Indo-US relation — the Axis of grudging cooperation

After meeting the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa at the Copenhagen climate conference in December, US President Barack Obama hailed the deal struck on climate change: “Today we have made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough.” What he evidently failed to realize was that the summit exposed how flip flops in American foreign policy in Asia had moved India and China into an unexpected embrace at Copenhagen, and beyond.

President Obama appears to be intensely focused on developing a better relationship with China, at almost any cost. During his visit to Beijing             in November, he virtually conceded the role of an external security guarantor in South Asia to his hosts. Special Representative Richard Hol-brooke thereafter reportedly advised the Chinese to play a more proactive role in expanding their arms transfers to Pakistan. The Obama administration’s interest in “reconciliation” with the Taliban and possibilities of a precipitate US withdrawal from Afghanistan leading to a return to Taliban control, raised concerns in India about the possibility of a US-China-Pakistan nexus emerging in India’s neighborhood.

These developments in-evitably led New Delhi toward adopting a foreign-policy hedging strategy of “engaging with all powers but aligning with none.” This tack will be complemented with greater emphasis on joining emerging powers like Brazil, Russia and South Africa for developing a more “multipolar” world order.

The Copenhagen summit represented a good start. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured a visibly concerned Premier Wen Jiabao that India would stand by China during the summit, together with partners like Brazil and South Africa. Premier Wen, in turn, assured Prime Minister Singh that the US-Chinese joint declaration in November was “not directed against India.”
These assurances were all the more remarkable given that they came amid a backdrop of mutual suspicion. Since early 2007, reporting in Chinese state-owned media about India had been consistently hostile. Chinese commentators warned Beijing would not hesitate to enforce its territorial claims on the Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh by “resorting to military action to thoroughly liberate the people there.” China’s criticism sharpened during a visit by the Dalai Lama to a sacred Buddhist shrine in Arunachal Pradesh at a time when President Obama had declined to receive the Dalai Lama.
Bilateral relations started to warm after Copenhagen. Hostile references to India in Chinese state-run media ended. The border spat calmed down. India is continuing to cooperate with China on climate change, the Doha Round of global trade talks and in the Group of 20. Indian President Pratibha Patil will embark on a state visit to China soon.

Yet India has to remain vigilant about warming relations with China. Beijing has become markedly more assertive abroad since President Obama assumed office. In May last year, China imposed a ban on fishing in the South China Sea, overruling Vietnamese protests. The state-owned China Offshore Oil Company announced in February that it had discovered a new deep-water gas field in the South China Sea and China dispatched patrol ships to assert its fishing rights in the waters around the Spratly Islands.

The Chinese military has acted similarly aggressively in the East China Sea, with the conduct of a military exercise and the commencement of oil and gas exploration in disputed waters, provoking protests from Japan. China has refused to join Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as a member of the Mekong River Commission. Cambodia is particularly concerned about the lowering of water levels in the Mekong resulting from the construction of dams across the river in China.

India isn’t immune to these sorts of threats. It was only after India provided China with satellite photographs that Beijing belatedly acknowledged that it was building a hydroelectric project on the shared Brahmaputra River and agreed to exchange data on water flows. India is raising two new infantry divisions to deploy along the Arunachal Pradesh-Tibet border, together with steps to improve communications and enhance air power along the entire Sino-Indian border. The Indian Navy is set to acquire two new aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in coming years — a clear response to China’s build-up.

India has tried to prod the Obama administration into a more active role. New Delhi has recently had a detailed exchange of views on the Asia-Pacific region with the State Department’s highest-ranking Asia official, Kurt Campbell, but much more needs to be done. While New Delhi welcomes cooperative and constructive relations between the US and China, concerns in India are inevitable when the Sino-US relationship is marked either by confrontation or collusion which undermines Indian interests.

Many Indians wonder if the Obama administration has any grand vision at all in shaping the emerging architecture for security and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. No one doubts that relations with the US will remain a key feature of Indian foreign policy. But in the absence of mutual trust which characterized the relationship in the recent past, existing misgivings will not be put to rest merely by grand state banquets or glib talk about democracies being “natural partners.”

(G. Parthasarathy, a visiting professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, was India’s ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2000.)

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