India and US talk, China is a subtext
For much of the first year of the Obama administration, 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’s response seemed to have been to see this all as a measure of weakness, humiliating Barack Obama in his first summit in Beijing and trying to leave him out to dry in Copenhagen.
This year the 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 on their agenda. Thus 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 almost not be surprised to hear that the two would also work together on rare earths — a set of substances that are mentioned know whenever you want to make Japan happy and China unhappy.
Third, much of the military togetherness of the Indo-US defence partnership ultimately is driven by China. The more either of them is alarmed by China, the more willingness they are prepared to work together.
Fourth, India has supported the US position in multilateral bodies like the G20 that “global fiscal imbalances” lie behind the present weakness of the world economy. This, when you boil it down, is about the present battle between the US and China where 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 agences. Same policy, different tactics.
But all in all 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. Look at its developing charm offensive against India.
This could change, but given the general drift in the Obama administration I suspect the change will arise from the actions of China rather than the actions of the US and India.