Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
India, U.S. build ties, with an eye on China
In the end, Pakistan wasn’t the unspoken elephant in the room when U.S. President Barack Obama sat down for talks with Indian leaders. Far from tip-toeing around India’s Pakistan problem which complicates America’s own troubled war there and in Afghanistan, Obama spoke clearly and squarely.
Safe havens for militants in Pakistan wouldn’t be tolerated, he said, in what was music to Indian ears. But he also left nobody in doubt Washington wanted India to improve ties with Pakistan, saying New Delhi had the greatest stake in the troubled neighbour’s stability.
But the one elephant that the leaders of India and the United States didn’t name but which was written all over the flurry of announcements made during the three-day trip was China. Beginning with the headline-grabbing endorsement of India’s bid for a permanent place on the U.N. Security Council to maritime cooperation and a surprise partnership to promote food security in Africa, the United States seems to have gone the extra mile to bolster New Delhi’s credentials as a global player.
The one country that would be watching this most closely is China where some would see America’s deepening ties with India, a continent-size country with a billion-plus people, as aimed at countering its rise.
B.Raman, a former head of India’s Research and Analysis wing, writes that the announcement by India and the United States to work together for stability in the Indian Ocean region as well as the Pacific will draw concern in Beijing, which has its own fears of U.S. encirclement.
“Thus, the partnership will seek to promote peace and security across Asia in general and in East and Central Asia in particular, strengthen maritime security and work for a peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. Though China has not been named, Beijing will have reasons to be concerned over the implications of this formulation.”
Beijing has long seen India on its southern flank as at best a middling South Asian player tied down with internal problems and dificult ties with neighbours such as Pakistan and certainly not any role beyond the region, much less the Pacific. And yet the United States and India have been steadily pushing the envelop. Not only does the United States hold more military exercises with India than with any other country, these wargames have expanded in reach. In September-October, four personnel from the Indian army, navy and air force trained with the U.S.’s 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit at the latter’s base in Okinawa in the East China Sea. A few years ago the idea of the Indian army training with the Marines would have been unthinkable, much less the sight of Indian uniformed personnel in Okinawa. As former U.S. ambassador Teresita C. Schaffer writes, the most dramatic change in India-US ties has been the creation of a security relationship. Ten years ago, it didn’t exist. Today the two countries have found common strategic interests in the Indian Ocean., she says. And this now extends all the way to East Asia.
Until recently, the United States saw India in a different pigeonhole from East Asia, but that’s changed in the past year. US officials have made a point of describing India “in an Asian context,” as one of the major fixtures of the larger Asian landscape.
Likewise, the idea of joint India-US projects in Africa that the two sides announced during Obama’s trip will raise an eyebrow in China which has sought to build close ties with the continent.
Indeed, there seemed to be such meeting of minds that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heartily endorsed the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision to inject cash into the banking system to bolster the economy, a move that has drawn criticism from several countries, especially China which worries that it will weaken the dollar and hurt their exports.
So far China whose prime minister is due in India next month has held its counsel. Unlike Pakistan which criticised Obama’s endorsement of the Security Council seat, China offered a more measured response. It said it understood India’s desire to win a place on the top U.N. body. It said it supported reform of the Security Council and was willing to engage in dialogue with India as well as other countries on the whole issue of its expansion.