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Chinese take away

At his joint press appearance with US President Barack Obama at the capital’s Hyderabad House,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he is not afraid of the K-word.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
November 11, 2010 12:31:14 am

Obama’s C-word

At his joint press appearance with US President Barack Obama at the capital’s Hyderabad House on Monday,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he is not afraid of the K-word. But it is the C-word that has animated international reportage on the Obama visit to India. The C-word is about China and the prospect of its “containment” by the United States.

In the last two years,Dr Singh and Obama have developed enough understanding to skirt around the political minefield of Jammu and Kashmir. Contrary to the fears in Delhi and hopes in Islamabad,Obama had no incentive to wreck his India trip by pushing Dr Singh on Kashmir and Indo-Pak relations. One reason for the dominance of the China theme is that Obama’s trip to India,Indonesia,South Korea and Japan is being seen as an American effort to strengthen ties with the four Asian democracies. That he is not going to Beijing during this trip has added to the perception that containing a newly assertive China is very much on top of Obama’s mind.

Another reason is Obama’s decision to lend support to India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and facilitate India’s integration into the global nuclear order. On both these fronts,China’s remains ambivalent. Obama’s call for a larger Indian role in Asia and his emphasis on cooperation with India in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Rim have all given an edge to the view that Delhi and Washington might be ganging up against Beijing.

Not so fast. Recall that exactly a year ago this month,when Obama traveled to China,the excitement within the Asian strategic community was all about the so-called G-2. As Obama signaled strong commitment to build a global partnership with China,there was much nervousness that Washington and Beijing might unveil a “bilateral condominium”,over Asia,including the subcontinent. After this week’s chatter on containing China,the fashion within the global strategic community could change again when Washington receives the Chinese President Hu Jintao in January.

The ground reality,however,is that the Indo-US partnership is aspirational and a work in progress. In contrast,the Sino-US relationship is much larger. While Dr Singh and Obama are reducing the area of discord between the two countries,Obama has to manage the growing tension with China.

The hedge

The best way of looking at the emerging strategic triangle between Washington,Delhi and Beijing is in terms of hedging. The United States is hedging against the possibility that China’s rise might not be peaceful and has begun to take a bit of insurance by investing in strategic cooperation with India. A rising China would naturally like to expand its own sphere of influence in Asia. But it must hedge against the possibility that even an America on the decline can mobilise a countervailing coalition in Asia. On its part,Delhi is hedging against a Sino-American condominium as well as a Sino-American Cold War. Either of them will severely constrain India’s options in Asia and beyond.

Delhi has no illusions that it can define the evolution of Sino-US relations. After all a rising India is still the weakest point of the new strategic triangle. The Sino-American relationship is far thicker than either Sino-Indian ties or the Indo-US partnership.

For example,China’s trade surplus with the United States in two months — around $55 billion — is nearly as large as Delhi’s total annual trade with either Washington or Beijing. The United States and China are locked in a complex web of financial interdependence and do a lot more political business with each other.

Delhi’s task

After Obama cut some geopolitical slack to India this week,Delhi now has a huge opportunity to expand its engagement with China. As it prepares for an intensive round of consultations with Beijing in the next few weeks and plans to host the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in December,India would like to know if Beijing is ready to respect India’s “core interests.”

A Chinese decision to explicitly endorse India’s case for a permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group would remove much of the recently-accumulated distrust between Delhi and Beijing. If China can return to its traditional neutrality on the question of Jammu and Kashmir between Delhi and Islamabad,a dark shadow on Sino-Indian ties will be lifted.

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