Balancing Act: The China-India-U.S. Triangle

Addressing a security conference in India in March 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, noted “with admiration India’s peaceful resolution of disputes with neighbors in the waters of the Indian Ocean,” while criticizing China for seeking “to bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion.” It was more than a straw in the wind. Harris also called on India to join the United States, Japan, and Australia to deal with common security challenges in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad). Although each values its economic ties with China, Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, and New Delhi, all share a common interest in ensuring that the Indo-Pacific region is not dominated by China and the overall balance of power remains favorable to the liberal democracies.

Many believe that Beijing would have been far less aggressive in its “island building” and the other challenges to the status quo in the Pacific norms if the Quad had already been in place. But Harris called for the new initiative in the spirit of better late than never. With media reporting the first-ever trilateral naval exercise planned by the U.S., Indian, and Japanese navies in the South China Sea, the Admiral hoped that in the not too distant future, American and Indian navy vessels steaming together will become “a common and welcome sight” throughout Indo-Asia-Pacific waters. Not surprisingly, China reacted fast and furiously to the prospect of a more robust Indo-U.S. entente, warning both to stand back.


The Origins of the Triangle

It was in 1971 that President Richard Nixon’s courting of Mao’s China amid the looming India–Pakistan war of December 1971 pushed the “non-aligned” India firmly into the Soviet camp. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s attempts to establish a U.S.–China condominium to “cap, freeze and roll back” India’s nuclear program made New Delhi go nuclear and ballistic. Historically, the state of the Sino-U.S. relationship has always heavily influenced India’s foreign policy orientation.

The central appeal of the change proposed in the Quad initiative is that over the years of sometimes chilly relations with the United States, India is the only Asian power that has been committed to balancing China since 1962, after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Tibet and converted the traditional Indo-Tibetan frontier into the disputed Sino-Indian boundary. Today, in one of those slow motion realignments that enliven history, India’s traditional security concerns—Pakistan (in the form of militant Islam) and China (irredentism and revisionism)—have finally become Washington’s immediate and long-term security concerns as well. The threat of terrorism and the need to contain Chinese regional muscularity, along with growing economic synergy in the high-tech sector, transformed U.S. ties with India. So, in 2002, three decades after Nixon’s opening with China led “non-aligned” India to ally with the USSR and eventually go nuclear, President George W. Bush let India’s Premier A. B. Vajpayee know that the times were changing: “A strong India can help provide the balance of power in the entire Asian region.” India’s economic rise was seen as serving Washington’s long-term interests by ensuring that there would be countervailing powers in Asia—China, Japan, and India—able to prevent the domination of the region by any one power.

The Bush administration lifted decades-old sanctions against India imposed over its nuclear weapons program and concluded defense (2005) and nuclear (2008) cooperation agreements. His successor, President Barack Obama described the U.S.–India relationship as the “indispensable partnership of the 21st century,” while his Secretary of Defense called “India the linchpin of the US rebalance strategy.” President Obama’s talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his 2015 India visit revealed that American and Indian views of China’s challenge to the global order are now “strikingly similar.”


Powers Shifts: Changing Triangular Dynamics

Power shifts have brought into sharp focus the significance of the U.S.–China–India triangular relationship in the early twenty-first century. As China reaches out for trade, investment, resources, markets, and bases, Beijing is also using its burgeoning military-industrial complex to court, arm, and aid its friends and allies to protect its overseas interests, assets, and nationals. The fact that countries with resources, markets, and strategically located naval bases usually tend to be the largest recipients of Chinese largesse is indicative of Beijing’s search for potential allies. Beijing’s long-term strategy is to re-establish its dominance in Asia and regain territories it claims as its own. Post-2008 global financial crisis, China has turned up the volume, transitioning from “hide and bide” to “seize and lead.” Rhetoric aside, Beijing’s “New Type of Great Power Relations” concept seeks U.S. recognition of China’s primacy in Asia in a geopolitical deal that limits Washington’s regional role and presence, relegates traditional U.S. allies (especially Japan) to the sidelines, and settles disputes on China’s terms.

