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China a prime driver of US-India relations, says Indian-American scholar

Indian American scholar Tanvi Madan has said that it is almost a truth almost universally acknowledged that China drives and shapes US-India relations. Indeed, broad convergence on China has been a key driver of US-India relations for the last two decades.

New Delhi Updated on: February 19, 2020 9:08 IST
China, India US relations

China drives and shapes India-US relations, says Indian-American scholar

China is one of the prime drivers of relationship between India and the United States – the two largest democracies of the world – not only in the last two decades but since India's independence, a top Indian-American scholar has said in her latest book.

"Today, it is almost a truth almost universally acknowledged that China drives and shapes US-India relations. Indeed, broad convergence on China has been a key driver of US-India relations for the last two decades across US administrations and across Indian governments," Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at Foreign Policy and the director of India Project at the Brookings Institute told a Washington audience.

China's influence on US-India relations?

In her latest book “Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations During the Cold War”, she argues that China's influence on the US-India relationship is neither a recent nor a momentary phenomenon.

Drawing on archival documents from India and the US, Madan traces how American and Indian perceptions of, and policy toward, China significantly shaped US-India relations during the Cold War.

China's role in shaping US-India relationship not a recent phenomenon 

“China's role in shaping the US-India relationship was not just a recent phenomenon restricted to kind of the last few decades. Indeed, what I found and this book lays out was that China's influence went back the early years of Indian independence," Madan said during a discussion on her new book.

Through extensive archival research in India and in the US, Madan disentangles how American and Indian perceptions of and policy toward China shaped the US-Indian relationship throughout the Cold War, said Suzanne Maloney, interim vice president and director, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institute.

The book that starts post-independence refers to the first US visit by India's first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1949. “When he came in 1949, he received a warm welcome on his arrival. President Truman, indeed, went to the airport to receive him taking along three cabinet members and an honor guard. You had the US Congress host Nehru for a speech. Why all this fanfare behind the visit of this Indian leader,” she asked.

“A major was what had happened just before Nehru's visit to Washington. What American policymakers saw as the loss of China to communism. And this had happened just a few days before on October 1, 1949 when Mao Zedong establishes the People's Republic of China. The establishment in the US now saw in that context a democratic India as the hope of Asia and believed it could serve as a counterbalance and contrast to Soviet backed communist China,” Madan said.

“But during the course of this kind of visit that Nehru takes with much fanfare, it became quite clear that India did not share the same view of or the same approach to China as the US did. And so, instead of convergence in China pushing the US and India together, over the next few years what you really see in the US-India partnership and between the two countries is divergence on the subject of China,” she added.

“They've disagreed about a number of different things. Whether to recognize the People's Republic of China or not. What to do about the Chinese takeover of Tibet. China's role in the Korean War and the reasons for its intervention in that war. China's role in Southeast Asia. They also disagreed about the approach to take to China,” she said.

According to Madan, China has adverse impact on US-India relations. “Now just in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations but also on Capitol Hill where these differences on China negatively affected decisions to aid India which needed aid at that time. And this, in turn, caused resentment in India that thought the US was holding back because of these differences on China,” she said.

But things changed late 50s. The US and India didn't just agree on a perception of China now. They also agree on what to do about this threat.

“Primarily, in their minds, that meant a partnership with each other. Now this came, this agreement on what to do about it came with a lot of American economic assistant to India which is better known. But also, military assistance that eventually culminates and, of course, US direct assistance during the 1962 China-India war,” she said.

Historical baggage, she said, to this day, affects and shapes how the two countries see each other in the context of a rising China. “To give you one example, you cannot understand Indian concerns about a G-2 or a US-China condominium without understanding India's sense that in 1971, essentially overnight, much like the Japanese called it Nixon shock. India had to face going from having a US partnership against China to the prospect of a US-China-Pakistan, facing a US-China-Pakistan partnership against it,” Madan said.

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