The economic rise of China and India, though it lags behind, is accompanied by a roughly commensurate rise in their political and military weight. Although they confront many problems at home encouraging overwhelming preoccupation with domestic political affairs, the growing relative power of these emerging economies has caused alarm in the United States and around the region about the potential of military strategic competition. There are American political leaders and strategists who argue for sharply divergent approaches toward China and India, a fashion that caught brief favour in countries like Japan and Australia a few years back.
This approach toward China as a strategic competitor and India as a strategic partner was never soundly based.
For one thing, the economics are driving India and China closer together — not further apart. China is becoming a larger and larger economic partner for India. China became India's largest trading partner in 2008, and India–China trade hit US$60 billion this year. The leaders have set a target of US$100 billion of two-way trade by 2015.
For another thing, it is not at all clear that China's and India's political and strategic interests are quite so differently aligned vis-à-vis those of the US as some might imagine or wish.
To those in Washington, Tokyo or Canberra, who incline to the Quad strategy (an 'alliance' of the US, Japan, India and Australia against China), not as a contingency but as some kind of in-your-face alternative to Chinese engagement, politically and militarily, it would do well to reflect upon the independent evolution and challenges of India's relationship with China. These are two powers with common borders, each with its own vulnerabilities, inexorably becoming increasingly economically complementary. As China and India growing share interests and objectives in global governance, the need to deal with each other's growing power in their own Asian space grows too.
This week's lead essay from George Gilboy and Eric Heginbothamargues (in a digest of the main argument of their new book from Cambridge University Press, Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior: Growing Power and Alarm) that the view of China as a competitor against whom Washington — with India as its partner — should 'hedge' is altogether too simplistic. '[B]oth China and India will present the US with sustained challenges as well as opportunities in the coming years. Washington will need nuanced, if not distinct, approaches to each' in order to manage them, they say.
Gilboy and Heginbotham point out that there is no evidence to support the claim that the difference in domestic political systems — India's democracy versus China's one-party state — causes one or the other of them to be more or less likely to use force, build military power, seek trade advantages or pursue narrow self-interest.
'China has been involved in more militarised conflicts than India since 1949', they argue, but from 1980 to 2001 both have used force an equal number of times. China also has 'more maritime disputes than India and has recently raised regional concerns by more firmly asserting its claims. But China has moved further in negotiating territorial disputes than India'. On key issues relating to global governance, 'India is not markedly closer to the US than China. Indian and Chinese voting records in the UN General Assembly show that on issues related to Iran, Sudan, Burma, Middle East security and nuclear proliferation, China and India are often more closely aligned with each other than either is with the US'.
Both China and India are expanding their defence budgets, China not uniquely so.
China certainly remains more open to trade and foreign investment than India — India's foreign trade is five times smaller than that of China — and partners have levelled an equal number of complaints against them in the WTO.
China and India are also pursuing similar energy strategies via state firms and in developing economies.
Gilboy and Heginbotham warn that care should be taken in basing expectations of international behaviour on political ideals or domestic regime differences, and that policy makers should, rather, rely on a 'nuanced, pragmatic realism' as a guide to foreign policy. They suggest that the US ought to rebalance its India policy by building more robust economic and diplomatic foundations for it before delivering greater military and geostrategic support. They suggest that the US should maintain its deterrent capabilities in East Asia vis-à-vis China, at the same time, positioning 'military forces in ways that minimise the risk of provoking reactions that undermine — rather than buttress — stability'. The reality is, they conclude, that US dealing with both China and India will be best secured by prioritising the techno-economic challenge from these rising powers, primarily by pursuing domestic policies within the US that maintain or strengthen its existing technological and economic advantages.
The world of Asia's rising powers will be more complex than is often assumed, this analysis suggests, and unlikely to revolve around the singular challenge of balancing China's growing power.
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