China, India, play it again for Uncle SamAmerican diplomacy was on splendid display this week in two key Asian capitals - Beijing and New Delhi. China and India rolled out the red carpet to visiting cabinet officials from Washington. By a curious coincidence, the two top US officials - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates - chose the same block of dates to befriend the two Asian "rivals".
Amid the debris of the George W Bush administration's foreign policy in the Middle East, what is often overlooked is the extraordinary diplomatic gusto with which Washington goes about convincing the two Asian giants, China and India, that each is a privileged partner of the US's global strategies.
Indeed, it is difficult to be judgmental about the relative importance that the US attaches to its relations with China and India - or, conversely, what goes on in the inscrutable minds of such ancient peoples as the Chinese or Indians. But Chinese pronouncements insist that the US is inviting China to be a "stakeholder" in the affairs of the 21st century and Beijing is responding. On the contrary, the Indian strategic community remains confident that the US is painstakingly building up Indian capabilities as a first-class power so as to make it a counterweight to China.
Full credit must be given to American diplomacy. Welcoming Gates to Delhi, the Indian Defense Ministry noted in an effusive press release that the George W Bush presidency "witnessed unprecedented acceleration in India-US engagement and qualitative transformation in the relationship, particularly in defense". It added that Gates' visit "reaffirms the importance of Indo-US relations and the strong political support in the US for our strategic partnership".
China was characteristically restrained in welcoming Rice to Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said, "China and the United States will exchange views during Rice's visit on bilateral relations and the significant regional and international issues of common concern." All the same, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who was on a visit to Beijing last week, underscored the high importance of US-China relations. He told the China Daily on Sunday, "I consider that [his 1972 visit to China] the single-most important thing I did in government and the one that had the best permanent effect."
Rice sees China as stakeholder
But then, the problem with Kissinger is that he has a rare ability to make his interlocutors feel special. On balance, however, it does stand out that the US is cruising on a velvet patch in its relations with both the Asian powers. Things couldn't be better from the American point of view. Both China and India place great store on their respective strategic cooperation with the US.
Rice said in Beijing China is reaching out for a greater role in global affairs and is opening up, and that's good news. "I can't get into their motivations, but ... China is opening up to the world in a lot of ways," Rice said after talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders. She noted, "I do believe that there is more of an effort to reconcile China's size and influence in international politics, which is a relatively new thing, with China's foreign policy behavior."
She added, "There is a broadening, I think, in general of China's view of itself in international politics and I think we're benefiting from it." Rice singled out China's cooperative role over the North Korea problem, Myanmar and Sudan's Darfur region, where "China is making an impact".
Rice said, "I see them grappling with the 'responsible stakeholder idea', which everybody said they couldn't translate. It turns out that they can translate it and they talk about it actually." She flatly dismissed the idea of using Summer Olympic Games as leverage, "We've been very clear, the president has been very clear, that this is a sporting event." And Bush plans to attend the opening ceremony in Beijing in August.
Clearly, the focus of Rice's visit to Beijing was on the North Korea problem where China and the US are in the process of working out detailed arrangements for the next phase of talks on Pyongyang dismantling its nuclear weapons. Washington needs Beijing's help. Top US nuclear negotiator on North Korea, Christopher Hill, was "ordered" by Rice to visit Beijing last week, according to US media reports, and China facilitated "a good substantial discussion" for Hill with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan. China also chaired a meeting of North and South Korean officials to discuss the economic underpinnings of the six-party talks.
Equally, Rice would have discussed the Iran problem with the Chinese leaders. Tehran acutely senses it may pave the way for a third United Nations Security Council resolution on tighter sanctions against Iran. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi telephoned Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on Wednesday soon after Rice concluded her talks in Beijing. At any rate, Tehran abruptly called off on Wednesday the signing of the long-awaited US$16 billion deal with China Offshore Oil Corporation for the development of its North Pars gas fields, which is estimated to have reserves of 80 trillion cubic feet. The reason attributed was that the Iranian Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari couldn't attend the signing ceremony in Tehran.
