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Fizzling of the “G2”: Opportunity for India

U.S.-China Tensions Could Leave Room for Indian Leadership
28 December 2009

by Daniel Michaeli

After Copenhagen, many are beginning to rethink their expectations for collaboration between the United States and China. The idea of a “Group of Two” (G2) was always far-fetched and, arguably, misguided. But now that popular perception of a G2 is changing as the world finds it harder to work with China, there could be new opportunities for Asia’s other rising great power: India.

The notion that the United States and China could get together, harmonize their positions, and rule the world as a “Group of Two” (G2) was always an illusion. But it was, nevertheless, a popular idea. It provided hope that the United States and China could coordinate policies on the most important global issues; further, many thought that China would adopt positions more consistent with American ones, in exchange for a special position of global leadership above traditional U.S. partners like Japan and the European Union.

Even well-respected foreign policy thinkers fell for this seductive idea. In a January 2009 op-ed, Zbigniew Brzezinski called for a G2 that would make global decisions and achieve progress in areas from climate change to UN peacekeeping reform to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But to Indians and Japanese, a G2 meant choosing China as an Asian partner over both Japan and India. And even more concerning to Indians was the idea that China and the United States might collaborate in areas that directly affect India.

Brzezinski, for instance, argued that a G2 could provide “more effective even if informal mediation” between India and Pakistan. Pressure to resolve the Kashmir issue from the U.S. and China would be unacceptable to India: neither country is seen as neutral. (A few reasons: the 1962 border war between India and China, China’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear program, the still-simmering China-India border dispute, the complicated but extensive U.S.-Pakistan relationship.) Moreover, such pressure would be seen as insulting to India, which perceives itself as a great power. This came up again after the November Obama-Hu summit. (More in this post.)

It is increasingly clear now that these worries are misplaced. The fact is that even if the U.S. and China share many common interests, they perceive the world in very different terms. In the Asia-Pacific, common interests–on issues such as energy security, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, mitigating climate change, and secure and open seas–often produce conflicting policy approaches. We can expect many more “Copenhagens”: times when U.S. policy approaches are impeded by a more assertive China. After Copenhagen, the Obama administration will likely take a more cautious approach to China from here on.

This plays to India’s advantage in a couple ways. India would benefit greatly from U.S. support in areas that operate against Chinese interests: preventing Chinese aggressiveness over the border from getting out of control, gaining a permanent UN Security Council seat, participating in new Asian regional institutions, and elsewhere. More abstractly, India benefits from continued U.S. military balancing in Asia. So the risk of a too-cozy U.S.-China relationship is reduced as talk of a G2 wanes.

Second, India could take advantage of an opportunity to be the rising Asian power that the rest of the world likes to work with. If India can broker a global climate compromise, lead on global trade negotiations, and put pressure on Iran–while China is seen as intransigent–India would gain a lot of good will that would serve it well in the future.

But if India hides behind China and fails to lead (as it did in Copenhagen) or becomes less economically relevant because it is unwilling to reform itself, then this will have been nothing but a missed opportunity.

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