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Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationships between the United States, China and India
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Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationships between the United States, China and India

by Martin Sieff

Three powerful countries-China, India, and the United States-are competing for dominance in Asia, and U.S. policymakers need to adapt to the realities of a multipolar world. A pioneering, essential guide, Shifting Superpowers aims to energize the debate over the proper direction of U.S. foreign policy as Americans look to shed the burdens of global hegemony to


Three powerful countries-China, India, and the United States-are competing for dominance in Asia, and U.S. policymakers need to adapt to the realities of a multipolar world. A pioneering, essential guide, Shifting Superpowers aims to energize the debate over the proper direction of U.S. foreign policy as Americans look to shed the burdens of global hegemony to other countries capable of defending their own interests in their own regions. Journalist Martin Sieff shows how American policies have contributed to the two countries' rising mutual suspicion and resentment of the United States, and explores the traditional enmity between India and China, showing why they are determined to minimize friction and avoid any risk of conflict. He challenges policymakers to confront common perceptions: China is not automatically America's sworn enemy and India is not going to be America's loyal ally in the coming decades. Wisdom, realism, and moderation are essential in framing policies for both nations.

Editorial Reviews

Charles W. Freeman
Americans have remained curiously ignorant and incurious about India but have been obsessive and often wrong about China. Martin Sieff rectifies this imbalance in this worthwhile book. His discussion of the complex relationship between India and China relations is particularly first-rate, and his pragmatic approach to U.S. relations with both countries is simply superb.
Rajan Menon Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations
Martin Sieff, who has read widely, thought deeply, and mastered his subject, offers a trenchant and timely critique of one of our reigning orthodoxies, which presents China as our inevitable adversary and India as our new partner in a latter-day variant of containment. But he goes the extra mile in this splendid book and offers an alternative and enlightened approach, one that our leaders and foreign policy pundits would do well to take seriously.

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Copyright © 2009 the Cato Institute
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ISBN: 978-1-935308-21-8

Chapter One

The Historical Experience of India

India's history of repeated invasion and subjugation from the northwest has motivated a commitment to maintaining a powerful national military force. Today, this manifests itself as a huge standing army and a nuclear deterrent. Indian history over the past thousand years is a repeated tale of massacre, rape, and the extermination of civilizations. The threat has almost always come from the northwest and has usually been Muslim. Fear and enmity toward neighboring Pakistan are therefore far more deeply rooted than in the horrendous mutual massacres and ethnic expulsions and transfers of population that created the modern conflict in 1947.

In contrast to China, India has repeatedly been forced to absorb rich cultures from other origins. These waves of external enrichment were poured onto a polytheistic Hindu religious tradition that by its very nature was eclectic. Hindu India was therefore open to absorbing the most diverse traditions and influences. It found rooms for them in a vast and sprawling house of ideas.

Not surprisingly, when the British started preaching pluralism and democracy, many of the ideas thus transplanted found a wide audience. As the modern history of India since independence has shown, pluralistic democracy proved highly appropriate for a vast, densely populated subcontinent with so many languages, religions, and different ethnic groups.

The British involvement in India began as a straightforward mercantile commitment undertaken for simple profit. From 1757 to 1857, the British exercised power through a London-based corporation, the East India Company. It evolved eventually-at least in the imagination of the occupying power-into a great civilizing mission. From the 1830s on, British technology, then the most advanced in the world, was introduced into India. British educational and philosophical systems and theories were taught in India. The advent of the modern railroad system in the 1840s went hand in hand in that same decade with British educational reforms urged by Thomas Macaulay.

The Struggle for Freedom

The only major domestic upheaval during the 190-year period of British rule over most of India occurred with the Uprising of 1857, as the Indians remember it, but which is, revealingly, still recalled in Britain and the United States as "the Sepoy Mutiny." Following the events of 1857, the British government exercised its rule directly until India became independent in 1947.

The rising was indeed set off by mutinies within the native Indian military forces that the British had raised and relied on for generations. The immediate cause of the uprising of Indian troops, or sepoys as the British called them, was widespread rumors that new cartridges being supplied to the troops had been smeared with beef fat from cattle that was ritually unclean to practicing Hindus. Handling these cartridges was widely believed to break the religious caste standing of the troops who touched them-a matter of the gravest consequences to devout Hindus. The fat in the cartridges was also said to be lard-pork fat-which offended Muslims. Both Hindu and Muslim sepoys participated in the Great Revolt.

There were many, far deeper causes for the rising. And there was a surprisingly modern, 21st-century pattern to them. The rising was a reaction against globalization and modernization that were being imposed by the British on India at dramatic speed. A network of railroads had been constructed across the subcontinent over the previous 15 years. This new transportation system disrupted traditional patterns of commerce. It intensified the competitive advantage that British manufacturers enjoyed in India against Indian enterprises. British regulations to discourage the development of Indian factories that could compete freely against British ones caused social disruption and economic hardship to Indians in the 1850s. Modernization was not allowed to spread in India through the unregulated operation of the free market. It was distorted in favor of British manufacturing interests.

