The end of the Cold War heralded a new world order, one where the traditional bipolarity gave way to a more fluid and multipolar international system. The geopolitical landscape of the 21st century is increasingly defined by the complex interplay of strategic interests among global powers. At the heart of this complexity lies the trilateral relationship between China, the United States, and India. These three nations, being among the most populous and powerful in the world, have a significant influence on the present global order. This trilateral relationship has undergone significant transformations over the past two decades.
China-US-India diplomatic relations have gone through three stages
After the end of the Cold War, trilateral relations between China, the US, and India have gone through three stages, each with unique characteristics. Before 2011, relations between China and the US were notably stronger than those between the US and India, and China and India. This was largely because India stood in the Soviet camp from 1971 to the end of the Cold War, a period where Sino-US relations were improving. Consequently, up until 2011, India maintained a cautious stance towards both the US and China.
Between 2011 and 2017, after the US proposed the “Re-balance to Asia” policy, India adopted a foreign policy that maintained an equal distance between China and the US, leading to a balanced state in the trilateral relationship. In the discussion of whether to join the US’ “Rebalance to Asia” policy, India issued the "Non-Aligned 2.0" document, insisting on seeking balance between China and the US.
During the first term of Narendra Modi's government, India's foreign policy was pro-China as well as pro-US. But the 2017 Donglang (Doklam) standoff prompted India to change its strategy. After the US Indo-Pacific strategy was launched in 2017, coupled with the China-India border standoff in 2020, India rapidly aligned closer with the US, effectively becoming a quasi-ally and jointly adopting a stance against China.
The internal logic of the changes in China-US-India relations
Why would the trilateral relations change like this? In my view, the most direct factor is the shift in relative strength, seen from an external environmental viewpoint. In 1991, with the Soviet Union's dissolution, the US's economic power was almost 20 times greater than that of China and India, who were then approximately equal economically. Now, China's economy is five times that of India's, and its defense spending is triple that of India's, making China India's largest challenge. The second factor is the US's renewed strategy of leveraging India to counterbalance China. Some US experts believe that India outperforming China could diminish China's model and influence in the developing world.
Key changes have also taken place in Indian domestic politics. Since its inception in 1947, India was predominantly governed by the center-left political parties, with right-wing groups often regarded as illegal forces. But now the right-wing Modi government pursues a pro-American, anti-Pakistan, and anti-China policy. Additionally, Modi’s unchallenged position within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his distinctive diplomatic characteristics and ideological leanings, have bolstered the US-India relationship while simultaneously presenting a series of challenges to China.