Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Washington, DC, as the first state guest of the Obama presidency on 24 November. Obama was in Asia recently on a nine-day tour, which took him to Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China. This is a time of mounting domestic challenges for Obama. Yet his visit to Asia was intended to underline the significance with which the changing global balance of power is being viewed in Washington. And China is at the centre of this global reordering so, not surprisingly, a lot of attention was focused on Obama’s trip to China. The ground reality in the Asia-Pacific region is changing rather rapidly, and questions have arisen about whether the Obama administration has a strategy towards the region at all.
China’s growing economic and political clout was on display when, in its early days, the Obama administration toyed with the idea of a G-2, a global condominium of the US and China, whereby China can be expected to look after and “manage” the Asia-Pacific. When this elicited strong, negative reactions from the US allies in the region, the US decided to change its course. The talk then turned to a G-3—a forum that would bring the US, China and Japan together this month for the first time. This was primarily aimed at pacifying Japan, which had felt marginalized by the growing coziness between the US and China. But now, it is Washington’s turn to feel isolated at the growing camaraderie between Beijing and Tokyo.
Sino-US ties are now being described by a new phrase, “strategic reassurance”. The US will not attempt to interfere with China’s rise in the international system, and China will cooperate with the US in dealing with major global concerns, thereby easing concerns in Washington about China’s intentions. Obama has described China as a “vital partner, as well as a competitor”, warning of “enormous strains” in US-China ties if economic imbalances between them go uncorrected for long. Beijing, for its part, remains concerned about the direction of US trade policy after the US slapped tariffs on Chinese tyres and steel pipes, even as other Asian countries also harbour doubts about Obama’s commitment to free trade. Obama got nothing of substance from the Chinese, even as he tried to project the image of a US that was more conciliatory than ever in dealing with the Middle Kingdom. It was clear to everyone that Washington was now dealing with a Beijing that was more ready to push back against the West than it has ever been. There were no major breakthroughs as Obama not only failed to get Chinese support for sanctions against Iran but also failed to address global concerns about China’s currency manipulation. The Communist Party succeeded in stage-managing Obama’s public appearances. Deferring to his Chinese hosts, Obama didn’t even hold a news conference in China. Meanwhile, he did his best to acknowledge China’s rise as a global power and was laudatory about China’s global role without touching on contentious issues such as human rights.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Then came the joint statement, which has led to alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. According to the Sino-US joint statement, “the two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region”. Days before the Indian Prime Minister is visiting Washington, Obama is in effect underlining India’s role as a mere regional power on a par with Pakistan, while elevating China’s role in South Asia. This is in stark contrast to the Bush administration which wooed India as a rising power, viewing it as a pole in the emerging global balance of power. Acknowledging India as the primary actor in South Asia, de-hyphenated from Pakistan, gave India what it had long desired—a de facto status as a nuclear weapon state. Now under Obama, India is back to being seen as a problem state that requires outside support to solve its problems.
While the US and China have every right to discuss South Asia in their bilateral discussions, India should make it clear to Washington that Beijing is part of the problem in South Asia and there is no role for China in the region. By supporting Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional military programmes despite its global commitments, China is merely interested in ensuring parity between a rising India and increasingly decrepit Pakistan, so that India will not be able to break out as a global power capable of challenging China’s pre-eminence in Asia and beyond.
It is inevitable that America’s Asia policy will change in the coming years, as it cannot remain isolated from global and regional trends. The US’ policy will have to move beyond the traditional post-Cold War understanding of Asian regional order. Obama’s trip has done little to assuage the concerns of Chinese neighbours who would like a more assertive US to balance China. The outcome of Obama’s visit might convince the world that it’s the Chinese who are now calling the shots in the Sino-US relationship. It is in this rapidly evolving strategic context that India will have to fashion its approach towards the US. The present trajectory of Sino-US ties should make India revisit some of its foreign policy assumptions so that it can hold firm in defence of its core national interests.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is currently a visiting professor at IIM, Bangalore. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org