A Fresh Take on American Relations with India and China


Anja Manuel, This Brave New World: India, China and the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

Building an airstrip on the Spratly Islands is, as one Chinese diplomat reassuringly informs Anja Manuel in her new book, “like building a fountain in your own backyard.” China’s expanding appetite for water-features has undoubtedly been one of the driving forces behind deepening U.S.-India ties in recent years. In This Brave New World, however, Manuel pushes back against the urge to make counterbalancing China the foundation of America’s relationship with India.

The central contention of her book that the United States should seek to “forge harmonious relationships with both giants” is so deceptively straightforward that it can sound almost banal. Yet in the context of current debates about the U.S. relationship with Asia’s largest powers, it is more subtle and challenging than it first appears. Not only is Manuel concerned that U.S.-China policy risks turning into a “balance only approach,” she sees risks in an approach to India where we simply “assume it is a friend and smooth over many disagreements to make this friendship a reality.”

This is certainly not out of any Sino-fetishism. Part of the book’s purpose is to encourage us to look beyond the “obsessive” focus on the centrality of the Middle Kingdom to U.S. strategy. Manuel contends, “We tend to underestimate India’s size and future power. Many still doubt the relevance of India as a global power. They should not.” Indeed, Manuel would know. Her role at the U.S. State Department a decade ago put her in the thick of the action as watershed civil-nuclear deal negotiations with India opened the door to today’s growing strategic partnership. But an important element of her argument is that giving India the strategic attention it merits means taking its distinct role in the new geopolitical order more seriously — and being less sanguine about how straightforward this transition is going to be. “We assume that we share values and already have a strong ‘partnership’ in most areas” she cautions, yet while “right now our relationship with India is positive” this is “mostly because India is equally worried about China”.

Gentle nudges against conventional wisdom are found throughout the book. Manuel cautions us against assuming that India is quite as like-minded as its democratic culture and burgeoning friendship with the United States might imply. She also asserts that China’s rise is not quite as antithetical to U.S. interests as its autocratic political system and military assertiveness might suggest. She offers each country’s behavior at the United Nations as case in point:

When India served as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council from 2011 to 2012, American officials tell me, they nearly tore their hair in frustration.

In contrast, China voted more often with the United States in the U.N. General Assembly than India in 2014. On the subject of trade, Manuel notes that India seems “stuck in the nonaligned movement and protectionist rhetoric of the Nehru era.” On climate, she reports that “India’s initial steps on clean technology are not nearly as impressive as China’s,” and that “Chinese officials are more progressive” on this issue.

Manuel does not pull her punches on China. She speculates about whether Xi Jinping wears a bulletproof vest as a result of all the enemies he has made and explores whether we want to see a Chinese Arab Spring. Beijing’s “aggressive…constant barrage of attacks” in the cyber realm and “bullying” of its neighbors are also subjects of scrutiny. But the author is inclined to see all of this as a manifestation of the impetuosity of new powers, requiring some balancing, yes, but also patience and “coaching.”

She sees the picking of sides as a dangerous approach, liable to result in a “twenty-first century cold war,” or even hot war:

Many in the United States today call for us to repeat, in essence, the policy that Britain pursued in the late nineteenth century: to support the rise of India, a democracy, and other like-minded countries, as a counter- weight against the growing power of authoritarian China. I believe that this strategy alone will not succeed, just as it did not succeed for Britain.

While the U.S. relationships with India and China will inevitably look different, she advocates an overarching commonality of approach — accommodating both powers’ legitimate interests wherever possible, pushing back on aggressive behavior while seeking to avoid exacerbating any sense of insecurity, and patiently coaxing both “adolescent” powers to accept a responsible global role.

Many security analysts would react against this. The emerging consensus, including among swathes of the current U.S. administration, is that any reorientation of China policy needs to be in the direction of a more forceful pushback against Chinese assertiveness, and that hopes of responsible Chinese stakeholding have largely evaporated, at least in the Asia Pacific. But This Brave New World — although it certainly deals with military issues — is not a classic cocktail of great power competition, first island chains, carrier-killer missiles, and the South China Sea. Its reach is far wider, ranging with equal facility across energy and the environment, demographics, gender, corruption, inequality, geo-economics, and domestic politics. Manuel’s vantage point is helpful here: She currently sits in the Bay Area, as a partner and co-founder of RiceHadleyGates, which draws on the standing and reach of the former senior officials that adorn the firm’s name. The book owes as much to the corporate and tech worlds as the DC policy universe, and the anecdotes, personalities, and analysis are richer for the breadth. Much contemporary “big think” writing on China and India still presents a partial view, privileging one region or strand of policy at a time when senior decision-makers are having to take an almost unmanageably multifaceted picture into account. This Brave New World does as much as any book I’ve read to stitch all the different threads together. The effect is to place current frictions with China and bonhomie with India in an expansive context that gives somewhat less weight to both.

The value of the book does not depend, though, on whether or not one buys the argument that China and India are powers amenable to tutelage of the sort that the British provided to a rising America at the turn of the century. Much of the book is not thesis-driven. The chapters lead us deftly through a parallel evaluation of the two states, their histories, their economies, contemporary politics, policy processes, strategic behavior, and a series of thematic areas. For China and India hands, stretches of the material will be familiar but the comparative framework — which can often work poorly in treatments of the two countries —here tends to illuminate and enliven the material. As does the access to leading figures in both Beijing and New Delhi, from Liu He to Arun Jaitley, which is judiciously deployed and admirably free of backscratching. Even those who are deaf to the overarching plea that “we can and must do better than simply balancing the power of China by supporting India and others” will still find it an excellent primer. Whether one sympathizes with the thrust of Manuel’s argument to “make cooperation the dominant part of interaction,” however, may depend on how one sees Miranda’s invocation of a “brave new world” in the last act of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

One response will echo her father Prospero’s world-weary rejoinder, “’Tis new to thee.” The context of Miranda’s seemingly wide-eyed rhapsody about “how beauteous mankind is” is the sight of a group of power-hungry usurpers and traitors who stole her father’s dukedom. They have only been taught their lesson by Prospero’s (distinctly unipolar) exercise of command over them on the island that provides the stage for the play. In the absence of Prospero’s magic, there is little indication that they would have much inclination to be responsible stakeholders. The other response, however, sees Miranda’s words as redemptive rather than naïve: despite having recently learned her family’s tragic history, treating potential adversaries with empathy and choosing the non-cynical perspective — like Manuel’s — is a precondition for the better world she wants to build.


Andrew Small is a senior transatlantic fellow on the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He is the author of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.

Image: White House