The unspoken fears that India had of the Obama Administration seem to be coming true. President Obama’s visit to China and the various statements in relation to the South Asian region that have emerged from the visit point to the fact that the pendulum of American interests is once again shifting away from New Delhi to Beijing. As Obama noted in his joint press statement on Wednesday: “President Hu and I also discussed our mutual interest in security and stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And neither country can or should be used as a base for terrorism, and we agreed to cooperate more on meeting this goal, including bringing about more stable, peaceful relations in all of South Asia.”
Had the president stopped at the first sentence, it would have been acceptable, but to talk of cooperation in bringing “stable, peaceful relations in all of South Asia” is ominous.
Incidentally in his portion of the remarks, his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao spoke of the need to uphold “peace and stability” and “to respect and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns.” As he spelt them out, they related to the Korean peninsula, the Middle East and Gulf region, Iran. Impliedly, they were linked to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. There was no hint of any concern with South Asia.
So what has persuaded the US that China can play a role in promoting South Asian peace? Are they not aware of the history, and indeed the contemporary dynamics of the region?
In early 1992, the George HW Bush Administration proposed a five-power system to control nuclear proliferation in South Asia — the US, China and Russia would oversee a non-nuclear pact between India and Pakistan. That proposal, too foundered on the realities of the regional dynamics whose major element was Beijing’s policy of checking New Delhi.
It would appear that Obama is keen to draw out Beijing to play a larger role in global affairs. His aim is to seek Beijing’s increasing heft in world affairs — and its special ties with Pakistan — to get quick resolutions into the emerging quagmire of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the potential one in Iran. So, Mr Obama seems to have offered up South Asia as a bait of sorts to Beijing.
This is significant because the Chinese believe that it was only in the administration of his predecessor George W Bush that India was brought out as a kind of potential trump to check China’s rise. What Mr Obama seems to be telling Beijing is that the US does not consider South Asia (read India) as any kind of a counter-weight to China, and is willing to calibrate its own policies in the region with Beijing.
The background of Obama’s compulsions are obvious. In a recent appearance on the Jim Lehrer show, Niall Fergusson put it this way: Chimerica had now become a single economy. The driver of the world economy in the period 1998-2007, was Chinese exports to the US and the US imports from China. The Chinese intervention in international currency markets by keeping the Chinese currency weak has actually helped finance a part of the US deficit. “China has become the banker to the United States. And its policy of reserve accumulation has provided nearly $2 trillion worth of effectively cheap, if not free, credit to the United States.”
The New York Times recently elucidated the consequences of this somewhat more bluntly. The American-Chinese relations offered a a 10:10 deal where China gets 10 per cent growth and the US gets 10 per cent unemployment. In other words, the seemingly symbiotic relationship is actually a parasitical one — China is using the US to ride to world power status.
Instead of altering these adverse terms of trade, or even attempting to do so, Mr Obama seems to be actually encouraging China. And why? Either he does not care, or he feels that in the short time that he needs results — in Afghanistan and Iran — Beijing’s cooperation or neutrality towards US is more important than putting the US economy and its security policy on a sustainable and stable path.
It is true that the US and China have a number of common interests — stability in North-east Asia, Persian Gulf and the need for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. But there is no indication that they trust each other enough to evolve a common policy to move forward in any of those areas deemed important by them. Yet, Obama seems to be convinced that the enormity of the economic links that the two countries have with each other can translate into common political goals.
In the case of South Asia, he is thinking for the short term and in the process ignoring our interests. Chinese policy in the region is based on the single aim of checking India. This goes back to the early 1960s when it began to cultivate Pakistan and teach India a lesson. In pursuit of this policy, Beijing has done a lot, including the unthinkable: It actually provided Pakistan the design and material to make atom bombs, and actually tested one for them in 1990. The Chinese efforts to befriend Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have had a similar goal. And the one country that it has been systematically hostile to is India.
The reason for this is that, like it or not, the only country in Asia which can offer a counter-weight to China is India. As of today Indian economic growth and military power cannot match that of China, yet both are proceeding at a respectable rate.
Indian economic growth which has been around 7-8 per cent recently has come despite its hopeless infrastructure and lack of reforms. With more focused efforts, and a little help from its demographic profile, India could well match, and even exceed China in the 2020s.
United States policy had a trajectory similar to the Chinese in the region. In its own way, it, too, sought to check New Delhi’s desire to be an independent actor on the world stage. So, its policy was to maintain good relations with India, even while cultivating Pakistan as its primary strategic partner. The DNA of that policy is still evident. It was only with the Bush Administration that US policy shifted decisively towards befriending India.
But with the Obama Administration veering towards Beijing, this policy is going to remain a work in progress for a little bit longer.
Obama’s Beijing kowtow is unlikely to succeed. Given the depth of its commitment to Pakistan, China is incapable of playing an honest broker in the South Asian region, even assuming that it wants to. More important, New Delhi is not entirely without options or friends who are thinking for the longer term.
Countries in the periphery of China are worrying about the consequences of the Sino-American love fest. As of today, China’s military modernisation does not offer a threat to the US. But it does pose a potential threat to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Their real worry is not so much with China's military modernisation, or even its pace or scale, but the opacity of Chinese strategic thinking.
So next week when Manmohan Singh visits the US, don't be taken in by the verbiage that comes out of Washington, or the glitter of the state banquet billed as a singular honour for the Indian prime minister.
The US is in hock to China and it has a leader who has shown that he does not quite know how to deal with it. While it is in our interest to have good, and even close, relations with the US, we need to be clear that a country of India’s size and varied interests has no option but to have strategic autonomy in matters of security and foreign policy.
This appeared first in Mail Today November 20, 2009