Short of a major economic meltdown, China’s ability to project power is estimated to grow rapidly between now and 2025. China plans to build a blue-water navy that will include four aircraft carriers, the world’s largest submarine fleet, and missile capability that would deny the U.S. navy the ability to operate inside the “first island chain” (from southern Japan through Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea) and effectively counter regional competitors, Japan and India. Indeed, despite regular “feel-good” high-level summits and numerous “rules of the road” agreements, air and naval encounters between the U.S. and Chinese surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and vessels will continue because these are messages from Beijing that the days of the Pacific Ocean as an “American lake” are now over. And now, this message is meant for Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi, Manila, Jakarta, Canberra, and New Delhi, too. Beijing sees the U.S. military alliances and forward presence as the biggest hurdle in inducing Asians to accommodate and acquiesce to Chinese power. Chinese strategic thinkers argue that some resistance to China’s rise is to be expected, but they believe resistance will give way to accommodation followed by reconciliation on China’s terms—sooner rather than later. This increases the pressure on convincing neighboring countries that the overall balance of power has shifted in Beijing’s favor and their long-term interests lie in cutting bilateral deals with China instead of yearning for Uncle Sam.

While Chinese leaders and diplomats still chant the mantra of “peaceful rise,” their body language makes it clear that they expect everyone to get out of their way. China is as determined to change the U.S.-led liberal international order as the United States seeks to preserve it. President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt One Road” strategy seeks to secure China’s continental and maritime interests by simultaneously dominating the Eurasian Heartland and exploiting natural resources for future economic growth and naval development. The South China Sea, through which more than $5.3 trillion of maritime trade passes each year, is now the arena of a geopolitical poker game that will determine whether the regional future is a Pax Sinica or Pax Americana. The long-term growth of Chinese supremacy in Asia is also contingent on having weaker and pliant states on China’s periphery. These goals invariably pit China not only against the United States and Japan, but also against India.

But just as China will not play second fiddle to the United States, India will not play second fiddle to China. Because India was never part of the Sinic world order, but a civilization-empire in and of itself, it remains genetically ill-disposed to compliantly sliding into China’s orbit. In its view, China has risen, India is still rising. At present, China’s economy and defense budget are four to five times larger than India’s. By 2025, India is projected to displace China as the world’s most populous country with a growing economy. Both want the same things at the same time on the same continent and its adjoining maritime domain. They are also two fierce competitors that according to former Chinese ambassador Zhang Yan, have now entered a period of “Cold Peace.” Just as the Chinese view the United States as a hegemonic power and accuse Washington of pursuing a policy of containment, Indians see China as an expansionist and hegemonic power and accuse Beijing of using every opportunity to contain India while publicly professing support for friendly ties. Despite growing economic ties, Beijing’s conflicts with India (over the unresolved border, Tibet, Pakistan, naval, nuclear, and geopolitical rivalries) are deep-seated. Through a combination of trade, aid, resource extraction, and infrastructure development, arms sales, and bases, Beijing is seeking to extend its strategic perimeter in southern Asia and the Indian Ocean region. China’s “Malacca paranoia” is matched by India’s “Hormuz dilemma.” If China’s navy is going south, India’s navy is going east. At a minimum, New Delhi wants to use its strategic ties with Washington to bolster India’s position in its dealings with China and in mitigating the dangers posed by its old adversary, Pakistan.

Apprehension about China has buried New Delhi’s Cold War-era opposition to U.S. forward presence, now viewed as “invaluable in balancing China’s power and outreach.” For its part, Washington strategy documents talk of India’s positive role as a “net security provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” Simply by being itself—democratic, secular, powerful, prosperous, and successful—India frustrates China’s attempts to establish a Sino-centric regional order. While Washington cultivates India as a rising Asian power, Beijing has deep mistrust of India’s strategic ambitions, seeing its southern rival as a potential peer competitor that must be contained. As the Sino-American security competition increases, India slides into the geopolitical sweet spot of a “swing state” earlier occupied by China during the old Cold War when it joined the United States to balance against the USSR.

Significantly, Narendra Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister who has not uttered the “N” word—“non-alignment”—even once since coming to power in 2014. A “Modified India” has moved away from this Nehruvian notion to skillfully play the balance of power game as a “leading power.” Because of unresolved territorial disputes, China’s role as the largest arms supplier to India’s neighbors, and patrols by Chinese nuclear submarines in the Bay of Bengal, which India considers its strategic backyard, “non-alignment” is no longer an option. In their high-level joint statements, both the United States and India have repeatedly declared their support for freedom of navigation and overflight, signaling that the Modi government is not shy about explicitly aligning U.S. and Indian strategic aims in the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s expansionist moves.

