China-India-United States Trilateral: A Flawed Formulation – Analysis


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

The US Secretary of State last month articulated the formulation of a China-India-United States Trilateral advocating that a strong and constructive relationship between China, India and the United States would assist in the solution of many of the “pressing issues” of the 21st Century by coordination of efforts of all these three Powers. The underlying intentions of the United States in making such an assertion and also the timing of such an advocacy are intriguing. It becomes more intriguing when the United States is fully aware of the flawed nature of such a formulation when the troubled political and strategic dynamics of the United States-China relationship and the China-India relationship are well known and so also the adversarial postures of two of the constituents of the Trilateral.


The “pressing issues” of the 21st Century and the flashpoints that abound in Asia currently are the creations of China. China’s propensities for brinkmanship and conflict generation portend a further increase in flashpoints in Asia. China cannot therefore be a part of the solution as espoused by the US Secretary of State as China is the problem itself. It is high time that the United States dispenses with its narcissistic obsession with China and gears itself to the inevitability of a coming clash with China to which at least the Pentagon is alive.

There are many who would argue that relationships of China, India and the United States cannot indefinitely continue as a zero-sum game and new beginnings are called for, more so when the , Cold War is long past. The underlying premise of such advocates is that the world has emerged as a globally interdependent one and that such a Trilateral of the world’s three largest economies could pave the way for greater political and strategic accommodativeness. Implicit in their arguments is the fact that economics is a greater adhesive for regional and global stability and the constituent nations of the Trilateral could subsume their geopolitical and geostrategic rivalries.

Sadly for these visionary prophets, the ground realities are harsher when the ongoing power games in Asia are taken into account. The United States is actively engaged politically and militarily in reinforcing its global and Asian predominance whereas China as a revisionist power with aspirations to emerge as the second pole in global power-play is intent on challenging the global power status quo and also limiting United States strategic options in Asia Pacific. China and India are engaged in a subtle power-play to share the strategic space in Asia sought to be misappropriated by China as exclusively its own.

Ironically, China has a historical record of armed conflicts both with the United States and India and even today persists in strategic, military and political brinkmanship with the United States and India. The United States and India need to learn from the ASEAN nations experience that even integrating China into regional dialogues and processes to tone down China’s aggressive posturing did not work especially on the subject of the South China Sea disputes. Contrarily, China has emerged more militarily aggressive in the region.

To substantiate the thesis that the China-India-United States Trilateral is a flawed formulation this Paper would like to dwell on the examination of the following issues: (1) Global pressing issues cannot be resolved by excluding Russia from the process (2) China has yet to prove its credentials as a responsible stakeholder in Asian security and stability (3) US Secretary of State makes calls on India in relation to the Trilateral formulation without any corresponding calls on China.

Global Pressing Issues Cannot be Resolved by Excluding Russia from the Process

The China-India-United States Trilateral formulation is inherently flawed in view of the strategic contradictions that plague the relations between China, India and the United States. What makes it more strikingly flawed is the singular exclusion of Russia from the visionary process articulated by the US Secretary of State. The US Secretary of States could have done better and made more strategic and political sense had the advocacy to resolve the pressing problems of the 21st Century focused on a Russia-China-India-United States Quadrilateral.

This for a simple and fundamental reason in that in the global power-play Russia holds more cards up its sleeve than China. In terms of political acceptability in the Asia Pacific, Russia has a far wider acceptance than China for the simple reason that Russia does not stand involved in any disputes or confrontation with Asia Pacific countries. China’s military rise coupled with aggressive postures in tow against its neighbors makes China’s neighbors fearful of Chinese intentions.

The United States exclusion of Russia from global and regional stability processes evident from the US Secretary of State formulations makes United States underlying intentions suspect. Russia undoubtedly continues as the second most powerful nation after the United States notwithstanding China’s meteoric military rise. Russia’s economic decline in the Yeltsin years stands corrected in the last decade under President Putin and with global oil and gas prices not declining the prospects of a dip in Russia’s economy is dim.

Russia also enjoys considerable political and strategic influence in Central Asia and the Middle East where most of the 21st Century pressing issues seem to be sprouting.

