to be made on US goals in the region." What has India done to show that its support cannot be taken for granted?
Earlier this month, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh remarked that "we bailed the Chinese out of many a difficult situations (sic). Chinese know India was absolutely essential for the fact that China did not get isolated at Copenhagen." Well, in that case, he swung too early. It would have been better to bail the Chinese out after they had been sufficiently isolated.
The reason why India is unable to get the swinging right is perhaps because our political leaders and much of the strategic establishment are wedded to their pet dogmas. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for instance, is committed to improving relations with the United States. And it was Mr Ramesh, after all, who popularised-if not coined-that ghastly word, "Chindia". Now turn on your television or open the op-ed page of a newspaper, and you'll spot their opposite numbers, forever opposed to the United States or China or both.
Everyone, it seems, is locked in their favourite positions. Are you?
Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.