Mr. Obama’s first and longest stopover next month will be India, a country that his predecessor touted as a counterbalance to China. The Obama administration initially reversed that talk, but has lately come around to seeing India as a key link in a regional safety net.
Senior US government officials say India has a role to play in East Asia, with one calling India an “East Asian power.” They are quick to say they prefer close ties between China and India, and between China and the United States. But as China grows more assertive in its neighborhood, the US is looking to deepen cooperation with and among China’s neighbors.
“I think the Americans, probably, and the Indian government sees China as a not-necessarily-hostile state, but a state which could be hostile, whose rise could be threatening. So therefore a policy of reinsurance – diplomatic consultations, military-to-military cooperation – without provoking China is probably the correct policy,” Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert with the Brookings Institute, said at a talk in New Delhi.
The previous US administration was more convinced that in the long-term China’s rise would be hostile to American interests. The Bush administration entered into a landmark “strategic partnership” with India in an effort to raise a competitor to China in Asia.
India has been extremely cautious publicly toward China, so there’s some disagreement among analysts and former officials over how much Delhi wants to play a counterweight role.
But Indian officials were clearly upset when Obama visited Beijing last year and seemingly turned the tables on Delhi by saying that China and the US would “work together to promote peace, stability, and development” in South Asia.
Since then, US and Indian views on China have converged. That’s because Obama got little in return from his visit to Beijing, and the Chinese have grown more assertive over territorial disputes in recent months – alarming both the Indians and the Americans.
“There is a congruence of interests and this happened after Obama got mugged in Beijing,” says Sumit Ganguly, an American scholar of South Asia on sabbatical in Delhi. And “growing Chinese misbehavior … had the effect of concentrating the minds of the Indians.”
For some in Delhi, the Obama administration’s walk back toward India is welcome but still not close enough.
“They are still in the hedging mode,” says Brahma Chellaney, a security expert at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi. “There is an attempt to do what Bush was doing, which is to line up partners.… [But Bush policy] was driven by a larger geo-strategic blueprint that the Obama administration lacks.”
The US “hedge” tactic is straightforward: Expand involvement in East Asia regional forums, military exercises, and agreements to include the US and India, thereby diluting Chinese opportunities for domination.
Hillary Clinton will be the first US secretary of state to attend an East Asia summit, which begins Saturday in Hanoi. India fought for US involvement in the forum’s first meeting in 2005, and helped fight – along with smaller nations – to get US access this year.
The US has deepened military cooperation with India. US officials point out that the US has held more than 50 joint-military exercises with India over the past eight years – more than with any other country.
The Obama visit will coincide with major sales of military equipment to India, including C130J transport aircraft, improved missiles, and maritime surveillance aircraft.
Obama will be visiting India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea, in an effort to bring these countries together regionally. Or, as Dr. Chellaney puts it, “they are the four key democracies that you need to contain China.”
India has already reached out to these countries, recently signing free trade deals with Japan and South Korea.
“In many ways, this is happening without any kind of push or direction being given by anyone else, because India’s interests are driving it in that direction…. India’s trade with Southeast and East Asia has deepened,” says Salman Haider, a former foreign minister of India. “I think that the challenge now for India is not to confront China but to see how far there can be some kind of convergence [with Beijing].”