Again, Beijing agreed this week, after having rejected US appeals previously, to send a battalion of engineers to Darfur. Rice was quick to laud the Chinese move. The US, on its part, is attending to China's core concern, the Taiwan issue. As Kissinger put it, "I think Beijing and Washington will cooperate and really pressure Taipei that if they do not pull back, it could look extremely unfavorable. I believe that we will avoid a crisis in the Taiwan Strait."
Xinhua news agency reported that Hu and Rice "agreed to step up bilateral constructive and cooperative relations and handle the bilateral relations in a long-term and strategic perspective". Hu told Rice, "The cooperation arena keeps expanding and the strategic significance of the bilateral ties grow higher and higher". Rice responded that Washington hopes to see Beijing continuing to play a constructive role in addressing international issues. At a meeting with State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, she said the US wanted to strengthen cooperation with China "so as to promote the resolution of the issues facing the world". She added that as a responsible member of the international system, China has played a key role in global affairs.
Tang said, "China-US relations have gone far beyond the bilateral dimension and hold increasing global influence and important strategic meanings." He underlined that Rice's visit came at "a very important moment" as the international and regional situation was evolving. Both Tang and Premier Wen Jiabao stressed that China-US cooperation makes an important contribution to the peace, stability and development of the word. Rice concurred that the "fruitful bilateral relationship and cooperation could help better resolve the complicated and difficult issues in the international system".
US's defense trade with India
Thus, it came as no surprise that Gates kept his visit to Delhi focused strictly on US-India military relations. He said, "I don't see our improving military relationships in the region in the context of any other country, including China. These expanding relationships don't necessarily have to be directed to anybody. They are a set of bilateral relationships that are aimed at improving our coordination and the closeness of our relationships for a variety of reasons."
Gates' talking points in Delhi related primarily to defense trade. India's procurement of 126 multi-role combat aircraft in a deal estimated at $10 billion - and possibly, as high as $ 16 billion - was number one priority for him and for the American defense contractors accompanying him. The principal bidders include Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet.
The importance of the deal is not only commercial, but that the new generation aircraft will be in use with the Indian Air Force for the next 40-year period and, therefore, clinching the deal becomes absolutely vital for the US if it is to aim at "inter-operability" with India. Gates knows it is the sort of deal that will ensure US-India military-to-military cooperation becomes irreversible and pin India down as the US's strategic ally in the region.
Indian defense industry sources already speculate that Lockheed Martin could be pushing for closer ties with India's military to increase its chances in the above tender. American companies are also keen to secure another Indian tender for 312 helicopters for its air force and navy worth about $1 billion. In January, India closed a $1 billion deal with Lockheed Martin for six C-130 Hercules aircraft for its special forces. India is expected to spend another $30 billion on military purchases by 2012. Gates' message to Indian officials was that the US defense trade offers the "full package" - sale, technology transfer, guaranteed supply of spares and co-production.
Gates expressed satisfaction over the entry that the US has made in the Indian market, which is traditionally dominated by Russia. He said, "We have tried for some years now to get a seat at the table, and we're finally there." Washington is determined to throw Russia out of the Indian defense market in the coming years. The assertiveness of the US sales pitch is evident from the remark by a US official in Gates's entourage, "When you go into joint production [and] cooperative development [with the US], you're getting not only the best product in the world, but you have the best support system, the best maintenance package over the life of the product. You also have companies that operate with integrity, which is different than what India has seen with other partners in the world. We're very transparent."
Washington will incrementally try to persuade India to get rid of its tendering mechanism altogether - bureaucratic buying and selling processes - and instead take recourse to direct negotiations. India has already moved in this direction and begun talks with the US on the purchase of P-8i long-range maritime reconnaissance patrol aircraft with anti-submarine war capabilities to replace Russian-made Tu-142M bombers. The deal could be worth $2 billion, the biggest defense deal so far between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the quantum jump in US-Indian strategic ties in the past two to three years needs to be consolidated. "We're not looking for quick results or big leaps forward, but rather a steady expansion of this relationship that leaves everybody comfortable," Gates modestly said.
A lot indeed depends on the fate of the US-India nuclear civilian deal. Washington is keeping its fingers crossed about the Indian government's grit to push the deal despite vehement domestic opposition. Untrammeled technology transfer to India and a qualitative shift of the strategic partnership to de facto alliance depend on the deal going through. Washington is, therefore, pulling all stops.
