Originally Published 2013-04-16 00:00:00 Published on Apr 16, 2013
Delhi must focus on realising the full potential of bilateral cooperation with both the US and China, instead of precluding beneficial bilateral engagement with one in the name of avoiding conflict with the other. The current policy of "doing nothing" and finding reasons for inaction will steadily reduce India's relevance for both Washington and Beijing.
Do nothing Delhi
As the United States seeks reconciliation with China in the second term of the Obama administration, New Delhi must end its current policy paralysis, dressed up as non-alignment between the world's two most important powers. China's warm reception to US Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing over the weekend and the new emphasis on jointly addressing the current crisis in the Korean peninsula could help reduce some of the recent tensions in the Sino-US relationship.

On the face of it, President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia", unveiled two years ago, raised the geopolitical significance of India in the construction of a new Asian balance of power. If Washington underlined the importance of India in its strategy of rebalancing to Asia, Beijing signalled greater interest in strengthening ties with Delhi amidst fears that the US planned to contain China. What seemed a rare strategic opportunity for India, however, froze the UPA government into an awful immobility. Delhi slowed its engagement with the US and remained too timid to widen cooperation with Beijing.

"Beijing will not like it" has become the standard excuse in Delhi for not pursuing India's interests with the US and other Asian neighbours like Japan and Vietnam. Delhi, of course, finds many more reasons for not moving forward with China. Delhi's "do-nothing" drift is probably the worst of all options India has in coping with the current dynamism in the relationship between Washington and Beijing.

If the professional worriers in South Block have been concerned in the last two years about the impact of Sino-US rivalry on India's freedom of action, they also lose sleep over the prospect of political collaboration between Washington and Beijing in Asia. Recall that in the first year of the Obama administration, Delhi went into a tizzy over the prospects of a G-2 that many in the US were advocating. Kerry's just concluded visit to Beijing is bound to raise those concerns again.

In the last few weeks, the Chinese media have revelled in trashing Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, for promoting an assertive American policy in Asia. Kerry's publicly expressed reservations about the wisdom of the US pivot to Asia have raised Beijing's expectations that the Obama administration might now step back a bit and show greater deference to Chinese concerns.

Kerry did not disappoint Beijing. After his meetings with the Chinese leaders, including the new president, Xi Jinping, Kerry affirmed the American commitment to building a "strong and special" relationship with China.

For more than a year, Beijing has been calling for a "new type of great power relationship" between China and the US. Under Kerry, the Obama administration appears to have accepted Beijing's call to avoid conflict and respect each other's core interests. Kerry declared that the US "welcomes a stable and prosperous China, a China that is a great power already, and that has the ability to be able to play a major role in world affairs. We have a stake in China's success, and frankly, China has a stake in the success of the United States. That became clear in all of our conversations here today."

No one is betting that the contradictions between the interests of the US and China will be resolved overnight. But the two sides are now committed to responsibly addressing bilateral differences.

India needs to recognise that the Sino-US relationship will see elements of competition as well as cooperation in the decades to come. That in turn begs the question, how should Delhi secure its own interests as Washington and Beijing struggle to manage their profound economic interdependence, even as they strive for national primacy in Asia?

In crafting an effective response to the unstable dynamic between China and the US, neutrality between Washington and Beijing is not an option for Delhi. A much weaker India, under Jawaharlal Nehru, affirmed an independent position on the issues of the day while actively seeking cooperation with both America and Russia during the Cold War. Nehru did not stop cooperation with one superpower to avoid offending the other. Equidistance between Washington and Beijing is also not an option for Delhi. India's relations with the US and China are never going to be symmetrical. The US is a geographically distant power that will shape world politics for a long time to come. China is not only a large neighbour, with whom India has many unresolved issues, but it is also a rising power that will increasingly define India's strategic environment in ever more powerful ways.

For Delhi has a much heavier inherited baggage to carry in its relations with Beijing than the US. The problems of dealing with the US are more ideological and are not rooted in a direct conflict of national interests. The engagement with China, in contrast, is constrained by weightier bilateral issues. These include the unresolved boundary dispute, Beijing's all-weather partnership with Pakistan, and its opposition to India's international aspirations, such as membership of the export control groupings and the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The bilateral relationship has also been hobbled by new frictions generated by China's growing influence across the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean littoral.

Instead of precluding beneficial bilateral engagement with one in the name of avoiding conflict with the other, Delhi must focus on realising the full potential of bilateral cooperation with both the US and China. As it copes with the twists and turns in the Sino-US relationship, India has two pathways before it. The current policy of "doing nothing" and finding reasons for inaction will steadily reduce India's relevance for both Washington and Beijing. A strategy of bold and intensive engagement with both America and China that breaks many of the current taboos in Delhi will rapidly elevate India's weight in Asian geopolitics.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express)

Courtesy : Indian Express, April 16, 2013:

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