Pentagonal dimension of Obama’s Delhi visit

Sadeq Khan

US President Obama’s trip to India has spurred triangle chatter by and between China, US and India. On India’s Republic Day in which Obama was the chief guest, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing: China hopes that the development of US-India relations will help promote mutual trust and cooperation among countries in the region, and safeguard peace, stability and prosperity of the region as well.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent congratulatory messages on the occasion of the 66th India Republic Day to their Indian counterparts, President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Xi and Li pledged that China is willing to work with India to deepen their mutually beneficial cooperation, build closer partnership in development and elevate the bilateral strategic cooperation partnership to a higher level.
In New Delhi on the same day, US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters: “I think the way in which the United States and India approach the issue in the Asia Pacific is very similar in the sense that nobody is aiming for confrontation with China or even to contain China. Both the United States and India have very close relations with China in many different fields.”

China, India’s largest trading partner
Earlier Xi made a landmark visit to India last September when the two largest and most populous developing countries agreed to further cooperation in a wide range of areas. Despite news media hype of a lingering border dispute between China and India, China became India’s largest trading partner for the first time last year, edging the United Arab Emirates, which dropped to the third place, trailing the US.
In his press briefing, however, Rhodes did not forget to add that the US and India are committed to a rules-based order in the world, clearly implying US criticism of China’s behavior in the South and East China seas, cyber space and trade areas. The media in China have regarded the US as biased in favor of its treaty allies, especially Japan and the Philippines, in their maritime territorial disputes with China, including Japan’s dramatic move to nationalize the Diaoyu Islands in late 2012, which caused the fresh tensions between the two East Asian neighbors.
Despite tensions, China and Japan are also each other’s major trade partners. Many, both inside and outside of China, are also deeply suspicious that under the so-called pivot to Asia Pacific policy, the US has been trying to rally its allies against China, a country that follows a foreign policy of no alliance. In a comment on the US-India relationship and China for Obama’s trip to India, Tanvi Madan, a foreign policy program fellow at the Brookings Institution, described India and US relationships with China as both having elements of cooperation, competition and, potentially, conflict, though in different degrees. Writing in China Daily on Monday, Swaran Singh, a professor at School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said although India’s DNA will never allow it to become a close ally of the US and its leadership can never be imprudent enough to adopt a policy of containing China, there is no doubt that China’s continuous rise has become a matter of concern for New Delhi. Whether or not this concern was converted into a mutual concern of Indo-US entente, a pentagonal dimension appears to have moderated the geo-political thrust of that visit.

Mutual use of military facilities
Before Modi and Obama first met in Washington, the New Delhi visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping was followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December. India remains wary of China’s maneuvers in the Indian Ocean region, even as it remains mindful of the fact that Russia, its long-time friend, has of late warmed up to Pakistan, having signed a defenne agreement with the latter. Moscow is reportedly also miffed with India over its growing dependence on the U.S. for its military purchases, even as a majority of India’s arsenal continues to be of Russian origin. But, for the foreseeable future, India will continue to depend more on Russia than the U.S. The government-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis notes that even if no new weapons are purchased, India will continue to need spare parts for the weaponry of Soviet/Russian origin and also depend on Russia for their upgrades and modernization.
And ever since U.S. companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin were edged out of the race by their European rivals for a multi-billion dollar fighter jet deal, the U.S. has been pushing India to close at least half a dozen others that have been in the works for the last few years. These include deals on helicopters, reconnaissance planes and anti-tank missiles. In November last year, the Indian defence ministry cleared one of these, ­a $2.5 billion deal to buy M777 howitzer guns from the U.S. But, other potential deals have languished. The new Indo-US defence pact signed during Obama visit has certainly expanded the scope of their defence engagement, in particular by allowing each other to use their military facilities.

