Looking East, embracing West: India does a balancing act | ht view | Hindustan Times
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Looking East, embracing West: India does a balancing act

ht view Updated: Jan 29, 2015 02:12 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
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Three days after India signed a joint vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region with the United States -- in a move that upset Beijing, it was announced on Wednesday that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj would visit China on February 1.

This would lay the foundation stone for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's possible visit to the country by May. In order to manage a triangular dance with Washington and Beijing, two narratives have emerged within the power corridors in Delhi about what the joint vision with the US means.

One school seeks to underplay the China motivation in signing up to the vision with the US. "It is a reiteration of what we have been doing. PM is committed to Act East policy. We have over 70 billion dollar worth trade with ASEAN countries; we share a border with Myanmar; Singapore is a huge investor; we have a huge diaspora in the region," an official said.

There is already a substantial partnership with Japan -- a country which Modi has visited already, and Vietnam, with which three high-level exchanges were held in recent months. "Our push in the region and what we want from it is organic. And if US help us expand that reach, it is welcome."

There is another - more candid - narrative. Another senior official told HT that China was obviously the underlying motivation. "It is a signal to them that all options are open. Our push in the east is in response to their relationship with Pakistan, and now their increasing intrusion in Sri Lanka and Maldives politics. Frequent incursions don't help."

He was cautious, however, and argued that the joint statement must not be read as any 'alliance building'. According to him, India will not suddenly invest more resources than it already has in the region. "It is just a signal. China has understood it, and we will move on."

There is of course a background to this India-US convergence. A key factor which motivated the US to push a civil nuclear deal in 2005 was the need to elevate India as a pole in Asian politics to manage China's rise. There was an attempt to create a US-Japan-Australia-India quadrilateral security relationship.

But while the George Bush administration was clear about it, Obama sought to build a keener partnership with China in the early years, of his presidency. There was talk of the two being the 'new G-2'; a joint statement between the US and China even foresaw Beijing's role in South Asia. India felt left out in the cold. Simultaneously, the India-US relationship drifted for other reasons, particularly the impasse over the nuclear liability law.

The US-China strategic bonhomie ended soon after the G-2 moment. Obama announced his Asia pivot policy of engaging more closely in the region with multiple partners. But, Delhi decided that it was not in its interest to ally too closely with the US. There was a deep assymetry in capacity with China and it was not worth alienating Beijing, went the argument.

The big change now is the Narendra Modi government's willingness to play the ball. "There is a quid pro quo. If we want so much from the US, we have to address their strategic interests too. And it works for us as well, since it is an insurance policy of sorts," said an official. The government now subscribes to the theory that closer engagement with the US may well open up more possibilities with Beijing.

And this is where both narratives merge. Diplomacy, officials insist, is not a 'zero sum' game. India is fully aware of the robust US-China economic relationship, far stronger than the US-India ties.

Modi is also clear he wants to continue to engage deeply with Beijing on economy. The question however is: will China adopt a more conciliatory attitude vis a vis India to prevent it from getting more embedded with the US? Or will it seek to show the consequences of signing up to such a vision statement to Delhi? Swaraj and Modi's visits will provide the answers.

(Views expressed are personal)