Discussing the Fateful Triangle

The cover of Madan’s book, Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations During the Cold War. Photo credit: The Brookings Institution.

On Thursday, February 13, 2020, the Georgetown University India Initiative and the Asian Studies Program hosted author Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution and Professor Arzan Tarapore of the Georgetown Center for Security Studies to discuss Madan’s new book entitled Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations During the Cold War. Irfan Nooruddin, the director of the Georgetown India Initiative and faculty member of the Asian Studies Program, moderated the discussion.

Madan introduced the discussion, highlighting Trump’s upcoming visit to India. She said that a recurring theme of these visits is the crowd size – a detail rarely neglected. A pertinent feature to mention, however, would be the role of China in motivating these visits. Madan argued that, for decades, China has played an indirect role in driving the relations between India and the United States. In 2000, Condoleezza Rice claimed that in the face of a rising China, we need to start thinking about and hyphenating India with China, not Pakistan.

This idea, that China shapes U.S.-India relations, is not new, and it has prevailed since India’s independence from Britain. Madan’s book examines how China shapes U.S.-India relations, and she argues that, by not considering China’s role in this relationship, one misses a large part of the narrative. In her book, Madan outlines four key periods of estrangement and engagement between the United States and India to emphasize the various ways in which China has played an indirect role in driving this relationship.

The years of 1949-1956 marked a period of divergence between the U.S. and India. The countries had different perceptions of China. The U.S. saw China as a definitive threat; India was uncertain whether China posed a threat, weighing the merits of containing China with those of bringing it into the international community as a responsible stakeholder. Both countries also shared differing opinions as to whether India should be doing more to contain China.

1956-1962, by contrast, was a period of convergence for the U.S. and India. Madden points out that this period is more similar to recent years in which China is bringing both countries together. India started seeing China as an imminent and geo-political threat, and the U.S. wanted to prevent India, a democratic country, from falling under Chinese influence. For its part, China worried about U.S.-India collusion over Tibet.

The period of 1963-1968 represented a continued convergence of the two countries’ threat perceptions towards China. The U.S. saw China as a threat because of the Vietnam War. Some American politicians even viewed it as a greater threat than the Soviet Union. That said, India and the U.S. started to disagree over the approach to combatting the threat. The U.S. wanted India to spend its resources on development initiatives, but India disagreed. The U.S. also encouraged India to form a pact with Pakistan, but India foresaw a developing China-Pakistan relationship and thus resisted this pressure. Pakistan, to India, was part of the China problem, not the solution. The U.S. also wanted a more exclusive partnership, but India believed it should maintain a diversified portfolio of partners. Subsequently, the U.S. began to lose faith in India’s partnership potential, and India started to question whether the U.S. was fully committed to Asia. Towards the end of this period, both countries resultantly started to disengage.

The years of 1969-1979 symbolized the culmination of this disengagement. The U.S.-China rapprochement signified China as a potential partner vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. India was about to go to war with Pakistan over what would become Bangladesh. India became concerned that China might intervene on Pakistan’s behalf, but the United States would not intervene when India asked for support. New Delhi subsequently signed an insurance policy with the USSR and therefore avoided having to concede to American demands.

After Madan outlined the four key periods of U.S.-India relations as they pertained to China’s influence, Tarapore highlighted a key theme in U.S.-India relations that has run from the early part of the Cold War through today: the issue of whether India aligns with the U.S. Specifically, what are the conditions under which India has aligned more with the U.S., and the times when the two tend to diverge?

Madan argued that there are five conditions in place that have caused India to “tilt,” or opt, towards aligning with the U.S.: clear and present danger, India’s ability to balance China on its own, the number of potential partners available to India, the existence of a clearly preferable partner for India, and Indian leaders’ domestic political capacity. She provided the example of the 1962 Sino-Indian War as a case wherein India chose to align with the U.S. There was clearly an imminent threat, and India could not tackle it on its own (it had no military capabilities), other partners were not available, the U.S. was capable of coming to India’s defense (being India’s one favorable option/partner), and India had the political ability to align.

Concluding the discussion, Madan observed that the U.S. and India could possibly partner in the future, but only if they agreed on a set of conditions. One should not watch for differences in how this relationship might play out solely in approach, but also in terms of threat perception. The main lesson from the book is how these countries deal with their differences. It is not that differences did not exist before, but that India and the U.S. learned how to tolerate them.

*Article revised 2/27/2020 – An earlier version of the article misspelled Tanvi Madan’s name.

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