The rising was strongest in central northern India and down toward Rajasthan. It had much less of an effect on southern India and Bengal. Delhi fell to the Indian nationalists. The last Mughal emperor, still Muslim, was enlisted as the figurehead for a largely Hindu military revolt. The war was gruesome on both sides. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of British administrators and soldiers-and their wives and children-were slaughtered in grisly fashion. The British retaliated by crushing the revolt using their vastly superior military power with extreme ruthlessness. There were mass executions of captured rebels and suspected mutineers. Even more gruesome, an untold number of Indians were killed by being fired alive out of cannons. The practice was widespread. Most historians estimate the total death toll at several hundred thousand, the vast majority being Indian.

The deterrent lessons were taught and taught well. No serious direct military challenge to British occupation was attempted again for the next 90 years. However, the traumatic lessons of the failure of the 1857 revolt played their part in preparing the ground for Mohandas P. Gandhi's very different nonviolent protest movement of the 1920s and early 1930s. Neither the wave of assassinations of British officials in Bengal before World War I, nor the riotous unrest crushed after the war, significantly dented British control. By contrast, the British lost control of all north central India for months during the 1857 national rising. But in less than a year, they had reestablished full control.

Even at its worst, British repression during the Uprising of 1857 paled beside the self-inflicted wounds suffered by China at the same time. As will be discussed in chapter 2, from 1850 to 1865, the Celestial Kingdom was ripped apart by the Taiping Revolt, the bloodiest civil war in recorded human history, which claimed between 20 million and 30 million human lives. China remained subject to waves of anarchy, civil war, and foreign conquest for another century.

By contrast, India's evolution under the British appeared blessedly stable and steady. By the 1880s, the Indian railroad system was already the biggest and best in Asia. Commerce, within carefully guided and regulated channels, could thrive. British officials imposed high standards for administration and public health. They also vigorously maintained law and order.

However, there was another side to the picture. While offering India modernity with one hand, the British withheld it with the other. They did not allow the Indians to develop any significant modern steel-making or shipbuilding industry, even though up to the late 18th century Bengal was one of the most technologically advanced parts of Asia. Likewise, the great textile industries of the north of England imported Indian-grown cotton and then exported clothes back to India at immense profit for over a century, while colonial officials prevented the Indian states from developing textile industries of their own. Bengal, which had been for more than a millennium one of the richest regions in the world, underwent a slow but inexorable process of decline in the 150 years under British control. These parallel but contrasting legacies of tolerant, liberal political sophistication and state intervention that retarded industrial development continue to shape India's progress even into the 21st century.

Despite the failure of the Uprising of 1857, India never became a passive and pacifistic nation or subcontinent during the period of direct British rule. Popular resentment against the British imperial rule, or raj, repeatedly manifested itself in guerrilla movements. Slowly, the educated Indian middle class developed its own respectable political movement that eventually became the Indian National Congress. Meanwhile, Britain built up Indian military power to serve its own needs. The British proved particularly adept at co-opting recently defeated foes that had impressed them with their martial prowess to occupy niche but honored roles in their own military hierarchy. Generations of Sikhs and Gurkhas took the queen's, and then the king's, salt and served their masters selflessly from Borneo to Beijing and even as far away as North Africa.

The Indian Army, meanwhile, became by far the largest military force within the world-spanning British Empire, dwarfing Britain's relatively miniscule home army. It was used far outside the borders of India to project British power and to impose British interests across half of Asia and even into the Middle East.

Herein lay one of the greatest paradoxes of India's two centuries under British control. The peoples of the subcontinent were subjected to an imperial rule more alien and more radical than anything they had ever known. Under this rule, India's international power became a force to be reckoned with across South and Southeast Asia to a degree not seen since the days of the Mauryan Empire. This power, however, was used in the service of others, not in the service of Indians.

India's British rulers directed this vast military power first from Calcutta and then from the magnificent newly built imperial capital of New Delhi, just outside the fortress walls of the old Mughal capital. They used this power to defeat China in the two Opium Wars of 1840 and 1859-60. They used it to consolidate the British Empire in Southeast Asia. They used it to conquer Burma. And they even used loyal Indian forces to establish military and naval bases on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire on the coasts of the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf.

In World War I, Indian Army forces directed from New Delhi conquered Iraq in a long, bloody campaign against tough Ottoman Turkish opposition. It was Indian arms, therefore, that gave Britain its richest stake in the oil wealth of the Middle East.

