U.S. Interest in Sino-Indian Cooperation: An Interview with Strobe Talbott

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For better or worse, India and China are maior players in the changing balance of power, though their exact role is still to be determined. In an interview with Rikha Sharma Rani for the Journal of International Affairs, Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former U.S. deputy secretary of state, reflects on the future of international relations, the position of India and China therein, and the view from the United States.

Journal of International Affairs: How would you characterize Sino-Indian relations today and what role, if any, does the United States play in this relationship?

Strobe Talbott: Not as good as they were a couple of years ago, but better than they were in 1962. I think it's a little bit of a fever chart and the fever has gone up a bit in the last year plus. We can come back to the reasons for that, but they certainly have to do with China's assertiveness and the way in which China's behavior has raised questions in a lot of capitals--including Washington and New Delhi--about whether its rise is entirely peaceful in its intentions and long-term implications. And of course there has been some exacerbation of the relationship on the neuralgic issue of Kashmir and the visas, and there have been some border incidents as well. (1)

As for the role the United States plays, I think the United States--under the current administration and the previous two--has been extremely careful not to give the appearance of trying to exploit the tension, not to play one against the other. The role of the United States is, I would say, real but marginal, in the final analysis, particularly because these two countries are of comparable size and have contiguous borders and a long and complicated history. Other countries are going to be able to play minor support roles rather than major intermediary roles.

Journal: How would a move toward a more multipolar international order affect Sino-Indian relations? Would a decline in U.S. hegemony increase or decrease the prospects of competition between India and China?

Talbott: India and China are commonly described as emerging powers and that's a good word to describe them. In fact, I think a better word would be 'emerged.' They really have emerged and will continue to get stronger. It's not entirely a zero-sum relationship either between the two of them or vis-a-vis the United States. In my view, the greatest challenge of the 21st century is reinventing, or certainly updating and reforming, the international system in a way that allows countries--even as they cling to, as they will, national sovereignty--to find ways of cooperating on issues of common threat and common interest. Such cooperation will have to be through mechanisms that didn't exist before, for reasons of urgency that didn't exist before and in ways that didn't exist before.

China and India will be crucial to global cooperation because together they represent about a third of humanity, they are extraordinarily dynamic economies, they are rising military powers and both are absolutely instrumental to the G20, the non-proliferation regime and the climate issue. They are going to be exceedingly important and that's going to require them to moderate, to the greatest extent possible, their bilateral tensions and maximize cooperation with each other and with the United States.

Journal: You mentioned the reinvention of the global international order. Do you envision a move away from a state-centric international system toward a more regionally based one?

Talbott: It's a perfectly appropriate question, but it suggests that there's an either/or answer. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. Sovereignty may not be here to stay forever, but it is certainly going to be with us for the relevant period of the current century, and that means into the middle of the century and beyond. The nation-state is still the most basic and most jealously protected area of political and other power. …