India now seeks American economic and technological assistance to give momentum to its rise as a major power and its new role in maintaining maritime preeminence over the Indian Ocean region. Most of the $14 billion worth weapons and technology (C-130Js, C-17s, light howitzer artillery, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, jet engine, and aircraft carrier technologies) that India has purchased from the United States over the last decade directly augments its capabilities vis-à-vis China on the Himalayan border and in the Indian Ocean. The Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) concluded in 2012 aims to transition the defense transactions from a buyer–seller operation to a co-development and co-producer model. The conclusion of Logistics Support Agreement would enhance operational capability and interoperability allowing aircraft and ships to land and make port calls, for example, in the Andaman Islands in the future.


Russia, Japan, and Southeast Asia

Although Moscow still remains India’s major partner in strategically sensitive technology projects ranging from missiles, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines to fighter aircraft, stronger U.S.–India strategic ties could fray old Russia–India bonds. Russia and India no longer see eye to eye on China. Moscow has downgraded New Delhi from an “exclusive” to a “preferred” partner, and now sells its most advanced weapons to China and Pakistan. As a result, Chinese–Russian strategic and energy ties today are far more substantive than Russian–Indian ties. Russia and China increasingly coordinate their stance on global issues and routinely conduct joint military exercises. Much to India’s chagrin, Moscow now plays second fiddle to China in Beijing-backed multilateral institutions that promote China’s interests and projects (e.g., the Silk Road Economic Belt). For New Delhi, the diplomatic challenge lies in balancing India’s interests between the Russia–India–China continental trilateral and the U.S.–Japan–India maritime trilateral.

With Russia’s future uncertain, Prime Minister Modi wants Japan to replace Moscow as India’s preferred security partner in Asia in the twenty-first century. Both India and Japan have unsettled territorial disputes with China that erupt occasionally. Neither is in a position to deal with an increasingly aggressive China alone. Given their geographical location southwest and northeast of China and the impact of Chinese power and ambitions on them, India and Japan are well placed to ensure power equilibrium and safeguard vital sea lanes. India is now the largest recipient of Japan’s overseas development assistance. Tokyo is actively participating in “Make-in-India” manufacturing programs as India is seeking technology to boost its defense-industrial base. Japan’s promise of $35 billion in investment in railroads and industrial corridors, as well as a possible deal for amphibious aircraft add ballast to a partnership based on democratic values and market economy. Both are coordinating to build East–West connectivity linking South Asia with Southeast Asia to counter China-financed North–South railroad projects. Conceivably, India and Japan could cut a deal in not too distant future on granting privileged access to each other’s ports (e.g., Andamans and Okinawa) for forward deployment of their respective military assets in the Pacific and Indian oceans to safeguard freedom of the Global Commons.

In addition, “Modified India” has reached out to neighbors but also to far-away countries in the shadow of Beijing’s increasingly expansive territorial ambitions, most notably beleaguered Vietnam and the Philippines. Under its “Look East” (now revamped as “Act East”) policy that dovetails with the “U.S. rebalance” and Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace,” India is placing itself at the center of regional relationships with Mongolia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, and Thailand as part of a security architecture that would balance a rising China. Ignoring Beijing’s warnings, India has publicly supported Vietnam and Philippines, in particular in their disputes with Beijing, and continues to cooperate with Hanoi on hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea.


Discord over Accord

But although U.S.–India relations have come a long way, there are still residual differences and doubts. New Delhi has long regarded U.S.–Pakistani military ties as sustaining Beijing’s strategy to keep India off balance. Disputes over trade barriers and intellectual property, H1Bvisas, and market access hold back business ties. (The United States does about $100 billion in trade with India a year, a fraction of the $560 billion it does with China.) Mitigating the effects of disagreement on such issues to promote bilateral cooperation has not been easy. Moreover, Washington is used to relationships where it has the dominant voice. But India’s historic quest for strategic autonomy, its self-identity as a great civilization, and great power ambitions of its own mean that it will not be the kind of junior partner the United States cultivated during the Cold War. Unlike Britain, Germany, and Japan in the 1950s, India is a rising, not receding, great power.

New Delhi would prefer to avoid any formal alignment with Washington partly because of concern that such an alignment will prompt the Chinese to tighten their embrace of India’s smaller neighbors, which, in turn, will exacerbate India’s security dilemma. “In economy, politics and security,” an article in Global Times recently noted, “China is far more capable of making trouble for India than the reverse.” Reacting to the proposal to form an informal strategic quadrangle with Japan, Australia, India, and the United States, Shen Dingli, an influential Chinese analyst, told the New York Times a few weeks ago that India would not join such a network for fear of Chinese retaliation: “China actually has many ways to hurt India. China could send an aircraft carrier to the Gwadar port in Pakistan. China had turned down the Pakistan offer to have military stationed in the country. If India forces China to do that, of course we can put a navy at your doorstep.”

