India, U.S. walk a tightrope on China

Modi emphasises improvement in ties with China; top U.S. officials set to visit Beijing for dialogue

June 04, 2016 11:28 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:02 pm IST - Washington:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in May 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in May 2015.

China has been a constant factor in the India-U.S. ties, but the delicate balancing act that both countries play in dealing with the Asian giant will be unmistakable when Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on June 8.

For one, when Mr. Modi takes off for the U.S., a battery of American officials led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew will be headed to Beijing for interactions with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice-Premier Wang Yang.

The eighth edition of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on June 5-7 will have representatives from 20 U.S. departments and agencies travelling to Beijing.

No Cold War

There were 3,00,000 Chinese students in the U.S. last year, a three-fold increase from Mr. Obama’s first year in office. The administration has also launched a programme to train a million new Mandarin speakers in the U.S. The Obama administration is eager to ensure that the lingering tensions between the two countries do not crystallise into a new Cold War.

That is the concern that China is playing on. “This is Cold War mentality,” a Chinese spokesperson responded to U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter’s observation in Singapore that China’s behaviour in the South China Sea could lead to its isolation.

Earlier in the week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel R. Russel said of the China legacy that Mr. Obama wants to leave behind: “One of the real accomplishments of the Obama administration with regard to China has been the creation of a relationship that can handle both significant friction and global if not galactic-scale cooperation… the ability of the U.S. and China to deal with and to manage problem areas without coming to blows and without developing the kind of strategic rivalry that creates an absolute Cold War, zero-sum dynamic.”

While tensions repeatedly crop up — last month in Vietnam, Mr. Obama spoke of “big countries trying to bully small neighbours — the U.S. has roped in China in several international initiatives, the Paris climate conference and the Iranian nuclear deal being the most successful examples.

Reining in North Korea

This week in Beijing, on top of the agenda of the dialogue will be reining in North Korea’s nuclear adventurism. China and the U.S. cooperated in the UN for stricter sanctions against North Korea, but the U.S. believes China can do more on this front. “China is a co-author of the toughest sanctions ever levied on North Korea, and by its own declaration is determined to implement them fully… the S&ED provides a platform for that.”

U.S. officials say there will be “candid discussions” on China’s maritime behaviour and cyber threats this week.

Mr. Modi himself sought to downplay the prevalent notion of an India-U.S. axis against China in his interview to TheWall Street Journal last week. Asked how he saw India’s relations with the U.S. in terms of China, the Prime Minister said: “There was an age when the world was divided into two camps. That is not true anymore. Today, the whole world is interdependent. Even if you look at the relationship between China and the U.S., there are areas where they have substantial differences but there are also areas where they have worked closely. That’s the new way.”

Mr. Modi also said the “general impression that exists is not the reality” of India-China relations: “We don’t have any fighting with China today. We have a boundary dispute, but there is no tension or clashes. People-to-people contacts have increased. Trade has increased. Chinese investment in India has gone up. India’s investment in China has grown.”

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