China bound to be upset by closer Obama-Modi ties

February 03, 2015 08:17
Barack Obama (left) and Narendra Modi hit it off during the US president's visit to India. Photo: Reuters

In September, when the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, visited the United States, China declared itself unworried.

“India will not be a major player in America’s game of rebalancing the Asia Pacific,” the official People’s Daily newspaper pronounced.

But in Washington, the Indian leader hit it off with President Barack Obama.

The two sides issued a joint statement in which India – much to China’s discomfiture – joined the United States for the first time in expressing concern about rising tensions in the South China Sea, where China has maritime territorial disputes with several countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

Shortly after Modi’s return home, he issued a surprise invitation to Obama to be the chief guest in the Republic Day celebrations in January. Such an invitation is considered a great honor, and no American president had ever been invited.

Obama accepted with alacrity and thereby created another first: he became the first serving American president to visit India twice during his tenure, having visited first in 2010.

Throughout Obama’s three days in India, Jan. 25-27, China was an invisible presence.

In a way, China was the reason for Obama being in India in the first place, since the United States clearly wishes to see India balance a rising China. At the same time, India, too, wants closer relations with America.

This time, the joint statement issued by Modi and Obama again mentioned the South China Sea, implicitly criticizing China.

But Modi apparently went further by endorsing the revival of an informal security dialogue involving the United States, Japan, Australia and India, which was largely the brainchild of Shinzo Abe in his first term as Japan’s prime minister in 2006-2007 and which was referred to as the “arc of democracy”, deliberately accentuating the difference with authoritarian China.

The quadrilateral security dialogue ceased to exist when Australia withdrew after Kevin Rudd became prime minister, but Canberra and Washington have tightened their security cooperation under Rudd’s successors.

China is bound to be extremely unhappy over this new development. In 2007, it issued protests to all four countries involved.

A senior American official, Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council, in briefing the American media, confirmed that “an important topic of conversation” between the two leaders was the Asia Pacific region.

Drawing on the American diplomatic lexicon, he said they discussed issues like “how we can cooperate more effectively in the Asia Pacific” by “strengthening rules of the road” and “resolving territorial disputes consistent with international law”.

The law of the sea, under which the Philippines has brought an international arbitration case against China, was especially mentioned.

Rhodes said the two leaders discuss not only strengthening bilateral cooperation but also “working multilaterally with partners like Japan and Australia and the Asean countries”.

“And,” he added significantly, “they discussed the relationship with China.”

Obama pledged to support India as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – something that China has not agreed to do. He also declared support for India to join the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

While India has been developing increasingly close economic relations with China – Modi hosted President Xi Jinping last year and is expected to make a state visit to China this year – India has been alarmed at China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean and Chinese diplomatic encroachments into India’s backyard by cultivating close relations with countries around India, including Nepal, which is sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas.

India and China fought a border war in 1962, and the border remains in dispute. There are frequent charges of violations of the line of actual control, including one incident during Xi’s visit to India that took the shine off the visit.

China went out of its way to dismiss the importance of the Obama visit to India.

The official Xinhua news agency emphasized the “long-standing division” between the United States and India, “which may be as huge as the distance between them”, which it said cannot be significantly narrowed in a three-day visit.

No doubt, China also hopes that India’s tradition of neutrality means that New Delhi will not tilt too much toward Washington to the detriment of Beijing.

For now, India seems to be leaning more in America’s direction. But what happens when Modi visits China may be another story.

In the current era of global competition between the United States and China, India, like many other countries, may not want to put all its eggs in one basket but seek good relations with both powers. And, if need be, by playing one off against the other.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.