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Foreign Policy

The United States, China, and India: Unintended Consequences of Great Power Politics

Jan 07 , 2013

October 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Communist China launched a surprise attack across the Himalayas to “teach India a lesson”, according to Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai.  After 32 days of fighting and embarrassing Indian defeats, the Chinese announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew behind the McMahon Line (the de-facto boundary between China and India, although legally disputed by the People’s Republic of China).

To this day, the 1962 war is seen as a national humiliation in India.  Scanning the Op-ed sections of newspapers while I was in New Delhi in October this year, the general consensus of commentators and political analysts appeared to be that the war, like no other event in post-colonial Indian history, was a unifying force in bringing the country together. It led to the modernization of the Indian Army, and made India temporarily abandon its isolationist, non-aligned foreign policy outlook, and forced it to accept military aid from Western Powers and the Soviet Union, ultimately setting the stage for a more assertive Indian foreign policy.

Diplomatic historians may mark the 1962 war as the beginning of India’s slow ascent to great power status and a force to be reckoned with in 21st century Asian power politics. Yet, to this day, India’s foreign policy is – more than most other emerging titans – constrained by a quest for internal security and a deep introspection – making it a reluctant power and conducting a more or less “introverted foreign policy”.

The United States is trying to change India’s reluctant stance and is attempting to forge closer ties with New Delhi. During his visit in June 2012, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, called India a “lynchpin” in the United States’ strategic pivot to Asia. Behind all of this is the United States’ desire to check the growth of Chinese power in the region.  As the former US Envoy to India, Robert D. Blackwill, pointed out in a speech in New Delhi in 2009: “President George W. Bush based his transformation of US-India Relations on the core strategic principle of democratic India as a key factor in balancing the rise of Chinese power.” Also he noted that: “[W]ithout this China factor at the fore in Washington, in my view the Bush Administration would not have negotiated the Civil Nuclear Agreement and the Congress would not have approved it.”

Yet, the United States should heed the maxim “be careful what you wish for.” For closer military and diplomatic ties between India and the United States may embolden India’s foreign policy, which could potentially destabilize the entire region of South Asia.  As history teaches us, multi-cultural great powers often have a need to define their national identities by overarching national ‘exertions’ such as a war.

The current Indian National Security Advisor referred to India as a ‘bridging power’ during an interview with Robert D. Kaplan  for his book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Kaplan describes Menon’s rationale behind this statement: “[India]…is something between America and China, between a global power and a regional power, between a hard and soft power, between the emerging power of its economy and navy, and the poverty of its people and its weak borders.” Substitute India for Austria in the early 20th century and you have a historical case study of what the unintentional consequences of closer diplomatic ties with the supreme military of its time could entail.

The Austrian Empire, like India, was considered to be a bridging power between East and West for much of its existence. It was a multi-national empire, more concerned with its internal security and stability than with great power politics, and after humiliating defeats in 1859 and 1866, reluctant to use military power to achieve its political objectives (for most of the late 19th century-early 20th period it spent comparatively little on military defense). As in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, these defeats lead to various military and political reforms culminating in the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867 and the establishment of a dual monarchy. Also, like India, Austria-Hungary was held together by an omnipotent, if slightly inefficient, bureaucracy.

Austria’s “Pakistan” in the 20th century was Serbia, a small state in the Balkans trying to lure the South Slavic subjects of the empire to revolt through subversive means (as with Pakistan there was a clandestine connection between government circles and radical elements in the Serbian intelligence community). Most importantly, Austria’s stance vis-à-vis Serbia was emboldened by its dual alliance with the German Empire, which in 1914 , after the assassination, gave Austria a diplomatic carte blanche, to deal once and for all with the “Serbian problem”.

Before this dual alliance, Austria always had to play a rather careful diplomatic game between East and West. The great protector power of Serbia was Russia, Austria’s powerful eastern neighbor (cf. the Russian, Count Vronsky, who in the novel, Ana Karenina, departs for Serbia at the end of the novel to participate in the Orthodox Serbian revolt against the Turks) threatening Austria’s exposed eastern borders. As the years progressed and tensions between the great powers mounted and the dual alliance solidified, Austria took an increasingly more aggressive stance against Serbia’s agitations.

In 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, Austria’s Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hoetzendorf’s, repeated request for preventive war with Serbia was finally granted.  Not before Austria, however, thought it had secured Germany’s guarantee to help defend its eastern borders, plunging all of Europe into the First World War.

India today faces many similar problems as Austria did in the early 20th century. A powerful peer competitor in the East conducting a relatively subtle anti-Indian South Asian policy and a smaller, but more real subversive threat coming from Pakistan (notwithstanding the nuclear component of this equation) and continuing internal unrest. Add the world’s strongest military power to this mix and the results could be explosive. According to various foreign policy experts in New Delhi, India is very aware of the delicate situation it occupies.

The United States would do well not to foster too close of a tie with India in the next few years of its strategic re-alignment to Asia. India has cautiously positioned herself between both parties in US-China competition. China has made it clear in numerous statements that it is not a threat to India, whereas India’s defense ministry clearly stated that India is not interested in containing China.

India’s diplomacy of peace and non-alignment is deeply felt and comes more naturally to it than war.  In the near term the much bigger danger of an emboldened India may well be an increase in crypto-nationalism and inter-communal extremism.

The Obama Administration should nevertheless carefully evaluate its relationship with India in the next four years and beware of the unintentional but often hazardous consequences of Great Power politics.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute.

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