The Chimera of Chimerica: Implications for India

As ‘Angellic wisdom’ turned futile at the outbreak of world war I, economic interdependence theorists’ conch shell has not sounded well in the current era of realpolitik. The current Sino-American rivalry shows that the idea of economic interdependence and China’s inclusion in the world economy painting China in the ‘liberal’ hue and thereby bringing the Sino-American rivalry to a nadir was only a mirage. The champions of engagement policy failed to see that the ‘Chimerica’ was a product of international ‘structure’ and it was going to alter with the changing wind of structural changes.

This article would seek to analyze the failure of economic interdependence in bringing the thaw in the ‘inherent’ Sino-American rivalry and would enlighten upon what it brings for India.

The ‘Chimera’ of interdependence theorists

“Convinced of the seductive power of democracy and lulled by the promise of a seemingly ineluctable historical arc that bent toward greater openness, freedom and justice”, the then US President Richard Nixon extended the hand of bonhomie towards China, believing that once the US assimilated China in the international economic fold, democracy, and pacific internal development would follow. The engagement theories reek of a deterministic view- the idea that intermingled economic, cultural, and diplomatic spheres would “transform China’s internal development and external behavior”.

However, the US-China trade war during the Trump administration, tensions in the South China Sea regarding the upholding of rules-based international order and sovereignty of Taiwan, the ban on Huawei over national security issues, vying for semiconductor dominance, military exercises to show one’s prowess to the other, or the recent ‘spy’ balloon incident marks an unambiguous failure of interdependence to change the course of the relationship. Some scholars even term this as a new ‘cold war’.

Henry Kissinger’s tautology that wars are caused by ‘warlike’ states, Schumpterian idea that consolidation of democracy and capitalism can bring about an ‘unwarlike disposition’, or Kant’s belief that extension of the ‘pacific union’ can bring peace in the world seems to ignore the role played by systemic factors of the international system.

The optimism of economic liberalism and interdependence ignored that Nixon and Kissinger had proposed to China that they “should end their decades-long hostility by allying against the Soviet Union.” Even Thomas Christenson, while analyzing the Sino-American conflict between 1947 and 1958, argued that the realization of a “bipolar world” in 1947 led the US and China to create an ‘unnecessary’ conflict with each other to mobilize against a greater threat — the USSR.

Whether it was an ‘unnecessary’ rivalry with each other or creating the ‘Chimerica’, the causal link can be traced to the systemic factor — the relative distribution of capabilities. The US saw the USSR as a bigger threat than China. Hence, the advocates, of the idea that Chinese interdependence vis-à-vis the liberal democratic US would make Chinese values and interests more aligned with that of the US, failed to see that their optimistic balloon of maintaining Chimerica would burst as soon as there would be a change in the structure of the international system. 

Although the world is “bipolar”, another pole is now occupied by China with its massive wealth and increasingly high military buildup. Russia, now, has become a junior threat (less capable than China in challenging the US-led world order). Thus, it is unambiguous that China would not abide by American norms. 

To the champion of liberal institutionalists, it should have been clear that with the increase in state power, there is a rise in economic, territorial, and political influence; irrespective of attributes of the state. An aspiring hegemon always seeks to change the international regime and order in its ‘image’.

Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane’s assumption that a state would move to a more effective power resource (military force) only when there is “a substantial incongruity between the distribution of power resources on one dimension and those on another” is repudiated by the fact that despite having “nonmilitary vulnerability interdependence”, vis-à-vis India, in its favor, China has constantly used aggression on the LAC.

In fact, it can be argued against Nye and Keohane’s belief that it is the “nonmilitary vulnerability interdependence” in one’s favor that give one incentive to use military force without being vulnerable to the change in the other subsets of relations. 

On the other hand, the interdependence architecture also fails to see that despite having fewer trade volumes and lesser or unilateral economic interdependence between Russia and India, vis-à-vis China-India trade, Russia has remained amicable towards India. The reason, of course, lies in the structure of the international system — Russia sees the US as a bigger threat and, in territorial terms, it would be foolish for Russia to go to war with India.

Moreover, interdependence theorists failed to take into account that the anarchical environment compels states to remain concerned about relative power — how much one gained at the expense of other power? It was the large trade deficit with China and the unfair Chinese practices — tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, intellectual property (IP) theft, industrial subsidies, and violation of the WTO — to build Beijing’s manufacturing base at the expense of the US that led to diplomatic and trade gulf between the two countries during the Trump administration. 

Hence, Mearsheimer’s belief that interdependence, instead, increases the risk of conflict by creating vulnerabilities among the players would be more plausible to burst the ‘optimistic balloon’ of liberal interdependence theorists.

Implications for India

Looking from a structural perspective, it is the structural constraints that saved India from being sanctioned by the US for buying Russian oil during the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The US sees China as a bigger threat and needs India to counter the latter. 

However, the hegemon also remains skeptical about the ‘lesser’ threats, as evidenced in the case of trade restrictions on Japan during the 1980s. The fear of the Japanese economic boom taking over the US subsided only when the “bright shiny economy faltered” and Japan seemed less threatening. Likewise, the US showed its displeasure at India’s non-cooperation in the Ukraine crisis by providing $450 million in assistance to Pakistan’s F-16 fighter fleet. 

Hence, it would not be incorrect to say that had there been no China, India would have been the biggest threat to the US in Asia. India can use the strategic advantage in its relationship with the US as long as China remains a threat to the US-led international order, as evidenced by the American endeavor to wean India away from Russia. 

If a ‘close multidimensional’ relationship with the US was the reason behind the gigantic rise of China, India should use the current structural boon to deepen its bonhomie on critical areas with the US, not in the hope of having an eternal amicability with the US, but to step ahead on the path of securing its fort against China and subsequently rising on the international stage.

At the same time, India should subside any incentive that makes its statemen believe that a relation of economic interdependence with China would bring about a change in Chinese behavior. 

Over-preoccupation with the idea of Chimerica proved disastrous to the US which is now struggling to defend the liberal international citadel against an increasingly revisionist China.

This critical juncture in international politics has brought immense opportunities for India which is trying to diversify its defense imports and trying to be self-reliant at the same time. India must make the best use of this opportunity to deepen its cooperation with the US to get access to critical information about military and technological know-how, which could give a major push not only to India’s self-reliance dream but also to India’s defense against the dragon.

[Photo by Obraz, Pixabay]

*Anshu Kumar is a student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. He is currently pursuing his Master of Arts in Politics with a Specialisation in International Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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