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Obama's visit: The China angle

By Srikanth Kondapalli
November 04, 2010 19:38 IST
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Though US-India relations are nowhere close to China-US ties, Beijing will watch the Obama visit closely, says Srikanth Kondapalli.

Amidst reports of 'deals' on the currency issue by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and 'strategic reassurances' by Secretary of State Clinton in the Hainan province of China in October, Beijing is watching President Barack Obama's visit to India closely.

While the Chinese leaders have historically faced opposition from Japan and Vietnam, they currently view India's rise with caution.

The stakes are high. Beijing has invested heavily in influencing Washington's Asian policy in the three decades after they joined hands to bring down the then Soviet Union.

Both had identical views on India during Bangladesh's liberation. China even used its then newly acquired veto power to block Bangladesh's entry as a new United Nations member in the early 1970s.

In 1998, Beijing backed an US initiative to pass an UN resolution to 'cap, rollback and eliminate' South Asian nations' nuclear capabilities.

And while China 'disappointed' India at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Suppliers Group deliberations to augment India's civilian nuclear commerce in 2008, it also 'grandfathered' Pakistan's nuclear plants at Chashma.

So, when it comes to the emerging US-India relationship, two main sets of responses are discernible within China.

The moderate political response -- a minority -- argues that if China had courted the US from the 1970s to protect its security and for economic development, then India justifiably can approach Washington too.

As a large and a developing country with legacies of support to the Non-Alignment Movement, India, according to them, will act in its supreme national interest but tend to be cautious in not being drawn into any military alliance with the US.

The hawkish elements in China -- a growing tribe -- on the other hand, had been exerting pressure on the government to balance or even encircle New Delhi.

Mainly drawn from the Chinese military constituents, this group had dissuaded the US from being stiff on Pakistan.

Despite an improvement in US-India relations, US-China relations today has comparatively more depth -- the former posted trade figures of well below $50 billion last year, while the latter posted $298 billion.

The US has also invested more than $60 billion in about 55,000 projects in China, while the corresponding figures in India are negligible.

The US and China have 60 dialogue and consultation mechanisms and have been holding Strategic Economic Dialogue and the Strategic Dialogue for several years now, while India just initiated a strategic dialogue.

The US treasury secretary visits Beijing more often than he visits New Delhi.

Long-term and stable relations between the two is also maintained by former high level officials like Henry Kissinger, the architect of the engagement policy, who not only visited Beijing a number of times but was also instrumental in establishing an institute in his name at the Wilson Centre.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiezhi inaugurated the institute three years ago. The same institute promoted the Group-2 (US and China) global collaboration. No institution of this scale and influence exists in India or the US to promote bilateral relations.

In a realpolitik sense, China also counts on its diplomatic and financial muscle over the US and its allies. For instance, in the last few years China had bought more than $850 billion in US Treasury Securities, surpassing Japan's holdings.

China is also buying Japanese government bonds, investing more than $120 billion in the first half of 2010 alone.

According to certain estimates, China can cripple the US economy by moving the maturities of these securities from 90 to 60 days or by threatening to sell these assets.

Likewise, at the diplomatic level, Beijing knows clearly how the US is dependent it for facilitating (endless and without-a-solution-in-sight) the Six Party Talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula or on the Iranian nuclear issue.

In effect, India hardly figures at the high table.

Srikanth Kondapalli is a professor in Chinese studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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