Convinced that the U.S.–India security relationship is largely directed against China, Beijing is simultaneously wooing and coercing India to prevent Washington and New Delhi from coming too close for China’s comfort. During President Xi Jinping’s India visit in 2015, China promised $20 billion worth of investments and more under its Silk Road fund over five years.

And there also remains in New Delhi an undercurrent of suspicion that Washington is a fickle and not-so-reliable partner and that U.S. priorities and policies vis-à-vis China might change in the future to the detriment of India’s national interests. Indian strategists often point out that the United States and China were allies before and during the Second World War and in the second phase of the Cold War from 1971 to 1989. Beijing has played on this fear. Claiming that “China is familiar with the US mentality,” Liu Di recently expressed confidence that Washington would eventually “make concessions to China on the South China Sea issue, putting Japan [and others] out of business.”

The worst-case scenario from India’s perspective is the emergence of U.S.–China condominium in which China remains hostile to India and the United States is unavailable as a balancing power. The Obama administration’s silence on the Sino-Indian border dispute as Beijing ratcheted up tensions in 2008–2009 and his administration’s cancellation of a joint army drill in Arunachal state for fear of antagonizing China still rankles India’s policymakers. Indians worry that Washington may not come to India’s rescue in times of crisis should a combination of disputes—related to Tibet, Pakistan, disputed Himalayan borders, and energy exploration in the South China Sea—snowball into an armed confrontation. Ruling out India’s participation in joint patrols with the United States (but not joint naval exercises) in the South China Sea, former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal said that “China’s land threat to India and the strengthening of the China-Pakistan axis are much more serious for us than its maritime claims.”

On the U.S. side, many believe that India’s claim to global power is at this point tenuous and over-hyped. The material basis of Indian power is neither strong nor secure due to successive governments’ dismal failure to undertake drastic economic reforms in land, labor, taxation, and capital. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, no Indian leader has traveled the length and breadth of the country to sell the gospel of modernization, industrialization, and urbanization. Unless India can sustain a high economic growth of 7 to 9 percent for a decade or two, it cannot match China’s economic clout nor fulfill the role of a regional security provider. Seeing India as both unable and unwilling to share the burden of managing the global commons and acknowledging that the U.S. share of global economic output is declining, some American policymakers want Washington to cut its losses and cut a deal with Beijing for shared hegemony. They believe that an alignment with India would present far more costs and risks to the United States than benefits. And that a strategic alignment would imply an American commitment to Indian security against China and Pakistan that Washington would not be able to fulfill. Just as India’s policy toward China cannot be reduced to a single issue or the pursuit of a single objective, U.S. policies toward both China and India require flexible, nuanced, and differentiated strategies.


Alternative Futures—2030

China’s and India’s futures depend largely on economic growth, political unity, and the future evolution of Taiwan and Pakistan. A mix of shared economic interests, on one hand, and competitive and conflicting strategic interests, on the other hand, suggests a variety of alternative geopolitical futures with significant implications of each for the United States in 2030.

A possible but unlikely future would be one in which the United States pulled back strategically from Asia as China rose to global leadership. More plausible is that buoyed by technological breakthrough in 3D manufacturing and the vast shale gas reserves, future economic growth could come from the United States as Chinese economy undergoes a serious downturn. Far from reducing its footprint or walking away from the Asia-Pacific region, Washington would continue to practice “power-balancing” strategy as it has vital economic and strategic interests at stake in the region. Faced with an aggressive China, Asia’s major maritime and democratic powers—Japan, Australia, and India—will work in a more synchronized manner in a quadrilateral grouping with the United States. They will be backed by middle powers (South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia) which are increasingly voicing their concerns about Chinese maritime behavior. They will closely cooperate with each other to promote and defend a rules-based order that does not advantage big and powerful nations at the expense of small and weak states. Over time, various bilateral, trilateral (e.g., Japan–Vietnam–the Philippines, the United States–Japan–India, Australia–Indonesia–India, India–Japan–Vietnam), and informal multilateral efforts to constrain China could coalesce into a maritime coalition or the “Indo-Pacific Maritime Partnership” (i.e., an “Asian NATO” by another name).

