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Rebalancing the Chinese Romance

By Claude Arpi
February 03, 2015 10:07 IST

'The question remains: Was the Obama visit truly a success?

'Only the future will tell us if the "breakthrough" in the nuclear liability issue will concretise into electricity... As importantly, it will be interesting to watch how India's relations with China will evolve in the months to come,' says Claude Arpi.

Performers in Qing Dynasty costumes

President Barack Obama has come and gone. The dust is settling over the Indian capital. Even if very few concrete projects materialised during the three-day visit, it looks as a great diplomatic success for Mr Narendra Modi.

The bonhomie displayed by the two heads of government is certainly a good omen for the future. At last, India has come out of the dreadful 'non-alignment' syndrome.

The question remains: Was the visit truly a success?

Only the future will tell us if the 'breakthrough' in the nuclear liability issue will concretise into electricity and if a similar formula can be applied for other countries ready to invest in nuclear energy in India, particularly France and Korea.

As importantly, it will be interesting to watch how India's relations with China will evolve in the months to come.

Global Times ran an op-ed saying: 'The seemingly enthusiastic approach of the US and India and the romance between the two leaders do not suggest any substantial improvement in the bilateral ties of the two countries.'

It is certainly a possibility, but it is also a fact that the US President's visit on the occasion of Republic Day triggered a larger than usual number of articles/comments in the Chinese media.

It started early on; the 'romance' ignited by a big hug on the tarmac at Palam airport in front of the 'Beast'.

The mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China asserted: 'High-sounding remarks and deals are often showcased during high-level visits between the US and India, but when the trips end, actions often lag behind and words fail to translate into visible actions. The latest visit will likely repeat this pattern.'

This might be true, but it is not restricted to the US, it happened after Chinese President Xi Jinping's and Russian President Vladmir Putin's visit to India too.

What made the difference this time was the 'US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,' released on January 25.

The new 'Vision,' again mentioned in the Joint Statement, says: 'India and the United States are important drivers of regional and global growth. From Africa to East Asia, we will build on our partnership to support sustainable, inclusive development, and increased regional connectivity by collaborating with other interested partners to address poverty and support broad-based prosperity.'

What probably irked Beijing and triggered the impressive Chinese media coverage was that India and the US affirmed 'the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.'

The Joint Strategic Vision directly targeted Beijing: 'We called on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.'

How come these 'non-shareholders,' India and the US, 'call on all parties' to interfere in the region, protested China?

Hu Qingyun, in another Global Times piece saw the situation slightly differently: 'While some say the US intends to use India as a wedge to contain China, most experts agree that New Delhi will not take sides.'

Zhou Fangyin, a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies explained in the same article: 'Obama's strategy is quite clear. He wants to split the relations between China and India, as well as India and Russia, in an effort to fulfill his strategy of a "re-balance" in Asia,' adding: 'The US is courting India to become an ally in South Asia to contain China by supporting economic and military development.'

It is a fact that Beijing is clearly worried about any outside interference on its turf. The Hongkong-based more neutral South China Morning Post also believed the Modi-Obama encounter was targeting China: 'Obama's appearance as chief guest at India's Republic Day parade underlined the strengthening ties between the two countries and -- according to some analysts -- sent a message that India and the US could team up against China if needed.'

Sun Shihai, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Hong Kong newspaper: 'The trip is a signal that both nations are exerting pressure on China. It shows that India's worries about China are deep-rooted and have not eased even though Beijing and New Delhi have vowed to deepen cooperation.'

As Obama arrived in Delhi, Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, predicted that nothing much will happen: 'Sino-Indian relations are not expected to be "significantly" impacted by Obama's visit. The ongoing Obama trip in India may succeed in propelling the US-India relationship forward, it could hardly change the ground reality that India also needs China as a crucial cooperation partner.'

Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, took the same line during his media briefing. 'China hopes the development of US-India relations can promote mutual trust and cooperation between countries in the region as well as benefit regional stability and prosperity,' Hua affirmed.

On January 26, 2015, President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to his Indian counterpart in which he noted that 'Both China and India, as two ancient civilisations, are pursuing a great dream of national rejuvenation. China is delighted with India's achievements in its development.'

Xi also conveyed that: 'China is willing to make concerted efforts with India to lift the China-India strategic cooperative partnership featuring peace and prosperity to new highs.'

The views of The New York Times are obviously more antagonistic to China: 'Mr Obama and his aides discovered to their surprise that Mr Modi's assessment of China's rise and its impact on the greater strategic situation in East Asia was closely aligned with their own. Just as they did, Mr Modi seemed increasingly uneasy about China's efforts to extend its influence around the region and interested in a united approach to counter them.'

It is doubtful if the Modi government's views were not known in Washington before Obama's arrival; the New York Times added: 'Mr Modi seems not only willing but eager to redefine India's relationship with the United States at a time China is on the rise economically, militarily and politically.'

Does Modi want to put all his eggs in the American basket? Certainly not!

An interesting development took place a day after Obama left India. The Indian government announced the 'curtailment of tenure of foreign secretary Sujatha Singh with immediate effect' and S Jaishankar, India's ambassador to the US and former ambassador to China, became the new foreign secretary.

Jaishankar's knowledge of the two countries and his rapport with both capitals will be a great asset in Narendra Modi's new 'alignment' policy.

Another telling detail: Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was in Beijing during Obama's visit to India. The general met the People's Liberation Army top brass, particularly Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, who told him: 'China appreciates and supports Pakistan's efforts in fighting against terrorism and hopes to better bilateral defence and security cooperation.'

Beijing is ready to work with its 'forever good friend' to 'upgrade our strategic coordination, deepen all-round cooperation, and step up the building of the China-Pakistan economic corridor,' Yu said. A veiled threat?

Around the same time, during a politburo meeting, Xi reaffirmed his commitment to traditional Marxist philosophy. The politburo had a collective study session on Marxist dialectical materialism, a year after it held a similar one on historical materialism.

Is China going back to the days of pure Marxism? It is probably a more important question than the new 're-alignment' of the Asian forces.

Image: Performers in Qing Dynasty costumes celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in China's Liaoning province. Photograph: Reuters.

Claude Arpi
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