On April 19, an overflow crowd helped the Asia Program, the Asia Society, and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press launch the Press’s latest book, The India-China Relationship: What the United States Needs to Know. This volume represents the culmination of a 5-year partnership between the Asia Program and the Asia Society. Co-editor Francine Frankel opened the proceedings by offering a brief overview of several thousand years of interaction between the peoples of India and China. She noted that these two countries – the largest in the world by population – have historically been viewed through two very different lenses: while China has traditionally been seen (except for the 20th century) as Asia’s preeminent power, most Asian observers customarily thought of India largely in sub-regional terms – that is, as a South Asian rather than an Asian power. This differentiation, Frankel asserted, is no longer tenable; India, too, is a major power in Asia, with aspirations for a truly global role.

Harry Harding, the volume’s other co-editor and a former director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, argued that relations between China and India in the years ahead are likely to be marked by a combination of competition and cooperation and perhaps even conflict. The triangular relationship linking India, China, and the United States will be a fluid one; it is unlikely that any two of the three will combine to form an enduring alignment against the third. What, Harding asked, does this mean for U.S. policy? Harding offered three recommendations:
– The U.S. should view Asia as a single region, rather than a collection of sub-regions divided into South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia. This may require not only a reconceptualization of the continent, but a reorganization of the U.S. government, which has tended to place China and India into separate bureaucratic boxes.
– The U.S. needs to think carefully about the strategic triangle linking China, India, and the United States. It would be unwise for the Americans to court either Asian power for the purpose of forming an alliance against the other power.
– It is time for the U.S. to take both powers seriously, which means treating India on a par with China.

The United States is a critical actor in the India-China equation, asserted Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to India and just back from a trip to the subcontinent. Both India and China place great importance on their relationship with Washington, but neither will be prepared to join Washington in a condominium against the other. Wisner asked what would be the purposes of Indian-Chinese accommodation, and suggested that a keen desire for stability was the common denominator linking not only New Delhi and Beijing, but the other great powers of the region. The United States and its friends in the region, Wisner concluded, need to develop procedures for the resolution of crises and for managing crisis situations before they flare out of control.

Winston Lord, who served as U.S. ambassador to China during the second Reagan administration, told of a conversation about the 1962 Sino-Indian war he had once had with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou had recounted how the Chinese army, after having soundly beaten the Indians in their brief border war, had taken the Indian tanks Chinese forces had captured, and “repaired, repainted, and returned them” to the Indians. As Lord interpreted Zhou’s tale, this illustrated the dismissive attitude China once displayed toward India. But no more, Lord added; today China appears to recognize that the two Asian giants have many interests in common, and that it is in China’s interest to continue the process of improving its ties with India. Lord, who had just returned from a visit to China, cautioned against forcing Beijing and New Delhi, against their preferences for close relations with Washington, into a de facto alliance against an assertive U.S. hegemon.

Robert M. Hathaway, (202) 691-4012