The worrisome thing for Washington, paradoxically, is that India has a democratic system. Indian politics are in flux with approaching parliamentary elections, while big-ticket items such as India's participation in the US defense missile system, India's ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or India's role in regional security remain to be finessed. Of course, the elite leaderships in India's two centrist parties - Congress and Bhartiya Janata Party - are equally zealous about making India a "natural ally" of the US. Gates made it a point to touch base with the opposition BJP.
However, there is a flip side insofar as Indian politics have entered a coalition era and interest groups are multiplying. Outside of the middle class immersed in the enchantments of globalization, the vast majority of Indians grapple with sheer day-to-day survival - a newborn zone of development surrounded by endless horizons of depletion.
But then it is not Gates' problem if acute contradictions are playing out in India with no historical precedents to guide it. He returns to Washington a happy man. He said his discussions with India's leaders were positive and like-minded. "I encountered enthusiasm in all of the leaders here I talked to," he added. "I think ... they see it as we do ... a long-term enterprise by two sovereign states. We are mindful of India's long tradition of non-alignment and are respectful of that, but I think there are a lot of opportunities to expand on this relationship, and I think that was the feeling on the part of the Indian leaders that I met with, as well."
US's Asian strategy
The tricky part for Washington is that the US must not create apprehensions in the Chinese mind. Clearly, Washington accords number one priority in its Asian strategy to relations with China. US-China economic ties are inexorably gaining a global character. US-China economic interdependence rules out a "containment" policy toward China.
As a People's Daily commentary in December pointed out, the subprime loan or mortgage crisis in the US "poses a sound opportunity for the two sides [US and China] to reach overall, wide-ranging consensus. With the seizure of this rare opportunity, the risk-reduction capacity for both nations will beef up".
At the Third China-US Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing in December, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said, "I think one of our jobs in the dialogue is to make the case as to why trade is good, why China's economic success is good for the US, and the US economic success is good for China." He stressed that the US-China relationship has become central to each nation's interests and to maintaining "a stable, secure and prosperous global economic system". Paulson has paid as many as five visits to China during the 20 months since he assumed office. (He visited Delhi once during this period.)
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Gates avoided any of the political rhetoric regarding Asian security that came naturally to his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. First, in the near term, it is Russia and not China that threatens the US's global dominance. India is awkwardly placed with regard to US-Russia-China equations. Russia is still viewed largely as an ally, while China remains an adversary in the Indian perception. But Washington sees things differently.
The US Annual Threat Assessment presented on February 5 by the Director of US National Intelligence Michael McConnell suggests repeatedly that US-Russian relations stand to become more confrontational. It highlights the gradual resurgence of Russia's military forces. Also, an unspoken factor is that the energy exporting countries are increasingly challenging the US-dominated post-Bretton Woods global economic system. Russia, Iran and Venezuela have spoken of dispensing with the US dollar as the principal currency of settling energy accounts. There is talk of the gas-producing countries forming a cartel along the lines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which would of course pose a major challenge to the prevailing international economic system.
Beijing expressed misgivings last year about a "quadripartite" alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India. But the alliance has since become moribund due to the change of governments in Japan and Australia and the priorities of the new leaderships toward relations with China. The accent for Washington, too, has changed and is now on drawing in Beijing as a mainstream player to be part of a multilateral framework. India is the odd man out, still figuring out how to come to terms with China's rise.
For all these reasons, Gates was careful not to give an "anti-China" flavor to the US's burgeoning military ties with India. There are other inter-linkages as well. Ironically, the US-India nuclear deal, which would boost their strategic ties, itself cannot go through without China's cooperation. The minimum that Beijing expects from Washington is that US-India strategic cooperation will not be directed against China.
In sum, Rice's mission to Beijing and Gates's stopover in Delhi become a case study of the US's evolving Asian strategy. Washington's preoccupation with containing resurgent Russia is set to become a major driving force behind the US's Asian strategy. And the isolation of Russia can work only if Washington whittles down Sino-Russian (and Russian-Indian) strategic cooperation.
Alongside comes Washington's need to make China a stakeholder in global security. US-China economic interdependence has reached a level where any attempt by Washington to hurt China can result in hurting itself and the world economy. Thus, Gates' visit to Delhi becomes a reality check for Indian strategists.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).