India and US Talk, China is a Subtext

For much of the first year of Obama’s presidency, Washington sought a broad accommodation with Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told US diplomats and officials to keep China happy. It was all about US weakness, treasury bill stocks, climate change and the need to work with the superpower in the making. China seemed to see all this as an indication of weakness, and responded by humiliating Barack Obama at his first summit in Beijing and trying to leave him out to dry in Copenhagen.

This year, US policy shifted as Beijing pushed the envelope around the world. The US urged the Southeast Asian countries to take a tough stand on territorial disputes with China, promising to back them fully. It also tried to stiffen Japan’s spine as China took potshots at it over territory and even economic relations.

India was having its own problems with China. The squabble over the boundary question was taken up several notches. China began reasserting its claim on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, dubbing it “Southern Tibet.” It also shifted its policy on Kashmir, an area where it had remained strictly neutral.

The obvious question is how much China will be the strategic ghost at the Hyderabad House banquet hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The answer is it will be there, but left largely unmentioned in public.

First, China’s assertiveness has made the Obama Administration begin to insert India into a strategic framework of trying to constrain China. India has responded with a senior official saying just before Singh’s recent East Asian tour that India would seek stronger ties with Southeast and East Asian countries as part of an aggressive “constrain China” policy.

Second, the two are adding China oriented issues to their agenda, like the soon-to-be-announced joint Indo-US programme on Africa, an idea taken from the similarly inspired Indo-Japanese accord on Africa. I would not be surprised to hear that the two would also work together on rare earths — a set of substances that are mentioned now whenever you want to make Japan happy and China unhappy.

Third, much of the military toughness of the Indo-US defence partnership ultimately is driven by China. The more either of them is alarmed by China, the more willing they are to work together.

Fourth, India has supported in multilateral bodies like the G20 the US position that “global fiscal imbalances” lie behind the present weakness of the world economy. When you boil it down, this is about the current battle between the US and China in which the latter keeps its currency devalued and the former prints mountains of dollars in response. Obama is known to have asked whether New Delhi would care to support Washington in pressuring China about the value of the yuan. India demurred, preferring to do that through multilateral agencies. Same policy, different tactics.

But this nothing like the Bush Administration years. Both India and the US keep large chunks of their China policy to themselves. They both pursue many parts of their China policies bilaterally, directly with Beijing. They don’t consult each other too much about many of these policies. And the Indo-US East Asian strategic dialogue is really about informing each other about what we are doing rather than really coordinating policy. Beijing plays on this, in effect seeking to keep a certain distance between India and the US; just look at its developing charm offensive against India.

This could change, but given the general drift of the Obama Administration, I suspect the change will arise out of China rather than the US and India.



Copyright © 2010 the Hindustan Times

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