While the United States is an important factor shaping Sino-Indian relations, the role of the United States in Chinese and Indian relations with the countries of Central Asia receives far less attention. Understanding the intersection of these various players is essential to anticipating and evaluating Asia’s future. The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy brought former Ambassador Robert O. Blake, Jr., U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs together with young experts and students from over 20 countries to discuss Sino-Indian relations in light of U.S. policies in Central Asia. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated this second installment of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy’s “China and South Asia’s Future” seminar series.

U.S.-India Relations

Relations between the United States and India are currently the warmest that they have been in decades, Blake explained. While U.S. sanctions following India’s nuclear tests in 1998 marked a low point in the relationship, Blake said that the past decade has seen marked improvement.

  • Strengthened U.S.-India Ties: During his official visit to India in November 2010, President Obama further strengthened ties between the two countries by advocating India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), engagement on the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and a permanent non-veto seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
  • India and Nuclear Cooperation: A Chinese scholar questioned Blake about the strategic importance to the United States of providing India with nuclear power generation materials and technology. Blake replied the United States entered into a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India to encourage its development of an energy model that is less dependent on coal. He added that this nuclear cooperation is intended to be peaceful in nature and to bring India inside the nonproliferation regime.
  • India Not a Counterweight to China: Blake reassured Chinese scholars that the United States is not pursuing closer relations with India as a counterweight to China. Instead, the United States seeks cooperation with India on its own merits. Blake stressed that the United States and India share common interests in a number of areas, including economic diversification, growth and anti-terrorism.

U.S.-Central Asia Relations

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) evaluates its strategy, Blake argued that it is becoming increasingly clear that Central Asian nations must become more involved if they are to succeed in creating a stable and sovereign Afghan nation.

  • Geostrategic Space in Central Asia: U.S. president Obama’s decision to press the “reset” button on relations between the United States and Russia has provided the geostrategic space and momentum for the United States to enhance its engagement with Central Asia, said Blake. He noted that while both China and Russia have significant stakes in the region, which is demonstrated by their active participation and leadership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), U.S. cooperation with China has lagged behind its work with Russia on Central Asia matters. For example, the United States has been more effective in engaging Russia than China in combating narcotics trafficking in the region. Blake welcomed greater coordination and communication with China on such issues.
  • Engaging China on Regional Issues: Blake also cited an interest in engaging China on promoting regional stability, in particular combating flows of terrorism and the confluence between al-Qaeda and the East Turkestan Independence Movement. Saalman asked the Chinese participants how they thought China could best be engaged in confronting such regional issues—through bilateral or multilateral mechanisms. The general consensus was that China would continue to engage at the bilateral level on Afghanistan, rather than entering a broader coalition.
  • Central Asia’s Importance to Afghanistan: Blake mentioned that Central Asia is becoming increasingly essential to the Afghanistan effort, as neighboring nations begin to supply the country with electricity, award scholarships to Afghan students, and allow the United States to establish temporary military bases within their borders. One Chinese participant expressed concern about the establishment of U.S. bases in Central Asia, outside of Afghanistan. Blake responded that with the exception of the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, all other bases in Central Asia are located within Afghanistan and that the United States intends to close all of them when U.S. operations end.

China’s Role in Central Asia

China’s emergence as the largest economy in Asia and its increasingly influential role in the region will lead other powers to look to it for support and cooperation in Central Asian affairs, including on Afghanistan.

  • China and NATO’s Common Interests: Blake noted that China shares many common interests with NATO forces in Afghanistan, namely stabilizing the region and stemming the flow of terrorism across borders. He advocated a stronger role for China on stabilization measures within Afghanistan. Asked by a Chinese student what this role would entail, Blake responded that the United States would like to see China invest in infrastructure projects, much as it has done elsewhere in Central Asia.
  • Support for China and the SCO: Blake expressed his support for the SCO and welcomed the crucial role that China plays in the organization. When a Chinese student asked about the SCO’s impact in Afghanistan, Blake responded that it has been minimal thus far. However, he expressed a desire that multilateral mechanisms, such as the SCO, could help promote a positive momentum in the region and expressed U.S. interest in cooperating with the SCO.
  • U.S. Committed to Ties with China and India: A Chinese scholar asked about the strategic significance of U.S. military relations and exercises with India and various other Asian nations. In particular, he cited concerns about the exclusion of China in such activities. Blake responded that the United States has pursued military-to-military relations with China, but the Chinese leadership has rebuffed U.S. overtures. He emphasized that the United States remains committed to enhancing its ties with both China and India and hopes to see both countries contribute in the establishment of a more secure Asian region.