Fabian Blog
October 20th, 2017

Book Review: SAMUDRA MANTHAN

Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific
By C. Raja Mohan

On the United States and the strategic rivalry between India and China in the Indo-Pacific region. samudra-manthan

This is an important contribution to strategic literature by an author whose credentials are well known. He invokes ancient mythology to explain what is happening in the Indo-Pacific. “In the Hindu fable of Samudra Manthan, angels and demons churn the ocean in search of an elixir that will give them immortality. Lord Vishnu intervenes at every stage to tilt the long quest in favour of the angels and ensure they emerge victorious in the end. The legend of Samudra Manthan lives again as the United States shapes and is shaped by the rivalry between China and India in the waters of Asia.”

The reader might note that in Hindu mythology there are no angels and that the fight was between Devas and Asuras. Angels belong to the Semitic religions. Nevertheless, it is indeed a commendable intellectual tour de force to invoke mythology to explain the rivalry between India and China with the U.S. playing the role of Vishnu. The author does point out that the U.S. is no omnipotent Vishnu either as it has to keep an eye on a rising China eager to contest its strategic primacy in Asia. The U.S. might be tempted to share power and glory with China and thus restore a bipolar world, a G2 as the current fashionable terminology goes.

Dealing with the “structure of the rivalry” between India and China, C. Raja Mohan says that even before they established relations in 1950, “the leaders of the two national movements reached out to each other and explored the bases of future cooperation” and they believed that “together they were destined to reshape Asia and the world”. But, eventually, the two did not work together, to put it mildly. The author’s explanation is that while India was fighting British imperialism, China was fighting the Japanese one and, therefore, the two countries came to hold “radically different world views” and could not cooperate as planned. He has a point. But, he could have pointed out the asymmetry in that relationship. India was more engaged with what was happening in China than the other way round.

The reason is that Indian leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, had more of an international vision as compared with Mao Zedong, in whose collected works there is hardly any reference to India. In his Glimpses of World History, Nehru has much to say about China. It is difficult to imagine Mao writing a similar book. In short, China did not take the proposition that it was going to shape Asia’s future along with India seriously. There was much wishful thinking on India’s part. Similarly, when China speaks of Asia’s rise it means its own rise. Does China entertain a pan-Asian sense of solidarity? Hardly.

The author has given a detailed explanation of the significance of the term “Indo-Pacific”. Instead of telling us when the expression was first used as most scholars do, Raja Mohan tells us about the origin of the concept. The strategic thinkers at the beginning of the 20th century unlike their post-Second World War successors saw Asia as an integrated region.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th century U.S. exponent of the significance of sea power who inspired one of the earliest Indian navalists K.M. Panikker, argued that a vast stretch of Asia between the 30th and the 40th parallels stretching from Asia Minor in the west to the Korean peninsula in the east was the “debatable” and the “debated” ground. He adds Africa and derives the “Indo-Pacific” as a “recognisable geopolitical entity that connects the two great oceans and integrates the inner Asian regions to China and India”.

The most important chapters are the last two, the 11th and 12th. In the 11th chapter, “Ordering the Indo-Pacific”, the author argues that as India and China acquire for the first time in centuries the ability to exercise significant influence in their wider maritime neighbourhood, “the other great powers, their allies, and various independent actors will respond vigorously to the rise of China and India”.

Are we getting the cause-and-effect chain right? Is it the case that Japan and Vietnam are simply reacting to the Sino-Indian rivalry? Are they not primarily taking care of their own security interests as China gains in power and exhibits aggressiveness towards them? Their essential motivation is not to take sides in a Sino-Indian duel.

The author speaks of a triangle of India, China, and the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific. We should be looking at a polygon, of at least five sides, including Japan and Vietnam, to understand better the strategic dynamics. The author examines three different scenarios of ordering the Indo-Pacific: cooperative security, a great power concert, and a balance of power system.

Dealing with the situation of cooperative security, he points out that multilateralism does not automatically guarantee a reduction of distrust among rival powers. The maritime problems can be divided into two sets, the “wicked” ones such as the interpretation of the Law of the Sea involving claims and counter-claims to territory, and the “tame” ones such as combating piracy. In short, multilateralism can help in solving the “tame” ones and might not help in tackling the “wicked” ones.

Examining the prospects for an Asian Concert, the author takes us back to the post-Napoleon “Concert of Europe”. A concert is an “arrangement of power relations within a strategic system, involving an unusually high degree of voluntary consultation and restraint among the strongest countries”. All the participating states would have to give up something. The U.S. might have to give up its primacy in Asia, China might have to temper its aspirations for regional dominance, and Japan might have to reduce its dependence on the U.S. These conditions are unlikely to be met.

Coming to the balance of power system, one has to say modern Asia has not had much experience with such a system. While the Cold War was essentially a two-power balancing system, Asian security was essentially “ordered by the United States”. China and India, which occasionally aligned with the Soviet Union or America, were too weak to make the power system in the Indo-Pacific a multipolar one. Classical balance of power theory does not refer to internal orientation of states. However, the idea of democracies of Asia and the Pacific getting together had brief diplomatic traction in 2004-07.

