Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Delhi after leading the American delegation in the latest round of the US-China Economic and Strategic Dialogue held in Beijing on May 3-4, an exercise that usually involves the largest American delegation of officials and experts in a bilateral interaction America is involved in. As a strategic partner of India, the United States likes to keep Delhi informed about whatever transpires in these talks. The last time Hillary Clinton was here she had urged India to not merely “look east, but act east”. Since then India has gained missile teeth. Anticipating the successful test-firing of the Agni-V intermediate range ballistic missile able to hit any point in China, External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna’s response to a Chinese warning against India collaborating with Vietnam to explore for offshore oil was, for a change, uncharacteristically muscular. “The South China Sea is not China’s Sea”, said Krishna, surprising just about everybody including, no doubt, Beijing that had grown used to the usual MEA snivelling. Beijing may also have noted that these fighting words echoed a Chinese Admiral’s challenge from over a decade back that “the Indian Ocean was not India’s Ocean”.
China’s intentions are uncertain and there is fear of the dragon lashing out against nations on its periphery for any of a host of reasons – economic slowdown, internal transfer of power problems, evidence of high-level destabilizing corruption, a restive hinterland, and the Peoples Liberation Army gearing up for assertive action to safeguard sea territory claimed by China beyond what’s permitted under the UN Law of the Seas. The states on the Chinese rim, therefore, seek assurance that in the worst case they won’t be overwhelmed. Hence, their search for overarching security however and from whomsoever they can obtain it.
The United States is the obvious Pacific power to provide it, except ten years of unproductive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have enervated the American spirit, emptied the US Treasury – these two conflicts costing over a trillion dollars to-date, and sapped the will to take on the coming superpower, China. Despite reorienting its attitude and military wherewithal China-wards as demanded by the recently announced “pivot to Asia” policy by the Obama Administration, the fact is the United States sees itself more as an offshore balancer, relying on countries engaged in territorial disputes with China to put in the main effort. Hence, Washington’s desire that India undertake the job of “net security provider” to littoral Asian countries.
But this is only a third of the main story. The United States has been so busy pushing free market nostrums, it did not notice China’s state-capitalist system creeping up as the prime beneficiary, nor is it quite reconciled to becoming a debtor country, one that relies on the Chinese government to continue buying US Treasury Bills and subsidizing the life style the American people have got accustomed to. Much of this “spend beyond your means” lifestyle involves buying cheap Chinese products of all kinds produced at low cost because of a system of state subsidies, and paying for such purchases with credit from China. This is no bad condition for Beijing to be in. China is like the supplier who channels drugs to an addict to keep him hooked. Except, Beijing is beginning to worry, mindful of that old adage – “if someone owes me five hundred dollars it is his problem; if he owes me $500 billion, it is my problem”, and is diversifying its investments to Central and Eastern Europe and the European Union countries. Even so, China and the United States are entwined in an economic embrace that neither country can easily pull out of. And, short of a direct military confrontation, this embrace will not be disturbed. That’s the reason why Washington cannot afford militarily to be very proactive in Asia.
Therefore, the US has floated two trilateral groupings as economic and military counterbalancing arrangements and system stabilizers – the US, China, India economic sub-set and the US, Japan, India military subset. But this is as much a double hedge strategy for America, as it is for China, and for India and Japan as well, considering Japan is the largest investor in China after Taiwan, and China is now India’s biggest trading partner. Russia is also in this strategic mix, keeping on the right side of China with joint naval exercises and military technology sales but of the second grade while transferring first-rate military goods to India to beef up the Indian military posture. Washington too wants the Indian armed forces to qualitatively upgrade and bulk up while it is strengthening the military alliance relationship with Japan. Seeking to eliminate the local friction created by the US military presence in Okinawa, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihoko Noda met with President Barack Obama on April 30 to seek redeployment of some 9,000 US troops to Guam.
Even so, that essentially leaves countries that most seriously apprehend territorial conflicts in the future with China, namely, India, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines and Russia to each fend for itself – the reason why all of them are going in for the same double-hedge strategy of keeping economic ties with China in tact but also the appearance of a front that could firm up militarily in case Beijing acts up. Manila has gone to the extent of invoking the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the United States and Hanoi, likewise, is sidling up to Washington. This is a dicey game all-round — conveying an image of Asia-Pacific solidarity without actually having it in substance, and leaves these countries exposed, with only the United States enjoying the margin of conventional and nuclear military advantage over the Peoples Liberation Army and its naval and air force arms.
Over-aware of its own limitations and not motivated to correct the military imbalance by building up adequate strategic and conventional capability to deter China, India, which has always been a free-rider on security afforded Asian states by the dominating US military presence in Asia, has the most to lose from its own and other countries’ double-hedging.
[Published in’the ‘New Indian Express’, Friday, May 4, 2012, at http://expressbuzz.com/opinion/op-ed/perils-of-double-hedging/388198.html ]