Even as Indian officials watch the rise of China and recent changes to its foreign policy with apprehension, they prefer to avoid having to choose sides between the United States and China.
That sentiment marked the keynote address by veteran journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, winner of the 2017 Shorenstein Journalism Award. Speaking on April 16 at the Award’s sixteenth anniversary panel discussion titled “India, the United States, and China: The New Triangle in Asia,” Varadarajan described a triangle where all three parties were in flux.
The award recognizes Varadarajan’s exemplary record of excellence in reporting on India’s domestic and foreign affairs in both traditional and new media. As founding editor of The Wire, Varadarajan combines innovative digital strategies with quality reporting that advances positive social, economic, and political change.
“Today we can see, across Asia as well as the United States, that journalism has been somewhat reinvigorated by… the growth of authoritarianism,” said Daniel Sneider, Shorenstein APARC visiting scholar, who chaired the noon panel. “I think we feel even more vindicated in hosting this award…and giving some attention to people who are making this kind of contribution.”
Thomas Fingar, a China specialist and a Shorenstein APARC fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, and Nayan Chandra, the founder, former editor-in-chief, and current consulting editor of YaleGlobal Online magazine, joined Varadarajan on the panel.
The panelists addressed a host of questions related to Indian foreign policy under the geopolitical construct of a rising China and a retreating United States. Although the China-India-U.S. triangle has existed for some time, Varadarajan argued that present conditions make it an important topic for renewed discussion.
Pointing to recent internal changes by president Xi Jinping, India’s departure from the so-called Nehruvian consensus, as well as the unpredictability of U.S. foreign and trade polices under the Trump presidency, Varadarajan depicted a triangle comprised of shifting segment lengths and angles. He reviewed the India-U.S. and the India-China relationships and their evolution over the last decade-and-a-half; outlined significant changes in China’s foreign and economic policies over the last eight years; and elucidated the U.S.-India response to these changes.
Since 1998 and India’s declaration of its status as a nuclear power, U.S.-India relations have seen a succession of rises and falls under each presidency, with the present administration being no exception. “When the rest of the world was ambiguous, ambivalent, a bit worried about what the United States might do under Trump,” Varadarajan said, “Prime Minister Modi was one of the few world leaders to actually seek a doubling down of the relationship." Over the same period, India-China relations tended to follow a similar pattern of peaks and troughs, albeit in a reversed pattern. “If you look broadly at the India-China relationship,” Varadarajan summated, “it’s a textbook case of how improvements in economic relations and improvements in trade do not necessarily lead to improvements in political relations."
Varadarajan closed his remarks by arguing against the existing viewpoint of the triangle as a zero-sum game. “You cannot, on the one hand, talk of the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and, on the other hand, create forums or architecture that in some ways are designed to keep the Chinese out… India's interests lie perhaps in an architecture that is genuinely inclusive.”
The Shorenstein Journalism Award, which carries a cash prize of $10,000, recognizes accomplished journalists committed to critical reporting on and exploring the complexities of Asia through their writing. It alternates between honoring recipients from the West, who mainly address American audiences, and recipients from Asia, who pave the way for freedom of the press in their countries. Established in 2002, the award honors the legacy of Mr. Walter H. Shorenstein. A visionary businessman, philanthropist, and champion of Asian-American relations, Shorenstein was dedicated to promoting excellence in journalism and deeper understanding of Asia.
Varadarajan called the award a “boost to those of us in India who are fighting the good fight of keeping independent journalism alive-and kicking under difficult circumstances.”
A video of Varadarajan’s keynote speech will be posted soon.