At the end of his examination of the three options, the author concludes that the real world does not adhere to neatly structured concepts from political theory. China and India are likely to pursue all the three options simultaneously. The “principal determinants of the future security order in the Indo-Pacific region” will be the U.S.’ relationship with China and India and the relationship between the latter two. While many middle powers will have a bearing on the political evolution of the littoral, it is the U.S. that has the biggest influence on the emerging Sino-Indian contestation in the Indo-Pacific.

American dilemmas

The last chapter, “Samudra Manthan”, explores the future of the strategic U.S.-China-India triangle. There are three themes. The first is “American Dilemmas”. The economic expansion in Asia during the Cold War years was mainly among its friends and allies. That has changed. Given the growing economic weight of China, the U.S. cannot deal with it as it did with the Soviet Union. Nor can the U.S. treat India the way it treated its allies and friends in Asia.

The future of U.S. primacy in Asia and the regional alliances it has worked with are in question. India’s potential to become a significant partner of the U.S. has increased. China’s rise could adversely affect India before it affects the U.S. Yet, the U.S. has not found it possible to assign a higher priority to India over China.

This is because a breakdown in Sino-U.S. relations can have disastrous consequences for the U.S. economy and the world economy. The U.S.-India relationship does not have the same high stakes. Under President George Bush, the U.S. did tilt towards India without endangering its relations with China. President Barack Obama, at the beginning of his first term, did tilt towards China, but soon corrected the course by affirming the U.S. determination to maintain its primacy in Asia.

India’s ambivalence

The next theme is India’s ambivalence. As the weakest power in the triangle, India’s ambivalence is acute. Between 1998 and 2008, India reached out to the U.S. in a bold way. But, the momentum has slackened since then. When Obama hinted at a G2 with China, India responded that it was prepared to work for a multipolar world and a multipolar Asia. Obama changed direction as tensions mounted between the U.S. and China in 2011-12 and showed interest in a strategic relationship with India.

But India was not willing to be drawn into the U.S.’ alliance system and expressed its discomfort with the growing confrontation between the U.S. and China. However, India saying no to the U.S. invitation did not impress China much as it maintains there are inherent limits to a strategic partnership between the U.S. and India.

Coming to “China’s hand”, the author notices a “new sense of self-assurance” on its part. Beijing rejected Washington’s offer of a G2 and felt free to confront the rest of Asia on a range of issues. China has the option to alter its policies towards India or the U.S. The rapid rise of China has thrown up a challenge to the U.S. and India. They need to get closer but without provoking China. China’s assertiveness beyond a point might prompt the U.S. and India to abandon their current inhibitions. Large democracies such as India and the U.S. often falter in effectively coping with major security challenges, but they can also “surprise themselves and the world with resilience and resolve”. This is the final conclusion of the author.

The reader will find the author’s arguments by and large persuasive. An Indo-U.S. partnership to deal with China’s assertiveness is not unlikely. However, as pointed out earlier, one wonders whether the author has not missed the polygon that is being drawn while focussing on the triangle that is not there yet. The balance of power idea that Raja Mohan rejected might turn out to be the central idea in the Indo-Pacific. Such balance of power prevents war until a power wants to discard it and start a war. From India’s point of view, it is more prudent to be part of such a balance rather than align with the U.S. against China.

While discussing the balance of power option, the author says (page 230) that the U.S. “has been the principal security provider in the Western Pacific since the end of the Second World War and in the Indian Ocean from the mid-1970s”. Let us try to figure out, keeping in mind younger readers, how the U.S. has provided security:
1) The U.S. refused to seek an end to the Korean War (1950-53) by talking to China as Nehru advised Harry Truman.
2) The U.S. unnecessarily replaced France in Vietnam and fought a long war against Vietnamese nationalism and lost.
3) In 1956, Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were about to resolve their dispute over Kuril Islands as part of their treaty to end the state of war between the two countries, when the U.S. intervened and prevented that settlement over the islands.
4) Nearer home, India and Pakistan agreed to appoint a plebiscite administrator for Jammu and Kashmir before the end of April 1954. President Dwight Eisenhower announced the U.S. planned to arm Pakistan knowing well that such a step would put an end to any effort to arrange for a plebiscite.
The idea that the U.S. is the “principal security provider” is a standard assertion in U.S. strategic literature, and a number of Indian analysts have obediently repeated it.

Raja Mohan says that China rejected a G2 offer from Obama. One doubts whether any such offer was made. Can the U.S. tell Japan and Taiwan that it was abandoning them to appease China? Other than G2, what else can the “Middle Kingdom” aim at right now?

It is reasonable to conclude that China will be satisfied with a G2 for a while. In the final analysis, Raja Mohan’s conclusion, quoted earlier, that the “real world does not adhere to neatly structured concepts from political theory” makes much sense. Mythology can be of help, but it can also act as a hindrance to understanding the ground realities of geopolitics.

(Appeared in the Frontline carried by Turkish news agency at http://turkishcentralnews.com/2013/07/12/us-and-the-strategic-rivalry-between-india-and-china-in-the-indo-pacific-region/)

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