China has yet to Prove its Credentials as a Responsible Stakeholder in Asian Security and Stability

The constituent nations of any political or strategic grouping formulation must enjoy a credible reputation for being responsible stakeholders in regional and global security and stability. Unfortunately, China with its demonstrated record does not fall into this league. Globally it has spawned WMD proliferation in failing states like North Korea and Pakistan endangering global peace and security. Regionally, China has accumulated the dubious reputation for stirring up territorial disputes with its neighbors on historical grounds rather than on legal grounds.

China has endangered the freedom of the high seas by aggressively declaring that the South China Sea is a core interest of China implicit in which is the claim that the South China Sea falls within Chinese sovereignty and the militant declaration that China would use force to protect its core interests.

China Occupied Tibet and China Occupied Xingjiang are examples of China’s imperial intentions. In Tibet, China has inflicted both ethnic genocide and cultural genocide with the international community including the United States and India as hapless spectators.

How and for what reasons has the United States been led to believe that a China-India-United States Trilateral is a feasible proposition even as a visionary one?

Imperatives exist for the United States to make calls on China to demonstratably prove its credentials as a responsible and credible stakeholder in regional and global security and desist from militarily provocative postures. Till then any abject pleas by the United States that it wishes to establish a constructive relationship with China really amounts to China-appeasement policies by the United States.

United States Secretary of State Makes Calls on India in Relation to the Trilateral Formulation Without any Calls on China

Perceptively, what came across in the US Secretary of State assertions were that major calls were being made by the United States on India that it should not only Look East but also Engage East and that India’s leadership would help shape the future of not only South Asia and Central Asia but also that of the Asia Pacific. Contrastingly no calls were made by the US Secretary of State on China to show and prove by demonstrated performance that it will emerge as a responsible stakeholder in Asian security and stability before it can be considered by the United States as a responsible partner in Asian security management. American emphasis seemed more like abject American pleadings that China should appreciate that the United States was sincere in establishing a positive and constructive relationship with China.

India already stands engaged in the East by strengthening security relationships with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia, initiatives convergent with United States security architecture in Asia Pacific. What more is United States expecting out of India? The United States so far has not clearly enunciated what it expects of India strategically in relation to China.

If the United States expects India to play a leadership role in Asia Pacific then the United States cannot adopt ambivalent postures and strategies on China which confuse India. India adopting an assertive leadership role in Asia Pacific would bring it in a direct and open power tussle with China. Would the United States unambiguously underwrite such a strategy and also the implications that go with it?

Washington cannot strategically afford to send different strategic messages to Beijing and different messages or signaling to other Asian capitals of American strategic perceptions and future intentions. In the instant Trilateral formulation espoused by US Secretary of State one gets a feeling that the United States expects India to sink its differences with China, ignore China’s strategic encirclement of India and accede to Chinese demands on the boundary issue so that the United States preferred China-India-United States Trilateral formulation becomes a reality. Or is there a different message which presently seems unfathomable?

India has also to note that implicit in the Trilateral formulation espoused by the US Secretary of State is a message for the future and that is that India should let the Russia-India Strategic Partnership fade away and opt for the American preferred China-India-United States Trilateral, Can India afford to do so?

Concluding Observations

The China-India-United States Trilateral formulation espoused by the US Secretary of State may be a visionary one and should be left at just that. It is an idea whose time has not yet come and unlikely to come in the 21st Century. In terms of political and geostrategic dynamics in Asia even the very thought of China, India and the United States working and cooperating together towards Asian security and stability is unthinkable.

The United States Secretary of State seems to be oblivious to the reality that the pressing issues that need resolution in the 21st Century are the creation of China and therefore China cannot be part of the solution. China is the major part of the problem.

The United States seems to take India for granted when it espouses and pressurizes the Indian pliable political leadership to appease the Pakistan Army and now attempts a repetition that India should now appease China for the greater good of United States strategic interests in Asia conveniently forgetting that Pakistan and China, singly and jointly, figure heavily as military threats to India’s external and internal security.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “China-India-United States Trilateral: A Flawed Formulation – Analysis

  • December 8, 2011 at 10:01 am

    China’s propensity for creating conflict? Are you kidding me? It is the United States inability to stay out of other country’s internal affairs that causes all of these problems.

    China has had an unprecedented peaceful rise which should be applauded by the international community.

    Open your eyes and stop swallowing the US line!


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