India’s growing engagement with the us has caused china to become wary. yet, if Modi does a fine balancing act, he can play footsie with other nations while guarding his country’s self-interest
By Seema Guha
US President Barak Obama’s presence as chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations has triggered massive interest in the political and strategic interplay of forces in the Asia-Pacific region and the equation between India, China and the US. Obama’s second visit to India is symbolic of the renewed attempt by the two countries to reboot ties that had drifted after the 1995 civil nuclear agreement.
Much has been made of the visit and speculation about the strategic content has been avidly discussed by analysts. The easiest explanation for the visit, as well as the one most pleasing to Indian analysts, is that the US is ganging up with India to contain China’s growing military might and flexing of muscles in the region.
India needs China for funds needed to modernize its railways, ports and airports
This has made China’s neighbors wary. A joint statement issued at the end of Obamas’s visit deals exclusively with the importance of keeping the sea lanes of the world safe for commercial movement. The statement chided China for provocative behavior with its smaller neighbors.
SUSPICIOUS OF CHINA
The Indian establishment too has been wary of China ever since the disastrous 1962 border conflict when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) gave an unprepared Indian army a massive drubbing. Suspicion of communist China is deep-rooted in India and public opinion has not forgotten the 1962 humiliation. The unresolved border dispute between these two Asian giants, as well as PLA’s frequent intrusion into India, including the Depsang stand-off in 2013, has added to this mistrust among Indians. So having the world’s only superpower (though in decline) play footsie with India to contain China is something that falls in place naturally here. However, having said that, the world today is much too complicated and interdependent to get into these simplistic black and white grooves.
Chinese president Xi Jinping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Gujarat in September 2014
China, too, has been closely watching the Obama visit. Beijing, a self-conscious power that is on tenterhooks over US moves in the Pacific, had warned India not to fall into the trap set by the West to support the US “pivot to Asia”, aimed at countering China. Obama himself commented on this: “I was surprised when I heard that the Chinese government had put out these statements … China doesn’t need to be threatened because we have good relations with India.” He went on to add: “My belief is that in this moment in history, there’s an opportunity to create a win-win formula in which all countries are abiding by a common set of rules and standards and we’re focused on lifting up prosperity for our people, not at the expense of others, but together with each other. That’s what my discussions with Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi have focused on,” Obama told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
Suspicion of communist China is deep-rooted in India ever since the 1962 humiliation of India
It is quite evident that the Indian government agrees with Obama. Each country today is keen to develop ties with every other nation and India and China are no exceptions. Soon after Obama flew out, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was off to Beijing on a bilateral visit. While there, she ann-ounced that Modi would be visiting China in May. Chinese President Xi Jinping made the rare gesture of meeting with Swaraj and said China and India have taken “solid steps” to make new progress in bilateral ties. This is significant when as a rule, presidents do not meet visiting foreign ministers, leaving it to their own minister to do so.
Indian officials confirmed that the Chinese did not raise any query on the statement put out by India and the US after the Obama visit, specially the separate note dealing with the Asia-Pacific. If they were so concerned, the matter would have cropped up. Instead, there were hints that Xi may even return Modi’s gesture (who took him to Gujarat when he visited India in September 2014) by taking him to his hometown.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with Modi
The bottomline is that the Chinese will also woo India and persuade New Delhi that it will serve India’s interest better to work with China. With the US paying renewed interest in New Delhi, India is in a position to go forward and extend ties to both the major powers and do a balancing act which serves its own interests.
It will serve neither New Delhi nor Beijing to oppose each other at every point. India and China will co-operate on issues that affect their mutual self-interest. Yet, at another plane, the two will compete, more so if India in the next few decades can catch up with China and grow into a credible economic powerhouse.
For now, New Delhi needs infrastructure projects and is looking for funding world-wide. With both the US and Europe still struggling with an economic turndown, China is about the only country still flush with funds and in a position to make massive investments in India’s railways, ports and airports, which need to be modernized. Chinese companies are already in the infrastructure business in India and would love to expand their market here.
China would like India to stay out of the Pacific waters
China’s concerns about the growing warmth in Indo-US ties is linked with the US’s renewed aim at strengthening its military presence in the Asia-Pacific. The US already has defense ties with Australia, Japan and Philippines and excellent political relations with Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. While the US sees its alliances as a stabilizing force for the region, China believes the opposite. It would like India to stay out of the Pacific arena. But it can do little to prevent this.
Ever since China has been showing its military clout in the region, talk of a future security architecture for the Asia-Pacific region is very much on the agenda. Conversations between several nations have already taken place. East Asian nations, as well as Japan, which has a long history of animosity towards China, would like India, another large Asian country, to take a more active role in policing the sea lanes and balancing China’s looming shadow. In the past, during the UPA rule, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have been inclined to play footsie with the US, defense minister AK Antony was not. He also had the backing of a large section of Congressmen, traditionally suspicious of the US. With Modi in the saddle, India is expected to play a much more active role.
There is now serious conversation between the US, Japan, India and Australia for reviving the quadrilateral security dialogue, which Japanese PM Shinzo Abe pushed in 2007. Abe called it this the arc of democracy stretching from the US and involving Australia, Japan and India. China protested vehemently at that time. With a change of government in Australia, the move fizzled out. Soon afterwards, Abe was also out of government.
“India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith… not splintered along any lines…”
But now with China even more aggressive over its claims to South China Sea, there is talk of reviving the forum. Abe is also back in power with a comfortable majority. Modi, it appears, is as keen. For India, which has long regarded the Indian Ocean as its main stra-tegic sea way, it will mean expanding this to include the Pacific Ocean, which is gaining in importance because of the growing economy of the Asia-Pacific region. East Asian countries, as well as the US, Australia, Japan and India are keen to ensure that China does not act as the regional bully and yet, none of them want to jeopardize their ties with China. After all, they have thriving economic ties with this Asian giant. Sino-US bilateral trade is around $560 billion. In comparison, Indo-US trade is a meager $100 billion. So, while the collective effort is not to antagonize China, they want to ensure safety of the Pacific sea lanes by cooperative effort.
Part of Sino-US strategic and economic dialogue is the new regional security architecture for Asia-Pacific. China, as a major world power, is certainly involved in the security talks. India’s involvement in it will be the new focus. “The way both the US and India approach the issue in the Asia Pacific is very similar. Neither is aiming for confrontation with China or even to contain China’’, said Benjamin J Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to Obama, to The New York Times. Yet, both are committed to a rule-based order in the Pacific.
With expectations of an economic turnaround in India, the world is once again looking at it as a good business destination. New Delhi finds itself in a happy position and can make the best use of the opportunity to tango with all nations and secure its needs. And getting close to the US helps India keep the Chinese on their toes and ensure that some caution is used while dealing with this country.