Of Strategic Dialogues and Talk-shops

Early May, even as the world was coming to grips with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US was moving to deal with the other great challenger to its global interests, namely, China. The 3rd Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) between the two countries was held between 9 and 10 May in Beijing and touched upon a wide gamut of bilateral issues of concern. These ranged from human rights to China’s bias against foreign companies.

In addition to the usual heads of state summits between the two sides, the SED that involves cabinet ministers on both sides provides an opportunity for both sides to get down to the brass-tacks in the full glare of the media. The Dialogue indicates not just the gravity of the problems between them but also the seriousness of their bilateral dialogue. And the seriousness can only increase. Hitherto, the SED has performed the function more of maintaining status quo between them than of really ironing out differences. But the current SED suggests that the Obama administration has begun to reconsider its hitherto overly cautious China policy and is willing to take up confront Beijing on more sensitive matters. And coming in the wake of the bin Laden killing, the Chinese were no doubt aware that a reinvigorated US would also begun to turn its gaze back towards East Asia.

For India, the key point here is the manner of the Sino-US engagement. The two countries do not waste much time in photo-ops together in global or regional multilateral forums – they know that the issues between them deserve exclusive attention from across the various levels of their respective administrations. Thus, the SED is a sustained process of engagement between not just the highest functionaries of the two governments, but also key middle-level officers on both sides.

By contrast, the manner of India’s engagement with China leaves much to be desired. The highlights of this engagement are the meetings between the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President or Prime Minister as the case may be. And at least since 2005, there has been no real scope for major policy moves or changes at such summits owing to the fact they have often been affected by a host of issues from incursions across the LAC, stapled visas for Indian Kashmiris, and the like.

Further, the Special Representatives talks that ostensibly covers the spectrum of issues between the two sides, remains in essence, a mechanism for achieving a solution to the boundary dispute and has like the heads of governments meetings been limited by the latest bilateral squabble. Thus, Sino-Indian talks are unable to cap or direct an end to their differences, let alone prevent them.

Further, there is always far less information available of these talks in the public domain than in the case of Sino-US talks providing little or no opportunity for the Indian public to learn from these talks. Also since foreign policy, including China, is not as big an issue in Indian electoral politics as it is in the US, this has real costs in terms of the Indian public’s ability to hold the government accountable.

Even if the Sino-US SED has little yet to show in substantive terms, given also that it is a fairly new forum, the fact remains that it is unambiguous testimony to the importance that each side accords the other in its foreign political and economic policymaking. While Washington uses the forum to push the envelope on sensitive domestic subjects in China, Beijing has the opportunity to contradict or deny American requests or allegations thus creating the impression of being a match for the US.

New Delhi however, it would appear is happier to hobnob with a range of middle powers or players of little immediate consequence in multilateral talk-shops such as the recently-concluded BRICS summit or the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral. India is in the process, selling itself short. While the SED allows the US to raise human rights issues against China and thus look good at home for standing on principle, India by associating with China in the BRICS and RIC forums only undercuts its vaunted soft power advantage and reputation as a democracy.

Meanwhile, empty plaudits for multilateralism and championing a multi-polar world cannot hide the fact that New Delhi’s current method of engagement with China avoids the intense domestic public scrutiny that comes from a sustained high-level and exclusive dialogue with Beijing.

Read the original article here: Jabin T. Jacob, “As the US and China sit across a table, India is left without a chair,” DNA, 27 May 2011.

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