Look East and West
C. Raja Mohan
11 July 2012
As the simmering tension between the United States and China envelops the annual gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this week, India has a problem. Like Goldilocks, who does not like her porridge too hot or too cold, India is wary when the US and China get too close to each other and rather anxious when Washington and Beijing confront each other.
A potential "condominium" - this archaic term from 19th century international relations now has a new label, the G-2 - over Asia by the US and China is Delhi's nightmare scenario. But a prolonged rivalry between Washington and Beijing, which now seems a little more likely, could be a lot worse from Delhi's perspective.
Unlike Goldilocks, who could pick up the third bowl of porridge that was neither too hot nor too cold, India has no option but to deal with the rapid twists and turns in the US-China relationship.
Consider the huge shift in America's mood towards China in the last three and a half years. In 2009, India was deeply concerned that US President Barack Obama was bending over backwards to accommodate China's rise.
During his visit to Beijing in November 2009, Obama offered a new framework for bilateral cooperation with China on regional and global issues. India reacted furiously to the joint declaration in Beijing that suggested Sino-US cooperation for the stabilisation of South Asia.
Beijing, however, refused to accept the US terms for a strategic duopoly, betting as it did on a rapid shift in the balance of power in China's favour. Within a year, the US moved to challenge the assertion of Chinese power in Asia and affirmed its intention to maintain its long-standing primacy in Asia.
Sections of the Indian establishment are now concerned that Obama's strategy for Asia might draw Delhi into a potential crossfire between Washington and Beijing.
India's problem with the shifting sands of US-China relations is not unique. Much of Asia is indeed uncomfortable with either a condominium or a rivalry between the US and China.
The difference is that as a large country and a potential major power, India is in a position to make a difference to the changing balance of power between the US and China. Doing nothing, the default inclination of UPA 2, is the worst option for Delhi at this historic juncture in Asia.
As Washington and Beijing circle each other in Asia, Delhi needs to step up engagement with both. The question is not about picking sides, but about relentlessly pursuing India's own interests.
If India wants to keep the sea lines of communication in Asia's waters open, Delhi has every reason to support the US in emphasising the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
If Delhi recognises the urgency of promoting regional economic integration between the subcontinent and East Asia, it must go all out to deepen cooperation with Beijing. India needs to judge each issue on its merit, rather than worry about what Beijing or Washington might think about Delhi's cooperation with the other.
India can't afford to forget that China and the US, despite their many differences, are locked in profound economic interdependence and have a bilateral engagement much thicker than that between either Delhi and Washington or Delhi and Beijing.
Even if a Cold War between America and China becomes inevitable, today's rising Asia has greater freedom of manoeuvre than Europe had in 1945. Exhausted by two World Wars, the old continent had no option but to put itself at the mercy of the US and the Soviet Union.
Asia has a number of large nations like Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar that will not readily submit to a new Cold War in Asia. All of them would want to strengthen their economic links with Beijing, while insuring against the possible non-peaceful rise of China by stronger defence cooperation with the US.
Many US treaty allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia have strong stakes in an economic integration with China. The new complexity of Asia's geopolitics is complemented by its vibrant regional institutions, built around the Asean.
Two decades ago, when the Asean embraced Delhi, there was much scepticism about India's contribution to regional peace and prosperity. As India's growth rates soared and its foreign policy showed some purposefulness in the last decade, Asia's expectations about Delhi's regional role significantly increased.
Delhi's economic and political drift over the last three years, however, is now leading to widespread disappointment in Asia. The hopes about India's role as a second engine of regional economic growth have dissipated.
The expectation that India would play a definitive role in stabilising the Asian balance of power has been tempered by the inability of Delhi's defence establishment to rise to the occasion. India is good at drafting declarations on strategic partnership with key regional countries, but rather poor at implementing them.
India's voice in Asian regional institutions has been relatively muted. India has taken few political initiatives and the one that has been thrust upon it - the Nalanda University - remains half-cooked. While Delhi might pat itself on the back for the presumed success of its Look East policy, Asia sees India's engagement with the region as underwhelming.
Bridging the gap between Asian expectations and India's strategic performance is the main task for External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna as he prepares the ground this week for celebrations of the 20th anniversary of India's outreach to the Asean, taking place later this year.
Navigating the turbulent waters of Sino-US relations will become a lot easier for India, if Delhi can inject new political energy into Asian multilateralism and strengthen its key bilateral partnerships in the region.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
Courtesy: The Indian Express, July 13, 2012,