China and India, two long-time Asian rivals, are working to improve their relations. Would they ever collaborate against the United States? Scholars at a recent Washington conference say the Bush administration ought to be paying more attention to that possibility.
China and India, both regarded as rising Asian powers, are trying to improve their relations through diplomatic visits, new direct commercial flights, and anti-terrorism cooperation. But this effort at friendship is new and fragile.
The two countries fought a brief border war in 1962, and the issue remains unresolved with each side still claiming some of the other's territory. During Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's recent trip to Beijing, the two sides announced they will move forward with negotiations on the border dispute. Tension between Beijing and Delhi is heightened by China's strong military support for India's rival, Pakistan.
But over the last decade, China has been trying to be more even-handed in South Asia. Later this year, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is scheduled to visit China. Sino-Indian economic cooperation is increasing, and India is seeking China's help in combatting regional terrorism.
Some analysts say India is turning to China because it is worried the United States is not doing enough to press Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to halt what Delhi calls "cross-border terrorism." Francine Frankel is an India scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I think India is becoming wary of what the United States actually will deliver with respect to Pakistan," she said. "They are not quite sure any longer that they can trust the United States to keep their interests at a priority level, with respect to terminating cross border terrorism and forcing Musharraf to do it."
Professor Frankel, speaking at the annual Association for Asian Studies conference this month in Washington, noted that the United States was looking to India as a useful partner and a hedge against the emerging power presented by China. Former President Bill Clinton visited India and, at the start of the Bush administration, senior U.S. officials made further overtures to India.
But Professor Frankel says the terrorist attacks of September 11 changed that. She says now American efforts to improve ties with Delhi take a back seat to relations with Pakistan and President Musharraf.
James Clad, of Georgetown University, agrees. Also speaking at the Asian Studies conference, Professor Clad said India displayed what he calls "irrational exuberance" at the attention it was getting from the United States before September 11.
"They thought they had in place, as they do, a set of senior officials in this administration who are very attentive to the potential of India," he said. "...I think the Indians got it wrong in their initial reaction to things. They expected too much and they were told privately in the three weeks after the terrorist attacks that they really had just better cease being so excited at least in front of the microphone about the potential."
Mr. Clad, who is soon to take a senior position in the U.S. Agency for International Development, says the United States needs to be careful, though. He says American policymakers should not assume that India will always stand with Washington in its effort to contain China.
"I think we're blinded to one particular aspect, which is that there is convergent thinking between China and India in a number of respects and this could actually become more important rather than less important in the future," he said.
Francine Frankel says if the United States pursues what she calls a unilateralist agenda and India does not feel its interests are being served, that may create conditions for Sino-Indian cooperation against what they both perceive as U.S. hegemony. She says the United States has begun acting in a way designed not only to maintain its own global primacy (dominance) but also to ensure that no other power emerges.
"We want to have the freedom of maneuver and to make our own arrangements and alliances or alignments as they become necessary," he said. "So, that is very alarming to both India and China, and this is where I see India and China can begin to think about some way of cooperating against U.S. hegemonism. ...And the United States has to be very careful that our attention is not so diverted by Afghanistan and the Middle East, and so on, that we don't realize what kinds of consequences our actions have, and that these two potentially great powers can collaborate at some point."
Professor Frankel says the United States is currently preoccupied with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and that may be pushing aside other real issues that will become more important in the next two decades, namely, the rise of China and India, especially as their economies grow.