|Talking without the elephant
By Sreeram Chaulia
The recently concluded round of United States-China
Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington covered the
entire gamut of bilateral and global problems concerning the
world's two most formidable powers, trade, market access,
currency valuation, regional security in the Asia-Pacific,
military strategy and human rights.
In terms of the high-level attendance of American and
Chinese government and business officials as well as the
breadth of issues under the scanner, this annual dialogue
stood out as ground zero of global policymaking.
Yet, the elephant in the room of this most consequential of
all diplomatic forums was literally the elephant. There was
no seat for India at the table, even though all prognoses
indicate that India will join China and the US in a
triumvirate of the world's largest economies in the coming
The purely bilateral framing of the whole event in
Washington belied awareness that changes to contemporary
strategic relations among China, India and their traditional
third-party interlocutor - the United States - militate
towards engagement in trilateral dialogue.
The parallel rises of China and India and the global
implications of their problematic relations require
three-way dialogue channels, instead of plain bilateralism,
involving the two Asian principals and their chief global
reference point, the US.
During the presidency of George W Bush, India relied on
antagonism between the US and China for competitive
strategic advantage. In its relations with Washington, Delhi
often acted on expectations that the former favored alliance
with a democracy and remained wary of an authoritarian and
But this reading is now obsolete, as the Barack Obama
administration has softened its predecessor's approach to
China, showing a willingness to overlook human-rights
violations and crafting a bilateral re-engagement with
The US helplessly rests on Chinese shoulders to keep East
Asia's black sheep, North Korea, in check. The financial
meltdown since 2008 introduced delicate edges into China-US
interdependence, premised on extensive Chinese holdings of
US Treasury bonds. American author and economist Zachary
Karabell sees "superfusion" between the Chinese and American
economies and contends that this symbiotic union holds the
key to anchor the shaky global economy.
Since the Sino-Indian relationship had long been
mediated/buffered/wedged by favoritism on one side or the
other on the part of the US, and this trend has now changed,
vulnerabilities emerge with which India must reckon.
Dependence on US counter-balancing tactics against China is
no longer a viable option for New Delhi.
The zero sum assumptions of the Sino-US-Indian triangle are
giving way to complex three-way dynamics in which it is in
the best interests of the three countries to engage in
comprehensive strategic dialogue about major world issues.
India must prevent the dreaded "Group of 2" formation (joint
governance of the world by China and US) from materializing
and hindering its own position as a global player that is
worth consulting on all major international policies.
A trilateral strategic and economic dialogue forum will
smooth Indian brows agitated at the idea of watching as
bystanders a new bipolar world order under the co-management
of Washington and Beijing.
China too would find a regular trilateral dialogue forum
involving India and the US useful, as there are certain
issues like environmental policy and multilateral trade in
which the two Asian powers share situational common ground
that could be translated into concrete agreement in a small
group pow-wow with Washington.
For the Americans, having a standing dialogue forum with
both China and India inside the tent on subjects that are of
trilateral and international import would be a big
investment in the future. That these three states will
compete for influence globally in the years to come is
assured by virtue of their perch at the top of the global
Presently, the US is engaging with China in the annual
dialogues in acknowledgement of the latter's rise to
pre-eminence, second only to the former. But the table will
need another chair as power diffuses in the international
system. India's will and inclination will inevitably have to
be prospected by China and the US before they can
effectively implement agreements on global governance.
Not gainsaying the value of one-on-one bilaterals among all
three countries on exclusively dual affairs, a parallel
trilateral comprehensive dialogue mechanism on
non-excludable global affairs is the need of the hour.
Strains of Sino-Indian rivalry and mistrust color the grand
theme of a power transition from "West" to "East", but they
offer a subscript of the broader picture of multipolarity
that needs to be guided through triangular exchange of views
on security as well as economic matters.
The decline of Europe and the continued dynamism of Asia
mean that a new "Congress of Vienna"-style grand diplomatic
forum among the US and Asia's two greatest powers will be
necessary to prevent misunderstandings that could end up
stoking armed conflicts.
In the post-Napoleonic era, French and Austrian statesmen
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand and Prince Klemens von
Metternich devised the classic formula of a permanent
consultative arrangement among the six great powers of
Europe to avoid yet another catastrophic war.
This clubby model of the leading lights of the international
system coming together to share their respective strategic
visions and overseeing tense flashpoints was replicated at
the end of World War II, when the permanent five were given
membership of the United Nations Security Council.
A regularized US-China-India trilateral dialogue institution
need not wait until a major outbreak of hostilities between
two or all three players. It could be a smart piece of
pre-emptive institutional engineering that reflects current
and future power realities and accepts that international
policymaking needs the combined efforts of the three powers,
which have enough capabilities of wrecking world peace if
they are not socialized through trilateral discourse.
The agenda of the proposed trilateral dialogue forum should
include big-ticket universal questions such as "Is there a
clash in the blueprints of China, India and the US about the
power configuration of the world they desire by 2030?"; "Can
China, India and the US find concrete means of cooperation
while operating in global south countries?"; "Is there a
likelihood of China and India contemplating establishment of
military bases in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America
where they have considerable economic interests?"; "What is
distinct about China and India that will prevent them from
acting as neo-colonial powers in poorer and politically less
powerful parts of the global south?"; "Is there a protocol
of information exchange or of broad consensus of do's and
don'ts for China, India and the US while their corporations,
navies and foreign missions vie for the pie in energy
supplying countries?"; and "What assurances will be needed
to dissuade the US from deploying military and economic
instruments to thwart Chinese and Indian inroads into poorer
Power transitions in the international system that involve
the rise of new great powers and the concomitant decline of
pre-existing great powers have occasioned wars because of
the absence of consultative and transparent dialogue forums.
Comprehensive Sino-Indian dialogue that has room for an
active role play by the United States holds out hope that
the transition this time will be less costly. When rising
and declining powers talk and learn "horizontally" about
trespass and mutual respect in far-flung regions,
multipolarity and its enhanced interaction opportunities can
usher in a stable world order.
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean at the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India,
and the author of the newly published book,
International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power,
Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I B Tauris).
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