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The Roadblock To Beijing Runs Through New Delhi

Original Article

President Bush is in India this week for the first time, a historic trip that is long overdue. Although terrorism, trade and technology will be major discussion topics with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the rise of China cannot be far from the minds of both men and their respective defense establishments.

China’s rapid economic rise and military buildup pose growing strategic challenges to both the United States and India. Even in this day of asymmetric threats of terrorism and cyber-warfare, a classical American geopolitical objective endures: to prevent the rise of a continental hegemon that can challenge U.S. global interests. Unfortunately, this is exactly the role to which Chinese leaders seemingly aspire.

China and India fought a brief war in 1962 over the mountainous border between the two countries. Chinese forces bloodied India’s military, and declared unilateral ceasefire after occupying the disputed territory. Although confidence-building measures put in place in the 1990s have reduced tension over the area, the episode remains a painful blot in India’s security consciousness. Moreover, China’s growing naval and related activities in the Indian Ocean are likely to increase friction.

A historical national ambition of hegemony over Asia is not the only motive for Chinese leaders in expanding China’s influence at India’s expense. As a rapidly growing economy of unprecedented scale, it has enormous energy needs and seeks to dominate energy sources.

Ironically, it is precisely this economic growth that has highlighted China’s sense of vulnerability. Mao Zedong, ruling over a primitive China and peasants numbed by massive suffering during the war with Japan and civil war, could boast about enduring a nuclear war while suffering “only” 300 million casualties. Today’s Chinese leaders, governing a complex economy and an increasingly educated population growing used to material comforts, are sensitive about what the United States could do to China in a possible war over Taiwan.

One major American trump card of deterrence against Chinese aggressiveness is the Chinese perception that U.S. and allied forces control the strategically vital Strait of Malacca, through which passes much of the Chinese petroleum imports (crucially, the U.S. and Singapore signed a strategic-framework agreement last year). In a conflict, American naval and air elements, possibly supported by Japanese forces, could blockade sea transports to and from China, severely disrupt its economy and even cause internal social unrest.

Adhering to Sun Tzu’s maxim that one ought to flow like water around obstacles (“avoid the strong, strike the weak”), China has engaged in regional alliance-building that would allow it to bypass this choke point. In particular, China has cultivated a strong relationship with the repressive military junta of Myanmar (the former Burma), with which both China and India share borders.

China has been lavishing investments into Myanmar, and has built naval, communications and surveillance facilities in Myanmar territory near India. Furthermore, PetroChina recently beat out India and signed an agreement to exploit Myanmar natural gas in the Bay of Bengal (China is expanding its influence in neighboring Bangladesh as well).

While these developments bring about a natural confluence of strategic interests for the United States and India, a number of roadblocks remain before an Indo-American alliance can be cemented.

A major concern is over nuclear proliferation. While India helpfully voted to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council, India’s own nuclear program (emphatically declared by a surprise detonation test in 1998) remains a contentious subject.

Another issue is Pakistan, which remains hostile to India in a dispute over Kashmir. A significant improvement in Indo-American ties is likely to be viewed negatively in Islamabad, which exists in a delicate state between American alliance and Islamic extremism.

There are also domestic political considerations in both the United States and India. The mutual benefits of American “outsourcing” to Indian firms are clear, yet the issue remains a politically controversial subject viewed through the prism of American “job loss.” Within India, too, there is a persistent streak of autarkic protectionism that retards economic liberalization.

Despite these difficulties, the possibility of a strong Indo-American alliance offers a tantalizing prospect to the United States that India could be to China what China was to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The long-term gain for India is also apparent — after all, it was China’s engagement with the United States in the earlier triangular relationship that brought it tremendous economic growth and rise to world power status, goals that India also desires to reach.

James J. Na, senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute (discovery.org), co-authors The Korea Liberator, korealiberator.org, and Guns and Butter Blog, gunsandbutter.blogspot.com