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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Strategic U.S.-China-India balancing act

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — During her talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao as part of the U.S.-China Economic and Strategic Dialogue recently, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton asserted that "the China-U.S. relationship is stronger than it's ever been."

All the evidence, however, points to a dramatically different conclusion.

After trying to create a strategic partnership with China soon after assuming office, the Obama administration is now taking a realistic approach in dealing with the emerging superpower. U.S.-China ties have been undergoing a transformation of their own, and two recent episodes underscore the growing complexity of the Beijing-Washington relationship.

The saga leading to the purge of Bo Xilai from the Chinese Communist Party started when Wang Lijun, who was investigating Bo's wife in connection with the murder of a British businessman, sought shelter in a U.S. consulate because of fear for his life.

More recently, Chen Gungcheng, a blind human rights lawyer, asked for U.S. help in seeking protection from the Chinese state security apparatus out to stifle his voice.

The latter has been more controversial because it happened just when the annual economic and trade talks between Washington and Beijing were about to start. The United States thought it had a deal, as Chen was handed back to the Chinese authorities. But soon Chen was complaining that he had to agree to the deal under duress and that the U.S. had abandoned him.

This has plunged Sino-U.S. ties into one of the biggest diplomatic crises in recent years with Beijing demanding an apology from the U.S. for offering refuge to Chen. A face-saving arrangement was worked out when China agreed that Chen could apply to study outside China like other Chinese students studying abroad.

After trying to keep human rights away from the spotlight, the U.S. has been more vocal about the issue in recent months. The Chen episode therefore comes at a difficult time. Meanwhile, Washington has been geopolitically active in the Indo-Pacific, trying to assure its partners that it is in the region to stay.

Clinton arrived in China after visiting Japan where the Obama administration has underscored the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance to U.S. priorities in Asia. In the context of escalating tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, the U.S. has initiated a high-level defense dialogue with Manila, which has even suggested that it might not be averse to inviting U.S. troops to establish a presence on its territory.

Despite attempts by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to turn a nonbinding 2002 political declaration into a legally binding "code of conduct" to discourage aggression, China continues to reject arrangements that would force it to negotiate with a bloc of nations over sovereignty disputes, preferring one-to-one talks with individual claimants instead. This makes America central to the strategic calculus of the smaller regional states.

It is against this backdrop that Delhi and Washington need to urgently recalibrate their bilateral ties.

These are not the best of times for the U.S.-India partnership. Troubles are mounting on virtually every front. India's economic dynamism, the most potent of factors in transforming the U.S.-India relationship over the last two decades, is under threat primarily because of the policy paralysis plaguing New Delhi.

Some expectations from the Delhi-Washington entente have clearly been unrealistic, but most of the responsibility for an apparent backslide in the tone and tenor of this very important relationship lies in the corridors of power in New Delhi.

The Obama administration's tightening of restrictions on the entry of highly educated Indian professionals in the information-technology sector has created a climate of suspicion amid warnings about an impending "trade war."

India's decision to retroactively revise tax laws related to foreign mergers and acquisitions is damping enthusiasm for India as a destination for investment.

Clinton was in India in what might be her final trip to India as Secretary of State and she therefore focused on big ticket items like Iran, Afghanistan and the next steps in the nuclear deal to give some momentum to slackening ties.

New Delhi has made a concerted attempt to reduce its dependence on Iran, but Washington would like India to do much more. There was the expectation that during her trip to Delhi, Clinton might announce a waiver to exempt India from U.S. sanctions, but it did not happen.

Despite public pronouncements of defiance, India has been cutting back on oil imports from Iran. The fiscal year ended March 31 witnessed a decrease of more than 20 percent from the previous year. Clinton also pushed for a revival of the nuclear pact that is languishing for all practical purposes.

After years of marginalizing New Delhi in favor of Islamabad, Washington now seeks a higher profile for India in Afghanistan.

But it is China that should exercise the diplomatic energies of both Washington and New Delhi as differences mount between China and the U.S., and the region struggles to come to terms with a rising China. Confident of its economic prowess, Beijing views the U.S. as a declining power.

The United States has begun working to challenge that perception, and a strong U.S.-India partnership will go a long way in managing the power transition in Asia.

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

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