The new CIA… China, India and AmericaKishore Mahbubani
The decline of Sino-US ties is an opportunity India must seize, and place itself firmly in the middle to have the best of both worlds.
Shakespeare wisely said, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Such a window of opportunity has now opened for India to join the ‘A’ league of powers. The election of Donald Trump has opened this window.
A rocky, probably even turbulent, road lies ahead for US-China relations. Even before taking office, Trump has challenged China on many fronts, from trade to Taiwan. In the face of this, India has two choices. It can sit back and smack its lips with satisfaction watching the travails of Beijing as it handles the mercurial Trump. Or it can cunningly exploit this new turbulence in US-China relations to catapult itself into a new ‘A’ league of great powers, best captured in the acronym: CIA. CIA will now stand for China, India and America.
The big question here is whether India can be cunning. Calm and detached cunning geopolitical calculations are supposed to be the hallmark of strategic thinking. It is therefore puzzling that sometimes petulance seems to trump cunning in Indian strategic thinking. Every time a new ‘slight’ appears, India responds with great emotional agitation rather than with an effort to see if adversity can be turned into an opportunity.
Pakistan is the biggest drag on India’s foreign policy. Given the history, a love affair between India and Pakistan is not on the cards. However, many erstwhile adversaries, like France and Germany, China and Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, have achieved normal relations. For example, they conduct ‘normal’ trade with each other. India and Pakistan do not. This is why India should reconsider its refusal to join the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative of China. Contrary to a few paranoid voices in New Delhi, OBOR is not an evil scheme designed by China to exclude India. Instead, it is China’s insurance policy to develop land links in Central Asia to overcome any possible maritime encirclement by America against China. OBOR was a defensive, not offensive, move. If India wants to be truly cunning, it should enthusiastically join OBOR and use it to create a whole new web of trade and energy links with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the middle of the web will be Pakistan. Such a web will also help normalise India-Pakistan trade relations and liberate India from a geopolitical burden.
To achieve all this, India will have to look at China with fresh eyes. India and China have had a tumultuous history due to now-dormant border disputes as well as the issue of Tibet. The Indian media ceaselessly beats the drums and says that China is a threat to India. This media hysteria is a perfect example of how emotions often trump cunning in Indian strategic thinking. How is China a threat? Is it going to invade India? Unilaterally change the Line of Control? Send warships to blockade India? To put it simply, China is not a military threat to India because it will gain no geopolitical advantage in changing the status quo on the ground.
By contrast, while China is not a real threat to India, America is a real threat to China. The Chinese strategic thinkers have every reason to be paranoid about America. America is still, overall, far more powerful than China. Militarily, America is far more powerful. Economically, it can damage China by restricting Chinese imports (as Trump has threatened to do). Politically, it can stir separatist movements in China (be it in Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang). The ultimate Chinese nightmare is a ‘colour’ revolution triggered by America. If Chinese strategic thinkers were to drop their paranoia about America, they should have their heads examined.
All this provides India a golden opportunity. If China-US relations take a turn for the worse under Trump, both sides will pay India more attention. The choice that India makes in this geopolitical environment will be absolutely critical. Given the current political situation in India, where a nascent love affair is developing between India and America, there will be a strong emotional desire to gang up with America against China. There will be short-term benefits. India will get more arms from America. Trade might grow. But in such a geopolitical arrangement, India will always be the lesser partner, the Tonto to the American lone ranger. It will play the role Japan or UK did in the Cold War: a valuable ally but not an equal partner.
The cunning choice for India, therefore, is to position itself as a geopolitical equal to both America and China. This will not be easy. America’s GNP is $18 trillion, China’s $11 trillion, India’s $2.1 trillion. How does the far smaller guy become an equal partner to two bigger giants?
This is where Trump has provided the opportunity. By turning adversarial against China, the president elect has effectively put China and America at two opposite ends of a see-saw. India should seize the opportunity by leaping on to the middle of the see-saw. This will give the incentive for both America and China to develop close relations with India, for the person standing in the middle of the see-saw will be the one to determine which side of the see-saw goes up and down. In terms of strategic positioning, India should stand in the middle, not move closer to America or China. Consequently, India’s geopolitical weight will also grow in the world as the world will see that the overall global geopolitical directions are now being driven by three powers, China, India and America, the new CIA.
To understand the Trump opportunity, India should do a private cunning calculation of whether it is better-off under an Obama or Trump presidency. Trump will never love India as much as Obama (or George W. Bush) did. Trump is transactional in his approach. But both Obama and Bush also realised that America had more at stake with China. Hence, both the Obama and Bush administrations gave far more priority to China than to India. This kept India locked out of any potential CIA triangle. In contrast, by turning adversarial against China, Trump has opened a window of opportunity for India. Is India cunning enough to take advantage of this brief opportunity to develop equally good ties with China and America?
It will probably be a brief opportunity because after a year or two in office, Trump may redo his calculations and decide that having a good relationship with China makes more geopolitical sense. In so doing, he would only be following his five predecessors-Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. One of the few points the five had in common was the emphasis they gave to maintaining a stable and constructive US-China relationship. If Trump follows in their footsteps, the window of opportunity will close for India. India will then become less useful to both America and China.
Shakespeare’s greatest plays were his tragedies. In each one, he demonstrated how human beings fail to rise above their human frailties, including their emotional impulses. It would be a real tragedy if India loses its current geopolitical opportunity because of a failure to rise above its emotional impulses in dealing with China.
This piece was published in India Today on 4 January 2017.