December 1, 2009

December 1, 2009 | Commentary on India, China

Peking Ducked: Indo-US Ties Have a Special Salience, Regardless of China

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Washington visit should reassure India that the Barack Obama administration values the partnership and intends to build a genuine strategic alliance on the progress made during the Bush years. In addition to signing a slew of agreements pledging cooperation on issues like counter-terrorism, clean energy and education, President Obama called India a "rising and responsible" power and welcomed its role in helping shape the political and security environment in Asia. He also repeatedly described the relations between the two nations as one of the "defining partnerships of the 21st century".

These were welcome words for Indians who have been wary of Obama's personal commitment to the relationship. Indian scepticism stems primarily from statements Obama made last year on the campaign trail favouring the appointment of a US envoy on j&k and portraying India's rising economy as a threat to American jobs.

But the most pronounced Indian fears about the potential for backsliding on US-India relations are fed by a perception that the Obama administration seeks a conciliatory policy toward China that facilitates its growing influence throughout the Asia-Pacific, including India's traditional sphere of influence in South Asia. Obama's refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama before his Beijing visit and lack of attention to its record on human rights issues have intensified Indian concerns that he's more interested in placating China than managing balance-of-power politics in Asia. New Delhi also realises America's economic stakes with China are much higher. Trade between the two countries is almost 10 times that with India, and China holds 20 times more in US treasury bonds.

Manmohan's visit demonstrated, however, that strategic partnerships are driven by more than economics and that shared values are a powerful binding force for nations seeking to enhance cooperation for a safer, more prosperous world. The difference in tone of Obama's trip to Beijing last week and that of Manmohan's to Washington was noteworthy. While the former fuelled questions about American power and influence in the region, the latter affirmed the importance of US democratic values in international affairs and highlighted the possibilities for like-minded countries to work together for global peace and prosperity.

Manmohan went out of his way to show strong support for American power by praising the economy's resilience. In a TV interview, he said, "As far as I can see right now, there is no substitute for the dollar," and he described the US economic downturn as a "temporary setback".

Although Obama seeks to distinguish himself from Bush on foreign policy by de-emphasising the promotion of democracy, he would be wise not to discard the idea of working closely with fellow democracies for mutually beneficial goals. As the US builds ties with India and manages its complicated relationship with China, it will also need to pay close attention to the dynamics of the Sino-Indian relationship which will determine broader political and economic trends in Asia.

In his private meeting, Obama hopefully reassured Manmohan that the US is attuned to Indian strategic concerns vis-a-vis China, particularly their ongoing border disputes and Chinese efforts to extend its influence into South Asia. Over the last three years, China has increasingly pressured India over their disputed borders by questioning Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh and stepping up probe operations along different parts of their shared frontier. Washington needs to keep tabs on these developments and make clear that were Beijing to inflame tensions with India over the border issue, it would not stand by idle.

India has recognised the Sino-US engagement does not necessarily translate into bad news for US-India relations and that not every gesture toward China merits India going to DEFCON-1 (maximum military readiness). However, New Delhi does have a sphere of influence to protect and reasons to be sceptical of Chinese strategic intentions. Indian officials should, thus, not shy away from expressing their concerns on China to the Obama administration. Given the stark differences in the atmospherics surrounding the Obama-Hu Jintao and Obama-Manmohan summits, however, the case for US improving ties with the world's largest democracy is loud and clear.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: India, China

First Appeared in Outlook India