India may no longer be bracketed with Pakistan in American thinking but its hyphenation with China does not augur well for the relationship or the region.

Speaking to an audience of businessmen in New Delhi in May 2009, Robert D. Blackwill struck a dark and pessimistic tone about what the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House portended for India. As George W. Bush's ambassador, Mr. Blackwill had helped effect a major transformation of the bilateral relationship. But four months into the tenure of his successor, he was concerned that “there may be a substantial change under way in the quality and the intensity of U.S.-India relations.”

The main reason for this was the change in Washington's attitude towards Beijing. According to Mr. Blackwill, President Bush “based his transformation of U.S.-India relations on the core strategic principle of democratic India as a key factor in balancing the rise of Chinese power.” Going by early indications, however, “it is not clear that the Obama administration has the same preoccupation with the rise of Chinese power and India's balancing role in it.”

Ambassador Blackwill was not alone in reading the tea leaves that way. The world financial crisis had increased the clout of China and there was much breathless talk of ‘G-2', a new Sino-American compact to stabilise the global economy. “So China today appears, at least to me, to be on a substantially higher plane in U.S. diplomacy than India, which seems to have been downgraded in administration strategic calculations,” Mr. Blackwill noted. One consequence of this downgrading was the role the Obama administration appeared to encourage China to play in South Asia. The joint statement issued at the end of President Obama's visit to Beijing in November 2009 spoke about the two countries increasing their cooperation towards the goal of “bringing about more stable, peaceful relations in all of South Asia.” Not surprisingly, India saw red.

Twelve months later, however, the world seems to have spun around to the Bush axis again. The U.S. no longer harbours illusions about a G-2 in which China would play the role of a junior partner. Tension with Beijing has returned across a wide range of bilateral issues from currency and trade to naval deployment and maritime security. The past year has also seen a deterioration in China's relations with several Asian powers like India, Japan and Vietnam, with disputes flaring up over stapled visas for Kashmiri-domiciled Indians and disputed islands in the South China and East China seas. It is in this context that President Obama and his advisors seem to have rediscovered the importance of India.

In a triumph of strategic path-dependence over political fantasy, President Obama has returned to the baseline policy the United States has been following for the past decade. This is the policy of renewing alliances and creating “partnerships” in Asia so as to sustain American domination and leadership in a region that is otherwise increasingly being influenced by China's rise. And at the heart of this policy is encouraging India to get more involved in the East Asian economic and strategic space. “Today, the U.S. is once again playing a leadership role in Asia,” President Obama said in his speech to the joint session of Parliament earlier this week. [We] want India to not only “look East”, we want India to “engage East”…”

The crucial words here are the “leadership role” of the U.S. They provide the context for the increased engagement Mr. Obama wants to see as he exhorts India to go east. The Manmohan-Obama joint statement talks of the two leaders having a shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity in “Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific region.” They also speak of the need for an open, balanced and inclusive architecture in the region.

Without going into the merits or demerits of India looking and engaging the East under American “leadership,” the essentially derivative nature of the Indo-U.S. relationship needs underlining. What is common to the warming to India under Bush, the cooling in the initial months of the Obama administration, and the current warmth is, in a word, China. American attitudes towards Beijing appear to have become a better predictor of temperature on the Indo-U.S. front than anything intrinsic to the bilateral relationship. And that can't be a good thing.

The reality of this equation for Indo-U.S. cooperation in the strategic and military sphere is reinforced by some of the views collated by Bethany N. Danyluk and Juli A. MacDonald in The U.S.-India Defense Relationship: Reassessing Perceptions and Expectations, a report prepared for the Pentagon in November 2008. “If there were no China,” a U.S. Navy officer is quoted as saying in the unclassified report, “we would still engage [India], but maybe not to the same extent. There are plenty of opportunities for cooperation, but China drives a lot of what we are doing”.

The 2008 report, which updates a similar survey of American and Indian policymakers' attitudes that the Pentagon commissioned in 2002, provides a valuable insight into the other imperatives that also seem to be driving the American desire to have India look east. These include the expectation that India could relieve some of the regional security burdens currently borne by the U.S., with its overextended military commitments, and the idea that Washington ought to somehow leverage the relationships India has in the region to achieve mutual objectives “in places where the United States would like to maintain a lower profile.” According to one American official quoted: “The United States is trying to get out of the one-on-one hub-and-spoke mentality. We need to figure out where the United States injects itself effectively. Where it does not, it would be helpful to have India engage these actors horizontally.”

The picture that emerges, then, is a complex one in which American off-shore balancing is combined with the outsourcing of hegemonic responsibilities in East Asia.

The fact that the U.S. hopes to benefit from increased Indian engagement in East Asia can hardly be an argument against India looking east. But the hyphenation with China that the American policy towards India is predicated on should make us pause for thought. Though India — and even the U.S. — are not in the business of containing China, this explicit hyphenation of two major Asian powers in American public discourse creates unnecessary complications for New Delhi. For example, the Chinese attitude towards a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for India may be outrightly hostile if Beijing concludes that Washington is being motivated by some crude notion of a balance of power in Asia. Of course, China may still be hostile in the absence of such a motive but it might reconcile itself to the rise of Indian power if it believes this power will not be used to hurt its legitimate core interests. Sending out such a signal is essential for India.

As India and China grow, they will inevitably rub up against each other in their respective backyards. India does not like the growing Chinese influence in South Asia any more than China will welcome India's increasing presence in East Asia. But when this presence comes bundled together with an American one, the mix can seem suffocating and lethal for both. Just as India reacted so negatively to America speaking of a Chinese role in South Asia, China is likely to be shell-shocked by the copious references to East Asia in the various speeches and statements that were made during Mr. Obama's recent visit to India. It may react by reaching out and playing catch up with a country it has unnerved with its statements on the border issue this past year. Or it may ratchet up the pressure. Or it may just wait and see whether Mr. Obama's domestic difficulties and changes in global dynamics push Washington into once again warming towards Beijing and cooling towards Delhi.

India's relationships with the U.S. and China will never be completely independent of each other but the challenge for Indian policymakers is to ensure each is free standing and independent of the pushes and pulls which occur between Washington and Beijing. The U.S. does not do partnerships. That is why Mr. Obama reminded Indian parliamentarians of the leadership role America is playing in Asia. But Asia doesn't need leaders and followers. So long as Washington insists on leading the show, the Asian architecture India and the U.S. speak about cannot be genuinely open, balanced and inclusive. As New Delhi slowly recovers from the Obama whirlwind, this is one message that needs to be internalised.