Since India remains the weakest link in the emerging coalition, its domestic policies and external orientation will be a key determinant in how effective this new diplomatic relationship becomes. In the “Modi Restoration” scenario, India is able to sustain a high growth rate of 8% for a decade or more that ushers in industrialization and urbanization. Japan and the West develop a growing stake in continued Indian economic reforms and success as they contribute to global growth and maintain a favorable balance of power in Asia. As the world’s most populous country with a powerful military, a confident India plays the role of a “leading power” alongside the United States, China, and Japan. Militarily, India tilts toward the United States and Japan but maintains strong economic relations with China.

However, if India continues to “muddle through” with halfhearted economic reforms producing a low growth rate of 4 to 5 percent with high unemployment, insurgencies, and fractured politics, the power gap with China will widen, and India will enter a period of greater strategic vulnerability. In the worst case scenario, a sequence of catastrophes (e.g., a two-front war or a nuclear conflict, another partition caused by the growing Muslim population, or the success of jihadi and Maoist terrorism in unraveling the Indian Union) weakens India severely, making Indian leaders much more deferential in their dealings with China.

Or, under another extreme but not impossible scenario, if the U.S. economy goes into free fall, culminating in the end of the U.S. forward military presence in the Pacific, and if Japan slides into China’s orbit following the return of Taiwan to China’s fold, in that event, New Delhi’s faith in the U.S.–Japanese alliance as a heat shield for India’s rise would evaporate. Without great power backing and left to fend for itself on multiple fronts, New Delhi would want to steer clear of any aggravation or even competition with Beijing. An isolated India—having fallen so far behind China in relative power terms—would decide to bandwagon with, rather than balance against, the superpower on its doorstep. Beijing would not then need to worry about the “India challenge” any longer. In short, “the Modi Restoration” would be the best-case scenario for Washington but a “weak and divided India” would be the best case scenario for Beijing.



The U.S.–China–India triangular relationship is a strategic Rubik’s Cube. All three need each other. For China, its economic relationship with the United States is vitally important as its biggest export market. For India, its ties with the United States facilitate its rise as a major power and augment its position in Asia. For its part, Washington does not want a single power to dominate the Asian continent and its adjoining waters and supports the rise of several powers, India chief among them, with the United States acting as an “engaged offshore power balancer.” For China, the United States is the principal strategic adversary; for India, it is China. India’s deterrence capabilities are China-centric, while those of China’s are U.S.-centric. The U.S. interests require it to cooperate with China on some issues and with India on others, and sometimes with both. How China and India manage their differences on their border dispute, trade imbalance, Tibet, Pakistan, regional integration, and the UN Security Council reforms will have significant implications on the United States’ place in Asia.

In the triangular power balance game, Beijing fears India’s participation in the U.S.–Japanese containment of China. Conversely, India fears a Sino-U.S. alignment that would allow Beijing to curb the growth of Indian power or lead to U.S. acknowledgment of the South Asia/Indian Ocean region as China’s sphere of influence. All three countries benefit from a degree of competition but lose if competition turns into overt rivalry and confrontation. Strained U.S.–China relations make India the “swing state” in the triangle but tense India–China relations would put the United States in a pivotal position. Whether India enters into a soft or hard alignment with the United States (and Japan) will be determined by Beijing’s willingness to accommodate India’s rise and aspirations. A major rupture in the U.S.–Chinese or Indian–Chinese relations alone will crystallize fluid relationships into rigid alignments. A strong, prosperous India would checkmate China and prolong U.S. primacy underpinned by shared values and interests. In contrast, a weaker, subdued, and isolated India would hasten the arrival of a Sino-centric regional order.

Although at present, the weakest side in the triangle, New Delhi will determine its future. Abandoning “non-alignment,” Modi’s India is weaving a web of strategic relationships to signal Beijing that India can become part of an anti-Chinese coalition should China threaten its security. In the meantime, a pro-United States, pro-Japan tilt in India’s national security strategy—in reaction to China’s power and ambitions— will be a defining characteristic of Asian geopolitics. If the Chinese dragon is seen as running rampant in lands and seas around India, a weak Indian tilt toward the United States would turn into a firm alignment against China. Should Beijing adopt a moderate foreign policy course and commit itself to multilateral efforts to resolve disputes and foster regional stability, American–Chinese and Chinese–Indian relations will improve. All Asian countries want to benefit from economic ties with China, but none want to live under the shadow of the Dragon.


Mohan Malik is a professor in Asian security at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, and is the editor of Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region  (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and author of China and India: Great Power Rivals  (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). The views expressed here are his own.

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