In World War II, Indian military forces played an even more direct role, even though the scale of the Indian military achievement remains unknown to almost all Americans. Indians were instrumental in the greatest defeat ever suffered by the Japanese army in its history when the Anglo-Indian Army commanded by Gen. William Slim broke the Japanese 15th Army's last great offensive at the battles of Imphal and Kohima on India's eastern border with Burma in late 1944. The victory was a strategic sideshow compared with Adm. Chester Nimitz's central Pacific campaign that led directly to the overall defeat of Japan. But the number of Japanese troops involved and defeated was almost as large as that defeated in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's 1944-45 Luzon campaign.

In short, the British established the traditions of the Indian Army and created the military and national political structures that prepared India for its growth into a global power of the 21st century. But from World War I onward, the power of the British Empire over India was on the wane. The loss of control started with the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919. It gathered apace when Gandhi, soon known as the Mahatma, or great soul, launched the first and largest modern nonviolent protest movement in the 1920s. The point of no return was reached, as Winston Churchill furiously but impotently recognized, with the India Act of 1935. That fateful measure set the subcontinent on what proved to be an unstoppable drive toward full political independence.


Gandhi proved to be one of the most seminal figures in modern history. His movement eventually inspired such disparate leaders as Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Dr. Martin Luther King in the United States.

But while his influence is apparent in retrospect, he was an unlikely figure to lead India. He only returned to the land of his birth in early middle age, after studying and qualifying as a lawyer in London in the 1880s and then practicing law in South Africa, where he led a pioneering political protest movement to win political rights for his Indian minority. (He was not concerned about the fate of the black majority.) Gandhi understood from his years of studying law in London how the British legal system worked. Gandhi's extraordinary success in Indian politics was rooted in his cosmopolitan nature. He took the forensic legal skills he had learned in London and his observations of British political life and combined them with the symbols and cultural practices of traditional Indian life.

In this fashion, Gandhi set an example for effective Indian leaders by studying at the greatest institutions of the Western world and gaining the sophistication, polish, and understanding to engage leaders around the world and use their own concepts against them. He learned law and constitutional politics, not guerrilla war and the building of revolutionary organization or totalitarian bureaucracy. He thereby created a revolutionary, though generally nonviolent, participatory mass political movement that the subcontinent had never known before. Gandhi's approach incorporated many of the elements of what modern military strategists refer to as fourth-generation warfare: demoralizing and wrecking the state's management of society and rendering it ineffectual. In fact, many thousands of people died in violent communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in the 1930s and 1940s as a direct result of Gandhi's ostensibly nonviolent activist campaigns.

However, the rosy-eyed legend that surrounds Gandhi, much enhanced by the successful popular movie about him starring Ben Kingsley, obscures both the revolutionary nature of his achievement and the contradictions and ironies that he embodied.

Gandhi presented himself to the world as the exemplar of Indian spirituality, yet he was anything but. The product of upper-caste Indian Brahmin culture, he only retreated to the world of idealized spirituality after he had been supplanted from effective control of the Congress Party he did so much to create, and after he had won all his greatest political battles. He did not become a spiritual romantic until he was a fading political force. His greatest effect was as a political revolutionary of exceptional originality. He adapted Western concepts of political organization, mass participation in politics, and the manipulation of public opinion to the Indian stage. He was the first anti-colonial leader to successfully turn his insider's knowledge of the ruling power's political culture against it. Many would emulate the political-cultural jujitsu that he pioneered.

Gandhi's model of effective leadership for India was dramatically different from the ones that worked in China. As will be discussed in chapter 2, Hong Xiuquan, the spiritual leader of the Taiping, trail-blazed the path that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping followed when they ruled China. According to Mao, sophisticated knowledge of the wider world, such as Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai had experienced, was a fatal detriment to seizing and retaining supreme power. What was important was to understand the political psychology of hundreds of millions of China's peasants and how to inspire and direct them.

Gandhi, like Hong, Mao, and Deng, certainly understood the importance of winning the support of millions of peasants. "During the two decades from 1920 to 1939 under Gandhi's leadership," Stanley Wolpert writes, the Congress Party "transformed itself from an elite, moderate club to a mass national party representing all of India's regional and national interest groups, capable of mobilizing millions in its revolutionary non-cooperation campaigns." This was the key not merely to his own success but also to the enduring success and surprising resiliency of his Congress Party in the six decades after he died. But Gandhi harnessed the enthusiasm of millions of poor peasants to political ends, not revolutionary ones.

Gandhi was no naive or otherworldly saint who believed the application of nonviolence and the moral superiority it conferred would magically banish the British from India. In his old age, when he was no longer politically potent, he preached his spiritual gospel with as much fervor and zeal as Hong and Mao did their vastly more destructive ones. But in the 1920s and 1930s, Gandhi brilliantly wielded nonviolence as the most effective political tool available to erode the British will to rule India. He showed the British that without making commitments to establish national self-government they could no longer expect automatic compliance from the peoples of India.


Excerpted from Shifting SUPERPOWERS by MARTIN SIEFF Copyright © 2009 by the Cato Institute. Excerpted by permission.
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