India walks away from US ploy to contain China's rise
IT WAS not the sort of statement that sets the blood racing: 'We have more or less reached agreement with regard to the political parameters and the guiding principles for the settlement of the boundary dispute.'
But Indian National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan's announcement last Sunday, during Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's four-day visit to India, is good news for those who hope that their children or grand-children will not die in World War III.
There will have to be further talks before India and China actually start demarcating their long Himalayan frontier, where the existing uncertainties led to a brief border war between the two Asian giants in 1962. More things also need to happen if China and India are to avoid confrontation as both countries take their place in the front rank of the great powers over the next generation - a free trade area would help, and a mutual security pact would not hurt either - but this is definitely a step in the right direction. And not a moment too soon.
It has become urgent because the Bush administration is trying to lure India into an alliance with the United States that would implicitly define China as the enemy. When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited New Delhi last month, she told Premier Manmohan Singh that it is US policy to 'help India become a major world power in the 21st century', and the State Department briefer emphasised that Washington 'understands fully the implications, including the military implications, of that statement'.
The biggest American bribe on the table is the recent announcement that India would be allowed to buy the next generation of advanced combat aircraft from the US, which would give it definitive air superiority over China (and Pakistan) in a single bound. Other inducements will be deployed in coming months, and the White House hopes that by the time President George W. Bush visits India later this year, the two countries can reach an understanding - it will not actually be called an alliance - on military cooperation in Asia.
The neo-conservatives in the Bush administration have a high opinion of their own strategic abilities, and they imagine that they are replaying the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of 30 years ago. Then America's great strategic adversary was the Soviet Union, and (president Richard) Nixon's rapprochement with China gave the Russians something else to worry about by completing their encirclement.
Now, the neo-conservatives see China as the emerging strategic rival, and want to draw India into a military alliance against it.
The right analogy for what is happening now is not Mr Nixon's China policy of the early 1970s. It is the period before 1914, when the traditional great powers who were facing a future of relative decline, Britain and France, sought to contain the rapid growth of German industrial power by making a pact with the other rising power, Russia. And that led to World War I.
No analogy is perfect, but this one feels pretty convincing. America is playing the role of Britain and France, China is being cast in the role of Germany, and India gets to play Russia. We have seen this film before, and it did not even end well last time, when we were only playing with machine-guns and trenches. But this time around, we are playing with nuclear weapons. If China were hell-bent on conquering the planet, other countries might have to accept the risk that a 'containment' policy entails, but it is not.
The master strategists in Washington are trapped in an old paradigm that no longer served the true interests of the great powers even a 100 years ago, and certainly will not make America or anybody else safer now. If India falls for their blandishments, the two countries together will drive China into a needless military confrontation with its neighbours and destroy the fragile hope of reconciliation between India and Pakistan.
The good news out of New Delhi this past week is that the Indian government seems not to be falling for the neo-conservative strategy. There is still a lot of work to be done on Sino-Indian relations, but at least the trend is away from confrontation, not towards it.
The writer is a London-based independent journalist.