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Comments on Obama's Visit: Part IV– US, India & China

On his way to China in November, 2009, President Barack Obama had made his first halt in Japan to underline the importance attached by him to the USA’s relations with Japan, with which it has a security relationship. There were detailed references to China in his speeches and comments in Tokyo. In one of his speeches, he said: “The United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances.  On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.  And so in Beijing and beyond, we will work to deepen our Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and improve communication between our militaries.  We will not agree on every issue, and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear – and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people. Because support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. But we can move these discussions forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor.”

2. After his visit to India from November 6 to 8,2010, he proceeded to Indonesia. There were detailed references to China in his remarks at Jakarta. Addressing the media after his arrival in Jakarta from New Delhi on November 9, he reportedly said that the US will not seek to contain China. He added: “We want China to succeed and prosper. China’s continuous development is good for the US.” He also said that the US regards China as “a huge, expanding market, where Americans can sell goods and services”, and treats China’s prosperity and security as “a positive”.

3. As compared to his readiness to speak openly and in detail about China at Tokyo last year and at Jakarta now, he was economical in his references to China during his stay in India. However, in his address to the Indian Parliament on November 8, he spoke of his policy of deepening co-operation with India and China in two different contexts. He spoke of his policy of comprehensive engagement with the world based on mutual interest and mutual respect. He then added:  “And a central pillar of this engagement is forging deeper cooperation with 21st century centers of influence -— and that must necessarily include India.”

4. Subsequently, he referred to the US again playing a leadership role in Asia and, in this context, he said: “More broadly, India and the United States can partner in Asia.  Today, the United States is once again playing a leadership role in Asia —- strengthening old alliances; deepening relationships, as we are doing with China; and we’re reengaging with regional organizations like ASEAN and joining the East Asia summit —- organizations in which India is also a partner.  Like your neighbors in Southeast Asia, we want India not only to “look East,” we want India to “engage East” —- because it will increase the security and prosperity of all our nations.”

5. After his visit to China in November,2009, there were concerns in India that he was giving greater priority to the USA’s relations with China. There were also concerns over the following formulation in the Joint Statement issued by him and President Hu Jintao: “The two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia.  They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan.  The two sides are ready to strengthen communication,  dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.”

6. In the weeks preceding Obama’s visit to India, there was an attempt by the Obama Administration to remove the impression in the Indian mind that his administration was giving greater priority to China and was encouraging a strategic role for China in South Asia in the context of Afghanistan and Indo-Pakistani relations. The US policy was clarified by Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, in a speech at the East-West Centre at Honolulu on October 28. She said: “The relationship between China and the United States is complex and of enormous consequence but we are committed to getting it right. There are some in both countries who believe that China’s interests and ours are fundamentally at odds. They apply a zero-sum calculation to our relationship, so whenever one of us succeeds, the other must fail. But that is not our view. In the 21st century, it is not in anyone’s interest for the United States and China to see each other as adversaries. In a crowded field of highly dynamic, increasingly influential emerging nations, two stand out: India and China. Their simultaneous rise is reshaping the world and our ability to cooperate effectively with these countries will be a critical test of our leadership.”

7. The policy of co-operating effectively with both India and China was also underlined by Obama’s White House aides in their interactions with the media before his visit. This policy of equality of strategic relationship with both India and China without favouring one to the detriment of the other is reflected  in the references to India’s engagement with the East in Obama’s address to the Indian Parliament and in the following formulation in the Joint Statement issued by him and Manmohan Singh: “The two leaders have a shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific region and committed to work together, and with others in the region, for the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture in the region. In this context, the leaders reaffirmed their support for the East Asia Summit and committed to regular consultations in this regard. The United States welcomes, in particular, India’s leadership in expanding prosperity and security across the region. The two leaders agreed to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia, and decided to expand and intensify their strategic consultations to cover regional and global issues of mutual interest, including Central and West Asia. In an increasingly inter-dependent world, the stability of, and access to, the air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains is vital for the security and economic prosperity of nations. Acknowledging their commitment to openness and responsible international conduct, and on the basis of their shared values, India and the United States have launched a dialogue to explore ways to work together, as well as with other countries, to develop a shared vision for these critical domains to promote peace, security and development. The leaders reaffirmed the importance of maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes.”

8. Thus according to him, just as China has a useful role to play in South Asia as stated in his Joint Statement with Hu, India has a useful role to play in South-East and East Asia. It is evident that the US will not like to get involved in matters relating to the Sino-Indian border dispute. Recent remarks by Mrs. Clinton and other US officials have indicated that the US will not be averse to playing a role in the search for a mutually satisfactory solution to the maritime disputes involving China with Japan in the East China Sea and with some ASEAN countries in the South China Sea. But, it does not envisage a role for itself in the territorial disputes between India and China. This suits India too which prefers sorting out bilateral issues—-whether with Pakistan or China— at the bilateral level without the involvement of third parties.

9. What India would want is that just as it would prefer the US continuing its effective presence in Afghanistan to act as a check on Pakistan, it would prefer the US continuing its effective presence in South-East and East Asia to act as a check on China without itself getting involved in any relationship with the US which might be interpreted by Beijing as directed against it.

10. What does Obama mean by saying that India and the US can partner in Asia? What will be the objectives of such partnership? How would India react to the proposal? Answers to these questions are not available. As part of the policy of re-asserting the US leadership in Asia, there has recently been a surge in US diplomatic activity in South-East and East Asia and Australia. Mrs. Clinton and Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, had visited separately a number of countries in the region. They had also visited jointly South Korea and Australia.

11. From their statements and comments and from those of Obama, it would appear that what Obama probably has in mind is not the revival of the idea of his predecessor George Bush of a four-cornered strategic relationship involving the US, India, Japan and Australia, but parallel strategic partnerships of the US with each of these countries in order to strengthen peace and security in the region without giving it the shape of an alliance. Where would the USA’s relations with China—-which Obama wants to deepen simultaneously— fall in this parallel arrangement? It is not clear. Obama’s new Asian policy is still taking shape and not much thought seems to have been given by his advisers to the various implications of it.

12. This may please be read in continuation of my following articles:

a. OBAMA: How to Cooperate Effectively With Both India & China of October 29, 2010, at

b. The Return of the US to Asia: Core Interests Vs Mutual Interests of November 3, 2010, at

—To be continued

(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group. The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:

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