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Every day, frictions increase between India and China

December 07, 2011 13:55 IST

America's Asia-Pacific policy will come unhinged without Indian support and Indian desire to effectively balance China will remain just that, a desire, without American support, feels Harsh V Pant.

The rapidly changing strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific has, once again, been in focus in recent days. Even as Europe struggles to come to terms with its economic decline, major powers in the Asia-Pacific are coming to terms with their region's rapidly rising economic and political profile.

US President Barack Obama, was in Asia to underscore America's commitment to the regional stability at a time when he is wrapping up two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the US secretary of state has already underlined, 'the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of the action.'

At a time when talk of American decline and retrenchment from global commitments has become de riguer, the signals coming from Washington are that it has no intention of leaving the Asian strategic landscape. Nor will regional states allow America to lower its profile. After all, the elephant in the room (region) is China's faster than expected ascent in global inter-state hierarchy.

The East Asia Summit was the second gathering in a week that brought American and Chinese officials together for a regional meeting. It followed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii a few days back where much to China's annoyance, the US president suggested that Beijing needed to 'play by the rules' in international trade.

From there, Obama moved to Canberra where he secured new basing rights even as eight regional States signed up for the Obama administration's new Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, a free-trade plan. As the threat of a rising China increases, most regional States are eager for greater economic, political and military engagement with the United States.

Australia made it clear how despite growing economic linkages with China, regional States continue to hedge their bets by courting American security partnerships. The US announced a permanent military presence in Australia and the move to send 250 Marines to bases there for six month tours starting next summer, eventually rotating 2,500 troops through the country, is being widely viewed as the start of the administration's strategic objective of repositioning the United States as a leader on economics and security in the fast-developing Asia-Pacific region.

Not surprisingly, Beijing was quick to react questioning whether expanding the military alliance 'is in line with the common interest' of countries in the region.

China also views the development of the TPP as a political move, to create a US-dominated counterweight to a rival trade bloc of Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan and South Korea, known by the acronym ASEAN Plus Three.

Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao demanded that 'outside forces' had no excuse to get involved in the complex maritime dispute, a veiled warning to the United States and other countries to keep out of the sensitive issue. The issue of the South China Sea has disrupted China's ties with its neighbours.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are the other claimants to parts of the South China Sea, a major route for some $5 trillion in trade each year and potentially rich in resources. The US is supporting these States and wants a multilateral approach towards the resolution of the issue.

It is in this broader context that India's emerging role in the region should be assessed. India is emerging as a critical balancer in the Asia-Pacific and regional States are recognising New Delhi's growing clout. This was reflected in Australia's recent decision to reconsider its ban on the sale of uranium to India.

That a Labour government, traditionally considered a non-proliferation hawk, should take this decision is reflective of Canberra's changing priorities. And that this could not have happened without American pressure on the Australian government to change its policies should also alert New Delhi to the important role a so-called declining America continues to play in supporting Indian ambitions in the region and globally.

In his meetings with the Chinese premier and the US president, the Indian prime minister did raise a range of issues. Though Dr Singh ruled out any major changes in the nuclear liability law in the near future, despite American misgivings, he urged Obama to commence nuclear trade with India.

The US was also informed that India was ready to ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, CSC, another issue that the US wants to be done as part of implementation of the civil nuclear deal. This is an important issue to be clarified on an immediate basis given a wide-ranging perception that the US-India ties have entered a period of drift.

The strategic priorities of New Delhi and Washington are in alignment, but it is the tactical issues that have made the two wary of each other. This needs rectification as America's Asia-Pacific policy will come unhinged without Indian support and the Indian desire to effectively balance China will remain just that, a desire, without American support.

With Wen Jiabao, the Indian prime minister was refreshingly emphatic in suggesting that India would not take sides in China's territorial disputes with its neighbours over South China Sea, but India did have a right to exploit the sea's oil and gas commercially.

Wen urged India and China to work 'hand-in-hand' to ensure that the 21st century belongs to Asia. There are, he said, enough areas where India and China can cooperate with each other. Yet this cannot hide the fact that frictions are increasing with each passing day between the two Asian giants.

China must understand that with its rise on the international stage comes increased responsibility argued Obama. If Beijing does not respect international rules, Obama said, 'we will send a clear message to them that we think that they need to be on track in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities that come with being a world power.'

This reflects that American strategic priorities are changing and changing rapidly. Indian diplomacy will have to be equally agile to take advantage of all the opportunities that this new realignment of structural forces presents New Delhi in serving its own interests.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London.

Harsh V Pant