China’s Shadow Looms Large Over Obama Visit to India

By Julie Pace 27 January 2015

NEW DELHI — As US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in New Delhi this week, the shadow of a third player hung over the talks: neighboring China, which has complicated relationships with both the United States and India.

To Obama, forging deeper ties with India fits in neatly with his efforts to deepen US influence in countries on China’s doorstep. And as the world’s largest democracy, India is a particularly attractive partner to the United States as it seeks to cultivate a robust regional counterbalance to communist China.

India and China are ostensibly allies, and Modi warmly welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to New Delhi last year. But India is also worried about China’s maneuvering in the region—particularly in the Indian Ocean and at the Himalayan border between the two countries—and sees fostering improved relations with the United States as key to bolstering its own defense posture.

“There is a triangular game in play from Delhi’s point of view,” said Ashley Tellis, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Modi wants “all of the benefits that come from being seen as working in close collaboration with the United States,” including access to American technology, expertise and military cooperation, said Tellis.

The United States and India have each cast Obama’s three-day visit to New Delhi as a symbol of their efforts to strengthen a relationship that has been plagued by tension and suspicion. Obama is the first US leader to visit India twice as president, and the first to be honored as the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day parade.

Obama and Modi sat side-by-side Monday in a glass-enclosed viewing box as Indian tanks and rocket launchers rolled by and fighter jets sped across the sky overhead. The president later convened a meeting of US and Indian business executives, a gathering aimed at bolstering economic cooperation between the two countries.

Obama’s trip didn’t go unnoticed in China, where foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said US-India relations “could promote mutual trust and cooperation in the region.” But the state-run news agency Xinhua dismissed Obama’s visit as “more symbolic than pragmatic, given the long-standing division between the two giants, which may be as huge as the distance between them.”

Commentary in China’s government-controlled media is frequently used as a means of criticizing or casting doubt on the diplomatic moves of other countries.

When asked about the Chinese take, Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, “It’s notable that they should feel like they have to go out of their way to comment on this visit.”

The subtle jab underscored the complexity of the dynamic between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies.

Obama’s visit to Beijing in November generated a surprising amount of consensus on a range of issues, including an ambitious agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions that the White House hopes will push nations like India toward similar pacts. But Washington has deep concerns about Beijing’s actions on such matters as regional territorial disputes, computer hacking and currency manipulation.

India is particularly concerned about China’s quiet quest for greater influence in the Indian Ocean, which has long been New Delhi’s domain. The tankers that move through the Indian Ocean are critical for India’s oil supply, and any significant slowdown in tanker traffic could cripple its economy. India is also concerned about the Chinese troops that regularly move across its unmarked Himalayan border with China.

Rahul Bedi, an analyst for Jane’s Information Group, said India’s goal within the next two decades is to develop military capabilities that would enable them to take on China.

“India can’t do that on its own, so we need somebody like America to hold our hand,” Bedi said.

Obama and Modi agreed to extend a 10-year defense pact that the White House said would allow for deeper military-to-military engagement and increase maritime cooperation. Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said a defense partnership between the United States and India “will help forge security and stability in Asia and across the globe.”

Still, regional experts caution that there are limits to how far India, a nation that championed a policy of nonalignment during the Cold War, will go in joining together with the United States to counter China.

“India does not want to seem like it’s banding together with the United States or with other countries to go against China,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center. Kugelman said that while Modi is moving away from his country’s nonalignment policy, “its influence is very strong.”