(This article, which was part of a package of stories on President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India, was published in DNA edition dated October 31, 2010. See below for links to some of the other articles in the package.)
A year is a long time in geopolitics. And the year gone by – from the time US President Barack Obama visited China in 2009 to his upcoming visit to India later this week – has proved long enough to accentuate a striking change of course in US strategic orientation towards Asia in general – and towards China and India in particular. And in that context, China will be closely observing Obama’s ‘Discovery of India’ tour for clues on how far the US will go to project India as a rising ‘Asian power’ that commands deeper engagement, analysts and strategists told Sunday DNA.
“China is watching President Obama’s trip to India very carefully,” says John Lee, research fellow at The Center for Independent Study in Sydney and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. There was a perception in Beijing in 2008-09 that the Obama administration wasn’t enthusiastic about President George W. Bush’s legacy of Indo-US relations and that Obama would pursue a ‘China-focussed’ foreign policy. Indeed, Lee notes, that was what happened – until late 2009, when Obama’s China-focussed policy seemingly began to fail.
Since then, the Obama administration has shifted tack by “deepening relations with existing and emerging security partners at the expense of the relationship with China,” he points out. “India is now seen as a key component of this shift, which was additionally prompted by aggressive Chinese posturing over the past six months in the East China Sea, South China Sea and the Yellow Sea.”
During his visit, Obama will want to signal India’s importance not only as a South Asian power, but as an East Asian power, reckons Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation who served in the George W Bush administration. “He will talk about India’s role in the region and globally.”
Obama will also likely be “forward-leaning” in terms of US-Indian cooperation in the Indian Ocean “with an eye towards the China challenge”. However, he is unlikely to make any “specific references” to China, she adds.
“I don’t think India too will want to be seen as being used by the US as a counterweight, but there are subtle ways to signal that the US is prepared to cooperate in new ways that will deal with the challenge of a rising China,” notes Curtis.
The way Obama might approach the issue, she reasons, will be by raising the possibility of specific cooperation between the US and India that addresses the challenge of a rising China. Specifically, he would look for maritime cooperation – in the context of China taking a more aggressive stance with respect to its territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and its border dispute with India.
China “genuinely fears” US-India naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean, notes Lee. “Beijing’s strategy has been to distract India through a policy of fomenting ‘contained chaos’ to India’s neighbourhood – in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan.” And US-India naval partnership would be “a significant blow” to such a strategy, he adds.
Commentary in the Chinese media ahead of the Obama visit reflects this concern and larger apprehensions about US ‘re-engagement’ with Asia. A recent editorial in the nationalistic official daily Global Times claimed that the US’ “return brings uncertainty to Asia.” Cheng Chongren, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at Fudan University said the US is “seeking to gain a foothold in Asia… in the context of containing China.”
The possibility of seeing a higher profile for India in China’s neighbourhood in East Asia is additionally giving China some disquiet. Media commentary is also taking wary note of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s just concluded visit to Japan, which was recently embroiled in a bruising maritime dispute with China. According to Fu Xiaoqiang, a professor of South Asian affairs at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Singh’s visit “illustrates India’s ‘Look East’ strategy.”
Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, points to increasing concerns in the US about “Chinese hegemony in Asia”. Chinese policy lately in defence of its maritime claims “has come close to bullying,” he adds. In that context, many in the US see India as a potential counterweight against China, and the fact that India is a democracy “enhances its reputation in the US.”
But George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace cautions against conceptualising the US-Indian partnership as “a means to contain or contest China – a notion that many in the US and in India wish to project onto the relationship.” To conceive of India as a balance against China “instrumentalises it, and India is nobody’s tool,” he adds, noting that the Indian democratic spectrum contains “strong strains of anti-American ideology as well as pro-Chinese and non-alignment elements.”
The US would “misunderstand what India wants and needs if it values India primarily as a partner in balancing China,” says Perkovich. He dismisses the notion that Indo-US defence cooperation might translate into any sort of “partnership in combat” directed at China. “India could welcome US military assistance in a Sino-Indian war – however unlikely such a war might be; but would it believe that the US would run the risks of such conflict, and possible escalation to nuclear use, on India’s behalf?”
Likewise, while the US would doubtless welcome India’s naval or air force cooperation to interdict Chinese lines of communication during a Sino-Indian war, “but would it believe that the Indian polity would support participation in a conflict over islands in the South or East China Seas?”
Yet, despite these substantial hurdles to advancing and deepening strategic relations between India and the US, Obama’s visit, coming at a time of heightened Sino-US tensions on trade and currency issues, will be keenly watched in Beijing.
Here are links to some of the other articles in the package
1. Interview with US strategic analyst Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow at Brookings Institution
2. ‘Don’t be a pawn for US’: Advice to India from Shen Dingli, executive dean of the Institute of International Studies and the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
3. Obama’s India visit will feed Pakistan’s sense of insecurity: Columnist Mosharraf Zaidi comments on the atmospherics of Obama’s visit from a Pakistani perspective.
‘Obama won’t seek high-profile role in Kashmir’: Interview with Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Is India a tiger or a pussycat?
‘Politically immature Asia needs the US to stay engaged’: Interview with Simon SC Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.