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Containing China?

An Indo-American civilian nuclear cooperation accord recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to sail through the Senate next month. The agreement consolidates a growing U.S.-Indian friendship that's seen by many analysts as part of an alliance to contain China's growing economic and military power.

India has often been described as America's "natural ally." The term was coined by former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill in 2001 and has been used to underscore the democratic values and national interests the two nations share.

But Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a research and public policy group in Oakland, California, says that hasn't always been the case.

"Traditionally, India has not been a natural ally to the U.S. because, during the Cold War, while India wasn't formally allied with the Soviet Union, it always tilted toward the Soviet Union and the United States toward Pakistan," says Eland. "Toward the end of the Cold War, it [i.e., India] tilted toward China. Now, of course, we do have - - I wouldn't say a formal alliance - - but definitely a blooming friendship between India and the United States, and the country that's on the other side of that is China. So this is being done for reasons of containing China."

A Ring Around China

According to Eland, India is the biggest player in containing China - - a strategy, he says, that also includes Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Australia and Russia. Washington, he argues, worries that China's rapidly growing economy could pose a problem in the future.

California-based analyst Conn Hallinan with Foreign Policy in Focus, a research and policy analysis organization, argues that in order to add India to the list of containing states, Washington has been willing to accommodate India's civilian nuclear energy needs and its interests regarding Pakistan, in particular.

"The Indians want to take Pakistan off the board as a potential adversary. I think the U.S. is willing to give the Indians free reign to do that because they need them as part of this ring they're building around China, which runs all the way from Japan into South Asia, then into Central Asia," says Hallinan.

Close U.S.-India Ties Overdue

But some analysts disagree with this assessment, saying that fostering a closer relationship between that the United States and India is long overdue, given that the two nations share common interests, and similar concerns and policies over potential economic and military threats from China.

To that end, Harvard University's Xenia Dormandy, Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says both countries prefer an "engage and hedge" policy toward Beijing to encourage it to reform and democratize. This is why she dismisses the notion that India is being recruited to counterbalance China.

"India has absolutely no interest whatsoever in being a tool or a pawn for the U.S. in resisting China", says Dormandy. "Such a policy is one, not true, and two, even if it were, it would be an unsuccessful one. I don't think that's the U.S. approach at all."

Washington, Dormandy says, is wary of Beijing and would rather create a favorable balance of power in Asia by strengthening India.

"[The U.S. wants to bolster] a country, economically powerful and growing with a large population, [one] that's a democracy in Asia and continues to develop in the way that it is doing [so it] will act as a counterbalance, a second axis within Asia," says Dormandy. "A lot of small Asian countries applaud India's more active foreign policy within the region. So having another country that is increasingly powerful in Asia is a good thing, but it is not as a counter to China."

Economic Ties That Bind

In an era of globalization, a country like the United States can pursue friendly relations with both India and its rival Pakistan, and India can nurture a friendship with the United States while courting China.

A situation like this, says Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute, may also produce unintended results.

"India could end up being like South Korea vis-à-vis North Korea in that the U.S. would like to take a harder line position. But for so many links of culture, economics, etc., with the North, the South Koreans keep taking a softer position," says Eland. "So it could be that, in the future, India and China will have a rapprochement, which will fly in the face of any hard line containment policy."

And today, some experts argue that economic ties are much stronger than political considerations as a basis for friendship among nations.

That is why author Thomas Barnett, who served as a strategic planner in the U.S. Defense Department between 2001 and 2003, says it is unrealistic to consider India a viable long-term counterweight to China.

"The Chinese-India relationship is going to resemble 15-20 years from now the same sort of centerpiece position that the French-German relationship represents in the European Union," says Barnett. "So the notion of getting India to choose the United States over China is passé. The supposition that somehow we're going to get India to do things against China over time are just optimistic and a bit naïve."

That mindset, says Barnett, is a relic of the Cold War that will give way within a decade to a new school of American strategic thought. Just as globalization has enabled India and China to realize their collective economic power in world markets, Thomas Barnett predicts that America will inch closer in its strategic outlook toward India and China and toward countries like Russia and Brazil than toward its traditional European allies or Japan. He calls it "a weird historical shift."

"China was the representation of a trigger to the notion of the domino theory [i.e., the country that would start the communist domino effect] in the 1960s when so many people went communist and that was going to trigger a big tidal wave of communism. That was part of the larger strategic rational for our involvement in Vietnam. Now we face the exact opposite," says Barnett. "China has become so market-oriented, so capitalistic that [it is] turning other countries in Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos [into capitalists.] The very same countries we worried about in the 1960s are becoming more capitalistic and market-oriented out of the fear that China's shift is going to leave them behind."

Whether New Delhi is a natural ally of Washington or a deterrent to Beijing, some observers say that, based on the size of its economy and population, its military capabilities and soft power, India is poised to become China's most potent competitor in Southeast Asia.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.