• Feb 14 2018

China, India, and American manichaeism

Many deem this manichaean rendering as the writing on the wall recognising India’s emerging role as a “balancer” to China.

 Indian Navy, Indian Defence, manichaean,emerging role, balancer, Kashish Parpiani
File Photo

In the recently released National Security Strategy, the Trump administration criticised China for “using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.” It accused Beijing of having “geopolitical aspirations” that “endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.” In contrast, the same document lauded India’s “emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner” and underscored Washington’s commitment to “increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.” Many deem this manichaean rendering — of China and India as binaries — as the writing on the wall recognising India’s emerging role as a “balancer” to China. In reality, the US has long construed India and China in manichaean terms — praising the former’s “emergence” to cultivate it as a balancer whilst condemning the latter’s “aspirations” in order to contain it. The earliest evidence of this dates back to the Cold War.

The US has long construed India and China in manichaean terms — praising the former’s “emergence” to cultivate it as a balancer whilst condemning the latter’s “aspirations” in order to contain it.

Speaking in Washington DC on 4 May 1959, then-Senator John F. Kennedy deemed India to be following “a route in keeping with human dignity and individual freedom,” while “Red China” sought a “route of regimented controls and ruthless denial of human rights.” Emphasising India’s “role as a counter to the Red Chinese”, Senator Kennedy construed India and China to be in a race “to demonstrate whose way of life is better.” Displaying no qualms over where Washington’s chips must fall, Senator Kennedy said, “We want India to win that race. We want India to be a free and thriving leader of a free and thriving Asia.” Similarly, the Trump National Security Strategy argued that a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” is currently underway in the ‘Indo-Pacific’. It also underscored Washington’s interest in seeing a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — where the US would “support its [India] leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.”

Over the years, this manichaean rendering has been a recurring theme — from lauding the Indo-US “shared heritage of pluralist federalism, born in a struggle against colonialism,” and mutual pledges of “chalein saath saath, forward together we go,” to urging China to become “a responsible stakeholder” and arguing for China to “face consequences and international condemnation” for its trampling on civil liberties.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization, manichaean, interoperability, Kashish Parpiani

However, US efforts to court India have often sputtered. According to Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute, India’s colonial experience gave rise to a fixation with preserving “strategic autonomy” leading to an “unwillingness” to seek formal alliances with major world powers like the US. Thus, India has been hedging its bets trying “to stay friends with everyone,” especially with respect to the evolving Sino-American rivalry. As a result, while India has sought increased cooperation with the US without the “restrictive expectations” of a formal alliance, it has also become the second-largest contributor to the Beijing-driven Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and sought membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), using both as a “counterweight to unrepresentative global institutions” of the US -led liberal world order.

Further, according to veteran CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, American courtship of India into its grand strategic calculations of balancing the rise of China has often been “constrained and hindered by America’s complex relationship with Pakistan.” For instance, the US Pacific Command (PACOM) which extends from China to Australia and from Hawaii to India sees its jurisdiction precariously end along the Indo-Pakistani border, probably another testament to Washington’s view of India as a “natural balancer” to China. The US has been courting successive Indian governments “since 2002 to post a liaison officer at the Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii” to explore force interoperability and defense personnel exchanges. However, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government deferred the proposal with a request to post an Indian Liaison Officer at the US Central Command (CENTCOM) instead, the combatant command that covers India’s historic rival, Pakistan. A similar US request for an Indian liaison at PACOM was made to the Manmohan Singh government in 2005, which too was stalled by a counter-request for the posting of an Indian Liaison Officer at CENTCOM because “many areas of Indian concern” were said to be to the “west of the PACOM/CENTCOM divide.”

The US has been courting successive Indian governments “since 2002 to post a liaison officer at the Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii” to explore force interoperability and defense personnel exchanges.

Most recently, speaking at Carnegie India in New DelhiUS Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster outlined his vision for a “durable” US-India partnership. To enhance relations “from the strategic to the durable,” he said, “Over time, we should expand officer exchanges at our war colleges and our training facilities, and even at some point post reciprocal military liaison officers at our respective combatant commands.”

Gwadar, Pakistan, Kashish Parpiani
Gwadar, Pakistan | Flickr user umairadeeb

However, in stark contrast to previous administrations, Ambassador Juster’s rather passive invitation stands in the backdrop of the Trump administration increasingly isolating Pakistan via erratic presidential tweet-storms and suspension of military aid. Compounding the growing US-Pakistan divide is the opportunism shown by China, which has increased its cooperation with its “all-weather friend”, with the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the development of the warm-water deep commercial seaport in Gwadar. The Pakistani prime minister recently inaugurated the Economic Free Zone at Gwadar Port which is reported to be operated by the China Overseas Port Holding Company.

In view of this deepening China-Pakistan axis, the US manichaean rendering is beginning to germinate amongst the top-brass of India’s armed forces. For instance, Business Insider recently reported India’s Naval Chief Admiral Sunil Lamba’s call to acquire additional anti-submarine warfare equipped P-8 Poseidon aircraft from the US. This was reported to be aimed at deterring Chinese submarine activity that had been sighted “four times every three months.” Further, Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat recently proclaimed the time to be right for India to “shift focus” from its border with Pakistan to “its northern border” with China. Lastly, Indian Air Force Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa recently hosted the Chief of US Air Force General David L. Goldfein for talks on the importance of asserting “a rules-based order” in the “critical sea lanes” of the Indo-Pacific. The meeting was reported to have assumed greater “significance” owing to General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, currently serving as Air Force Commander at PACOM, also participating in it.

In summation, the Trump National Security Strategy should not be seen as a major departure from the past, as the assertion of a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” playing out in the Indo-Pacific bears seminal resemblance to the manichaean rendering of the Kennedy-esque conception of a “free” India and “Red” China. However, with the Trump administration’s alienation of Pakistan, coupled with Beijing’s opportunistic courtship of Islamabad into its sphere of influence, the Indian armed forces increasingly seem to be acclimatising to American manichaeism.


This essay originally appeared in Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.

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