By Walter Lohman

The “rise of the rest” presents the United States with its two principal manifestations in China and India.  There are no two relationships more important to American success in securing its interest in the emerging global environment and shaping a new order.

The official U.S. relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is fundamentally a poor one, and will long remain so.  The U.S. and China have conflicting national interests and governing ideologies.  The challenge is to manage the conflicts in ways that minimize the impact on each country and others in the international system.

Take two examples the Chinese have described as “core interests.”

On Taiwan, the U.S. and PRC are diametrically opposed.  The PRC believes Taiwan a part of its territory; the U.S. position is that the status of its sovereignty is unsettled.  The PRC reserves the prerogative to use force to settle the question; the U.S. is ambiguously committed to Taiwan’s defense.  The PRC holds up the 1982 U.S.-China Communiqué as requiring the U.S. to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan; the U.S. holds that the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) mandates it supply Taiwan arms necessary for it to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Add to this the restraints imposed by Reagan’s Six Assurances, particularly the policy of not pressuring or mediating between the parties across the Straits, not consulting with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan, and not altering the terms of the TRA, and neither side has any room for compromise.  The best officials can do is state their positions and agree to disagree.  There is no way to reconcile the positions.   The only thing that will change this state of affairs is a 180-degree change in Taiwan’s disposition toward its sovereignty, and that means much more than the thaw that has occurred in cross-Straits relations since 2008.

There is a similar direct conflict concerning the South China Sea.  The Chinese have two alternative bases for the rights they claim in these waters, one historical and one legal.  Under either of them, they lay claim to rights over all of the land and most of the sea.  Land claims there are not America’s concern, but claims, direct or derivative, over the sea are in direct conflict with historic American interest in the freedom of the seas.

Protecting U.S. interests vis-à-vis the PRC means maintaining a highly capable forward deployed military, tending American alliances and keeping allies capable, and asserting its rights and prerogatives physically as well as diplomatically.  It means maintaining a consistent, persistent set of policies.  It means keeping lines of communications active, but being completely comfortable with achieving nothing in terms of bilateral relations.  Flexibility is a one way street for the Chinese.  Staying firm and managing any fallout is the best approach.

The rise of India represents the opposite challenge. The basics of the U.S.-India relationship are good.  The U.S. and India have mostly coincident, and few diametrically opposed, interests, and very similar governing ideologies.  The challenge here is managing the relationship in a way that maximizes its opportunities.

Two examples illustrate the convergence of U.S.-India interests.

First, China.  American concerns about Chinese military modernization and intentions in the Western Pacific roughly mirror Indian concerns about Chinese capabilities and intentions in its own neighborhood. The PRC’s active challenge to India’s northern borders and its sponsorship of Pakistan tie together India’s two greatest security threats.  Indeed, many in New Delhi believe they see Chinese encirclement in Chinese outreach to their neighbors.

The PRC achieving its territorial ambitions east of its territorial seas and along the Indian border simultaneously is unlikely.  By the same token, leaving it unchallenged on one could result in increased pressure on the other.  The U.S. and India have an obvious mutual interest in restraining Chinese ambition in both areas in order to prevent realization of it in either.

Both countries’ relationships with China are complex.  Both have economic interests, investment and trade, and interests in the international economic system at stake.  The Indians have an imperative similar to America’s to manage conflicting interests in a way that minimizes their impact on bilateral relations, economics and the international system.

Second, terrorism.  Long before the attacks of 9/11, India was a tragic victim of terrorism, suffering literally thousands of incidents a year.  Since 9/11, the U.S. has become much more sensitive to India’s predicament and a set of common interests it had not previously recognized.

This is most stark in their converging views on Pakistan.  Whereas once the American policy establishment reflexively viewed India as one side of an India-Pakistan problem, that dynamic has receded in priority as a result of India’s forbearance and Pakistan’s slide into near state failure.  India today is largely seen by the U.S. as a partner in counter-terrorism solutions; Pakistan is seen as essentially an undeclared state sponsor of terrorism, ambivalent about the very proposition of counterterrorism and its choice of security allies.

Common interests on counterterrorism are also apparent in the U.S. and Indian perspectives on Afghanistan.  Both have an interest in a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, free from the grip of the Taliban.  The U.S. is, of course, leader of the international coalition to help ensure this, although its sense of urgency is diffused across thousands of miles.  India is one of Afghanistan’s largest aid donors, and its interest is much closer to home.

Whereas in U.S.-China relations, ideology acts as an accelerant on conflicting interests, in the U.S.-India relationship, ideology is a salve for underperformance.  Despite differences in approaches to developments in the Middle East, market disappointments in India, or deliberate political shots at Indian immigration to the U.S., common values offer the U.S.-India relationship an underlying confidence that sustains it through the criticism.  Flexibility and patience are assets in U.S.-India relations as there is an inherent sense of inevitability about the relationship.

The way the United States manages these vastly different relationships will not only enable it to secure its direct interests — it will shape the impact from “the rise of the rest.”  In short, a world in which common U.S.-India aspirations are met and Chinese ambition restrained will be a better place.  Achieving this requires two very different approaches.

Walter Lohman is Director of Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.