November 06, 2012

The New Triangular Diplomacy: India, China and America at Sea

  November 5, 2012 By C. Raja Mohan

As both China and India rise as naval powers their interaction with the United States will truly be a defining feature in the Indo-Pacific region.As in the Cold War, so in the current power play between the United States and China, the rest of Asia will simply not submit itself to the discipline of a bipolar framework. Asia will actively shape and be shaped by the emerging strategic dynamic between Washington and Beijing.

Asia is home to many large states that are wedded to nationalism and territorial sovereignty, opposed to local ambitions for regional hegemony,committed to a measure of autonomy from the great powers, and determined to promote greater economic integration with each other. These are competing imperatives that do not sit well with each other but do define the contradictory nature of Asia's rise.

One of these important regional powers is India—the third largest economy in Asia, and the fourth biggest spender on defense in the Indo-Pacific after the United States, China and Japan.

India's potential could contribute significantly to the new balance of power in Asia as recognized by both Washington and Beijing. U.S. Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, was in Delhi last June declaring India as a "lynchpin"in the U.S. pivot to Asia.

The Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie was soon knocking at Delhi's doors, trying to soothe India's growing concerns about Beijing's rise.

Delhi's cautious response to America's Asian pivot underlines India's open-ended and deliberative strategy in dealing with the twists and turns in the U.S. strategy towards China.

India has had a complex and difficult relationship with China since they became neighbors in the middle of the 20th century. And it is only over the last decade that Delhi's ties with the United States have begun to warm.

India has not had a direct conflict of interest with the United States during the Cold War, but the two have had deep differences on global and regional issues.

Delhi's relations with China have been marred by a host of unresolved bilateral disputes since they became neighbors in the middle of the 20th century and an unending competition for regional influence.

How this rivalry moves in the coming years—towards intensification or mitigation—will have a great impact on the outcomes from the U.S. pivot to Asia and the construction of a new Asian balance.

In the last few years, despite growing economic engagement, Sino-Indian political tensions have not only intensified in the traditional theatre of the Great Himalayas,but have also spilled over to the maritime spaces of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

With their growing and globalized economies, China and India are now dependent on the seas as never before in their history. Both are building large navies.

Naval planners in Beijing and Delhi would like to project power way beyond their territorial waters to secure the increasingly dispersed interests of their nations.

In both capitals, the traditional attachment to the ideology of'non-alignment' is giving way, if slowly, to the recognition of the need to have the capacity to influence developments far from their shores.

Naval leaders in both Beijing and Delhi would like to win access to facilities in critical locations and build special political relationships that will allow their incipient blue water navies to operate in far seas.

As their maritime interests expand and their naval footprints overlap, there is new friction between China and India in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The rise of China and the emergence of India as naval powers has led to widespread recognition that the two oceans can no longer be seen as separate theatres but as a single strategic space—the Indo-Pacific.

China's main maritime preoccupations are in the Western Pacific—reunifying Taiwan, defending Chinese territorial claims, and constraining American naval dominance.

Yet, China's rising maritime profile in the Indian Ocean, from where it imports a large portion of its energy and mineral resources, is generating deep concerns in Delhi.

While India's main interest is in securing its primacy in the Indian Ocean littoral, its navy is making frequent forays into the Western Pacific.

Delhi's deepening bilateral naval engagement with Vietnam, which is mired in territorial disputes with China, its support to the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and its frequent joint naval exercises with Japan and the United States do raise eyebrows in Beijing.

Even as China and India build up their naval capabilities and step on each other's toes in the Indo-Pacific, neither of them is in a position to supplant the United States as the dominant maritime power in both the oceans.

The U.S. military rebalance towards Asia is marked by a profound wariness of China's growing power and great enthusiasm to strengthen the partnership with India. This has set in motion what could be a consequent triangular dynamic in the Indo-Pacific.

Like everyone else in Asia, India wants to benefit from China's economic growth but would like to limit the prospects for Beijing's dominance of the region.

As the strategic gap between India and China grows—for China is rising much faster than India—Delhi can only bridge it through a combination of internal and external balancing.

An alliance with Washington, then, would seem natural for Delhi. But India is concerned about the inconstancy of American policy towards China, the fiscal and political sustainability of the pivot to Asia in Washington.

Delhi is acutely aware of the dangers of a potential Sino-U.S. rapprochement that could leave India exposed. It therefore seeks simultaneous expansion of security cooperation with the United States while avoiding a needless provocation of Beijing.

China, clearly, has the upper hand in the current triangular dynamic with India and the United States. It could accommodate either Delhi or Washington to limit the depth of a prospective India-U.S. strategic partnership.

Given the current ambiguities in Washington, Beijing and Delhi, there is much uncertainty surrounding the direction of the triangular dynamic between them. 

One thing, though, is certain. The emergence of China and India as naval powers and the intersection of their maritime policies with those of the United States are bound to churn the security politics of the Indo-Pacific for decades to come.

C. Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His latest book is Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For inquiries, please contact The Diplomat at


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