‘Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations during the Cold War’ review: Grow...

‘Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations during the Cold War’ review: Growing together: the Eagle, the Elephant and the Dragon

The book explains why the key to a sustainable partnership between the U.S, India and China is to manage expectations of each other better than before

In March 1960, as relations between India and China deteriorated both in their capitals and at the boundary between them, United States Senator John F. Kennedy, who would soon be elected President, gave a lecture on “the battle” between India and China that had “gripped the attention of all Asia,” (University of New Hampshire, March 7, 1960).

A year before that, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had decided to give refuge to the Dalai Lama who had fled Tibet. The situation at the Line of Actual Control was tense, as officials tried to resolve a major skirmish in the ‘Western Sector’ (Ladakh and Aksai Chin), that had broken out despite the understanding between Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. In contrast, U.S.-India ties were being strengthened, and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Nehru had just held an unprecedented joint rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan (December 1959).

Power struggle

“The real battle is not the flare-up over Chinese troop movements around disputed boundaries — or the projected conferences between [Zhou Enlai] and Premier Nehru,” Kennedy said, “[It] is the struggle between India and China for the economic and political leadership of the East, for the respect of all Asia, for the opportunity to demonstrate whose way of life is the better,” he added, comparing “India’s route” of “human dignity and individual freedom” against the “regimented controls and ruthless denial of human rights” of Red China, saying that the U.S. wanted India to “win that race” between them.

The rest, including the 1962 war, and subsequently, the disillusionment in Washington with New Delhi’s push for strategic autonomy over a more aligned position with the U.S., as well as the U.S.’s considered reopening of ties with China through the 1970s, are all part of a history superbly recounted in Tanvi Madan’s Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations during the Cold War.

Host of resources

The author has woven together a host of resources into a story that bears retelling, particularly with the current situation between the U.S., India and China running a not-dissimilar course 60 years later. Events of the past month, where despite the seriousness of the clashes between Indian and Chinese troops at the LAC in Ladakh and Sikkim, New Delhi has rebuffed an offer of mediation from Washington, and invoked the agreements between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping as the basis of resolving their differences, make this book a particularly timely read.

Madan concludes early in the book that a U.S.-India partnership to tackle the challenge from China is “neither inevitable nor impossible”, and suggests that the key to a sustainable partnership between the three is to “manage expectations” of each other better than they did in the second half of the last century.

Avoiding mistakes

In Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship between the US, China and India, journalist Martin Sieff had also pointed out that the reality of this century, when India and China’s economic growth will reverse the U.S.’s predominance of the triangle, requires that policymakers “learn from and avoid the many mistakes of their predecessors” in Washington, Beijing and Delhi.

Madan spells out another part of the unspoken narrative: that the triangle between the U.S.-India-China has always been distended with pulls from two other critical points: the relationship of each of those countries with Russia and Pakistan.

By going beyond the bilateral, Madan has further enriched the understanding of the past that still guides India’s future.

Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations during the Cold WarTanvi Madan, Penguin Random House India, ₹799.

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