Mutual trust in short supply
Yet, despite the positive overtures, mutual trust has often been in short supply in the U.S.-India dynamic. In February 2013, for instance, Chuck Hagel, the current U.S. defence secretary, had said that India had “financed problems” for Pakistan, in Afghanistan: “India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border. And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being [that] the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many, many years.” He drew sharp criticism from India.
China is also getting involved in Afghanistan. And India, fearing that a politically unstable Afghanistan could become a breeding ground for jihadists, would want the U.S. to stay on in that country for much longer and in good numbers. Chuck Hagel has now told Pentagon that the US President’s Delhi visit has produced “some very tangible and positive results.”
Yet, as observers noted, each time India and the U.S. sit down to discuss defence and security, there are two proverbial elephants in the room­ Pakistan and China. The New York Times reported on January 26: “When President Obama landed New Delhi for a three-day visit, he brought a long list of issues to discuss, like energy and trade. But when he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India sat down to talk, the first 45 minutes were dominated by just one: China. Mr. Obama and his aides discovered to their surprise that Mr. Modi’s assessment of China’s rise and its impact on the greater strategic situation in East Asia was closely aligned with their own. Just as they did, Mr. Modi seemed increasingly uneasy about China’s efforts to extend its influence around the region and interested in a united approach to counter them. He agreed to sign a joint statement with Mr. Obama chiding Beijing for provoking conflict with neighbours over control of the South China Sea. He suggested reviving a loose security network involving the United States, India, Japan and Australia. And he expressed interest in playing a greater role in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, where India could help balance China’s influence.”

How far will it lead to?
K. Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador to the United States and China observed: “There has been a lot of ambivalence in India about China, just as there has been in the United States. Now, both sides are clearer about their own interests and better understand that those interests are similar.” How far will that meeting of minds lead? The NYT correspondent commented with an if: If that proves enduring, it could signal a shift more consequential than any specific deals or statements signed during Mr. Obama’s stay here. In effect, American officials hope the two powers can do much more together than the United States could do alone to restrain China and preserve the postwar order in the region.
In supporting thing strategic relations with economic underpinning, Obama  underscored “untapped potential” of Indo-US trade: “Of all US imports, just 2 per cent come from India and of all US exports, about 1 per cent go to India ­ that’s 1 per cent to a billion people… US trade with India is $100 billion as compared to $560 billion with China.” Both leaders promised to expand bilateral trade fivefold in a decade. To shore up bilateral trade, Mr Obama announced $4 billion in government-backed investments and lending to India.
But even as he goaded Delhi in this manner, Mr Obama had already annoyed Beijing and Moscow with his utterances in Delhi. While his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine policy was largely ignored by his quarries, his plans to involve India in the South China Sea imbroglio drew a sharp response from Beijing. China critiqued the India-US joint statement referring to the disputes in the South China Sea, saying “We have made our position clear on this issue many times. China is staunch supporter promoter and contributor to regional peace and stability. We believe relevant disputes should be resolved by parties directly concerned through peaceful talks and consultation.”

A ‘superficial rapprochement’
A commentary in Xinhua, the official Chinese state news agency, dismissed what it called a “superficial rapprochement.” The Xinhua report went on to say that the visit “is more symbolic than pragmatic, given the longstanding division between the two giants, which may be as huge as the distance between them. The state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times, warned that the United States was setting a trap for India: “This fixed pattern of thinking was created and hyped up by the West, which, with ulterior motives, regards the ‘Chinese dragon’ and the ‘Indian elephant’ as natural rivals.”
While U.S. President Barack Obama watched India’s Republic Day parade as the chief guest, China incidentally welcomed Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, to Beijing for talks. Sharif and his Chinese counterparts decided to enhance long-term defence collaboration, security and counter-terrorism cooperation, intelligence sharing, and training exchanges. China emphasized the close, lasting friendship between China and Pakistan, with officials employing the usual rhetoric that the two countries are “iron brothers” and “all-weather friends.”
And while the US President agreed with the Indian leader that “safe havens within Pakistan are not acceptable,” he also made it clear that the United States has to work with Pakistan to meet the threat of terrorism.
On January 27 in his ‘wrapping up’ speech, US President Barack Obama said the United States could be India’s “best partner”. In an editorial the same day, the New York Times opined: With their talk of an “enduring commitment,” Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi have raised expectations and set a firm basis for moving forward. Even so, the countries have no obvious plans to deal with Pakistan or the India-Pakistan nuclear competition that threatens the region, and it cannot be assumed that all past differences will fade. Building a true partnership will take sustained efforts over many decades.

Source: Weekly Holiday

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