Hillary Clinton’s India Visit: Chinese Elephant in the Room

During her visit to India for the 2nd Indo-US Strategic Dialogue, last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called upon India to “not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well”. But the problem in New Delhi might well be an incapacity to ‘think east’ beyond the boundary dispute with China or trying to retain a toehold against Chinese dominance in Myanmar.  What engagement there is occurs in the economic domain but India remains overcautious in its political and military outreach to the Asia-Pacific.

The bold Quadrilateral Initiative of some years ago, involving the Indian, Japanese, Australian and American navies, was given a quick burial as soon as the Chinese started issuing demarches. Another opportunity now presents itself with the inauguration of a trilateral US-India-Japan dialogue at the ARF meeting in Indonesia, where Clinton went after her visit to India. It remains to be seen however, whether this will lead to regular joint military exercises and operations – such as anti-piracy and disaster relief, for example – and graduate quickly to heads of government-level meetings, without bowing to Chinese pressure. The timing meanwhile, seems inspired by the fact that China has been on the diplomatic back-foot given its military aggressiveness in the South China Sea, over the last year.

Similarly, the decisions to expand Indo-US strategic talks to cover Central Asia, West Asia and Latin America as well as to engage in joint action in Africa appear to acknowledge the need to deal with increasing Chinese activity in these regions in recent years. As the US suffers from global overreach and economic constraints, it probably sees greater merit in reaching out to like-minded partners to ensure some degree of adherence to American values and interests around the world.

During her visit, Clinton in fact, highlighted the two nations’ identities as plural and democratic societies pointing out that it was this that “sets us apart from other systems and other nations”. The problem for Indian policymakers however, is that the American emphasis on democracy and shared values changes depending on the area in question. The US has so far wanted to keep Indian presence in Afghanistan to a minimum in order not to further complicate its difficult relationship with Pakistan while in East Asia it is happy to talk about human rights and democracy targeting China with whom India in turn tries to keep its bilateral relationship on an even keel. Both American resistance to greater Indian activity in Afghanistan and Indian reluctance to undertake a more values-based engagement in East Asia are hypocritical and shortsighted.

Even leaving aside the issue of democratic values, however, it would appear that New Delhi is not interested in a realpolitik-driven approach in East Asia either. Myanmar might be an exception but what explains the very low-levels of cooperation between India and Vietnam, which was the last country to fight a war with the Chinese and has a long-standing maritime dispute with them? Despite Vietnamese interest in more robust cooperation on matters related to China, India proceeds far too slowly.

What New Delhi forgets is that the Chinese will not take such cooperation between India and China’s neighbours amiss, for it is exactly what they themselves would do and expect a nation in India’s position to do. The argument here is not to have Vietnam turn into the equivalent of what Pakistan is for the Chinese for Hanoi is not Islamabad (or Rawalpindi). Here again, the American experience is noteworthy. Despite the legacy of the Vietnam War, the two countries have seen a warming of relations since the end of the Cold War and active engagement on China.

While, Clinton acknowledged that “a strong, constructive relationship among India, the United States, and China… will not always be easy” this also does not mean that Indo-US cooperation must go slow in deference to Chinese sensitivities. If anything, the India-Japan-US grouping must before long, expand to include Australia again, and Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia. In fact, there is a case to be made for India leading the creation of such groups even without US involvement.

If as Secretary Clinton, remarked, “much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia”, then New Delhi will need to find the energy and resources to focus not just on its troubled western frontiers but also on its sprawling and diverse eastern neighbourhood.

Read the original article here: Jabin T. Jacob, “When the US is in the room, China is the elephant, not India,” DNA, 28 July 2011.

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