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    South Asia
 
     May 17, 2011
 

 

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 decades.

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 faster-growing Beijing.

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 China.

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 power rankings.

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 developing countries?"

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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