Far too many analysts and commentators around the world view the China-India-United States trilateral relationship as a zero-sum game. This view is promoted by the fact that on several recent occasions, when two of the three have come together, the third has been worried about losing out. When the US and China issued a joint statement with a shared view of South Asia, during US President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing in 2009, India was upset. When China and India stood as one at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2010, the US was upset. When the US and India come together on maritime security in the Indian Ocean, China is upset.
This paradigm shaped Chinese response to the India-US agreement on cooperation in civil nuclear energy and US-India maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean. It shaped many Indian anxieties in the aftermath of the trans-Atlantic financial crisis when US analysts began to float the ‘G-2’ theory of a condominium between China and the US aimed at ‘managing’ the global economy. So dominant was this view within the corridors of the US state department in the early days of Hillary Clinton and in the year after the Lehman collapse of September 2008, that one of Ms Clinton’s aides, former US deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg told this writer in September 2009 that India should just stop whining about US-China relations, grow up and come to terms with it.
Mr Steinberg equated early 21st century China to early 20th century United States and the US to early 20th century Britain. A view that this newspaper’s columnist Arvind Subramanian has echoed in his book on the eclipse of the US dollar by China’s Yuan and the growing ‘economic dominance’ of China. While Washington DC is now conflicted on how to deal with a rising China, both those who think China can be a friend and those who think China will be an enemy advocate policy options that India cannot feel too comfortable with.
Similarly, in China there are the US-haters who see India as an American cat’s-paw and US-lovers who like the G-2 idea of working with the US to run the world, and view India as a supplicant at their shared high table.
All these ‘zero-sum game’ views have the common failing that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If things can go wrong, they will. China, being the fastest rising power with more at stake, has the highest stake in stability but will be most prone to making mistakes, if it believes its own fears.
I say this because a recurring theme of Chinese interlocutors in bilateral diaologues that I have been involved in over the past three years has been that the US and India are ‘ganging up’ against China. But India, too, can make mistakes if it does not have a realistic view of China-US relations.
Every time a Chinese interlocutor asks me as to what India seeks from its friendship with the US, my answer has been that India seeks nothing more than what China has sought over the past three decades from its relationship with the US, namely, a win-win relationship that would help India’s economic growth and development.
The reason Chinese analysts would not easily accept this explanation is that China’s own relationship with the US facilitated the destruction of the Soviet Union. Since China played the zero-sum game of using its friendship with the US in the period 1979 to 1989 to facilitate US victory in the Cold War, the Chinese fear the US may use India in a similar manoeuvre to contain and weaken China.
The past, however, is not always a useful guide, especially in a changing world. The trans-Atlantic financial crisis of 2008 has changed the world. The US is renegotiating many of its relationships in the context of an economic crisis and in the new world of the growing economic clout of both ‘emerging’ and ‘re-emerging’ powers.
It is now clear that uncertainty will grip the world economy in the near term and can have unforeseen consequences. No one country is so well positioned to imagine that it will rise while others fall. China of the 2010s is not the United States of the inter-war years. Much less the world.
Indeed, the fundamental change that has taken place in the post-Cold War world is the increased inter-dependence between nations and economies. While those who measure power focus on changes at the margin — the changing relative weight of individual nations — those who seek to wield power would rather look at absolute weight and at inter-dependencies. In both terms, the US and China recognise that they are locked in a relationship of inter-dependence that they cannot unilaterally alter in the near term. This is even more true for India.
The zero-sum theory of the trilateral relationship belongs to a paradigm lost, that of the Cold War. In the post-Cold War world of economic globalisation, the levels of inter-dependence between China, India and the US are so high and important for each of them that a trilateral relationship can yield win-win outcomes.
The time has come for a China-India-US trilateral dialogue that can re-assure the world, and Asia in particular, and create an economic and political environment of stability that can only benefit all.
Geo-political analysts attach greater weight to the politics of conflict between the three nations than to the economics of their inter-dependence. This new inter-dependence can yield a win-win trilateralism that can have beneficial consequences for Asia and the world economy.