Washington Add the Bush push for missile defense to a long list of items separating India and China. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government likes it. Beijing hates it. Therein lies a tale of Asia's most dangerous long-term tensions, and America's obligation to avoid making them more dangerous.
It is time for a bit of strategic heresy: The chances of serious conflict between India and China may now outrank the more obvious antagonisms between China and Taiwan as a threat to global stability. The balance of power across the Himalayas could be more tenuous than the confrontation across the Taiwan Strait.
The standoff in the Taiwan Strait is carefully studied and calculated by each side and by the United States. President Bush has made clear U.S. commitments to protect Taiwan, in a way that adds to stability.
China's leaders are emotional about Taiwan. But I assume that they are also rational: They will presumably not launch an invasion that will surely fail. China's growing economic power should give Beijing increased confidence to wait for reunification to occur peacefully (and democratically).
But there are fewer established rules of the game between New Delhi and Beijing, which went to war in 1962 and which remain locked in bitter and fundamental disagreement on matters ranging from India's bid to have its status as a nuclear power internationally accepted to future membership for India on the United Nations Security Council.
Danger arises not from plans by either side to go to war, but from the miscalculation and misunderstanding that could emerge as China seeks a sphere of influence in Asia commensurate with its new power. For all their hostility, Beijing and Taiwan know how to communicate with each other. That is yet to be established for India and China.
Their long-simmering differences escalated onto a new plateau when India stunned the world by testing nuclear weapons in May 1998. Pakistan, which has received significant nuclear help from China, immediately followed suit.
But Pakistan, now a borderline failed state, is largely a problem of the past for India. Vajpayee's nuclear strategy is centered wholly on China. As Vajpayee informed President Clinton immediately after the tests, India could no longer ignore China's growing nuclear missile force and the assistance Beijing was providing to Pakistan as part of an anti-India policy.
Vajpayee's plea for understanding and a rethinking of the global nuclear order fell on deaf ears. Clinton denounced the nuclear tests and imposed unilateral U.S. sanctions on both India and Pakistan.
The United States also joined China in threatening to keep India out of any future expansion of permanent Security Council membership as long as India did not renounce nuclear weapons. Keeping Japan or India from gaining a permanent seat is a constant feature of China's strategy to be the dominant Asian power.
There is new thinking about nuclear doctrine, and India, at the White House. Bush intends to end the sanctions in a matter of months, according to aides, and wants a new strategic relationship with India. The president has nominated as his ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, an experienced diplomat.
China noticed Bush's unusually warm welcome of Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh for an Oval Office chat about missile defense in April. Since then, India has been more supportive of Bush's plans than all but one or two of America's European allies.
Missile defense could reinforce India's declared strategy of minimal deterrence to deploy just enough warheads to ward off Chinese attack. On paper that resembles Bush's hope to cut U.S. offensive nuclear weapons.
China, however, sees the Bush strategic defense plan as aimed specifically at neutralizing its small but growing nuclear arsenal. A significant warming of U.S.-Indian ties, powered by conceptual agreement on missile defense, could cause the Chinese to expand and accelerate their nuclear upgrades, to poke at India through help to Pakistan and take risks that have not been well-calculated.
A re-weighting of America's Asia strategy in India's favor is long overdue, and is possible under Vajpayee and Bush. But the United States will need to develop a first-class diplomatic strategy to accompany the defense programs on which this administration lavishes so much attention.
The emerging emphasis of the administration's war planners on Asia as a major source of future global instability makes sense. But that is only the beginning of wisdom. Geography and muscle alone do not qualify as strategy.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.