Testing times for India’s China policies

In a commentary last week, Xinhua news agency blasted Washington for conducting a “witch-hunt of China” against the backdrop of the recent spurt in tensions in the South China Sea. It said, “The chorus of demonizing China has kept growing louder since early this year… Out of disappointment or possibly despair, the U.S. has plotted meticulously to defame China as a regional bully, trouble maker and culprit to destabilize the U.S.-dominant regional order in Asia.” (Xinhua)

To what extent the U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter utilized his visit to New Delhi last week to “demonize” China, we wouldn’t know, but it is a safe surmise that he did discuss China with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – and he probably did it knowing he would have a receptive audience.

However, contrary to the American version, the Indian official accounts of Carter’s visit studiously distance the Indian leadership from associating even remotely with what Xinhua called “the chorus of demonizing China.”

The discrepancy between the two respective official accounts (released in Washington and New Delhi separately) is simply too conspicuous not to be noted. It goes beyond a matter of semantics.

The U.S. Department of Defense press release on Carter’s meeting with Modi highlighted that the two leaders “agreed that the strategic convergence between the U.S. rebalance and India’s “Act East” opens more opportunities for engagement. They went on to discuss many issues of mutual concern, including the Asia-Pacific, regional security…”

That is a pretty strong wording – Modi and Carter agreeing on the “strategic convergence” between the U.S.’ “pivot” to Asia and India’s robust “Act East” policy and looking for “more openings for engagement” in that direction.

Indeed, the leitmotif of the “Act East” is China’s rise, but India never previously identified with the U.S.’ containment strategy toward China.

Nonetheless, the press release issued by the prime minister’s office in New Delhi gives an altogether different version. It said, “Mr. Carter conveyed that India was an important strategic partner for the U.S. The U.S. policy of rebalance in Asia Pacific complimented India’s Act East Policy.”

The Indian version omits Modi’s response, if any, to Carter’s demarche and made the visitor the prompter. In fact, the Indian account made out that Modi’s focus, on the other hand, was on his pet “Make in India” project – co-production of weapons in India, involvement of American arms manufacturers to “set up manufacturing units in India with transfer of technology and link to the global supply chain.”

In its media commentary on Carter’s visit to India, the U.S. government again strove to convey an impression that the tensions in South China Sea have “helped countries in the region (such as India) align closer with the U.S.”

The U.S. media report also underscored that the renewal of the U.S.-Indian defense cooperation pact for a further 10-year term (which is a framework agreement on defense cooperation, actually) was “another sign by the two sides to fend off the ever growing influence by the Chinese military in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.”

On the other hand, the U.S.-Indian joint press release on Carter’s visit to India contained absolutely nothing with regard to the U.S.’ current spat with China in the South China Sea, directly or indirectly. It instead flagged that it was the signing of the framework agreement on bilateral defence cooperation that brought the U.S. defense secretary to New Delhi.

Clearly, as far as the Indian side is concerned, the core area of interest in Carter’s visit was the so-called Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which it sees as holding the potential to transform the relationship into one of joint design and development and co-production of weapons in India.

Evidently, Washington has tried to extract as much propaganda mileage vis-à-vis China out of Carter’s visit as possible, while the Indian side simply looked away, neither approving nor disapproving the American rhetoric.

But then, how could the U.S. propaganda be entirely devoid of substance when Washington claims that Carter and Modi shared the perception that there is “strategic convergence” between the U.S.’ “pivot” strategy in Asia and India’s “Act East” strategy? The U.S. Defense Department simply wouldn’t put words into Modi’s mouth.

Quite obviously, Modi did speak critically about China more or less on the lines that the U.S. Defense Department since hinted at, but he didn’t want to own them publicly. To be sure, India has shifted its stance and moved much closer to the U.S.’ pivot strategy in Asia than the previous United Progressive Alliance government was willing to do.

From the position of a mere curious impassive bystander, Modi is taking India in a new direction in unchartered waters that could eventually make it a fellow traveller of the U.S.’ containment strategy against China.

Why is Modi miffed with China? The fact of the matter is that Modi-style diplomacy of creating a “feel-good” climate has not brought substantive dividends in India’s relations with China. During Modi’s visit to China in May, he failed to extract from his hosts any commitment to resume the discussions relating to “clarification” of the Line of Actual Control on the disputed border that would lead to an exchange of maps on the entire alignment of the LAC (which is a longstanding Indian objective pending a full resolution of the border dispute.)

China had discontinued the discussions in 2008 on LAC clarification and now seems to be prefer in lieu of it merely a “code of conduct” between the two militaries.

Again, Modi came back from the May visit empty-handed, with Beijing making no new offers of making investments in India or plunging itself into the “Make in India” project.

Meanwhile, the massive $46 billion Chinese investment plans in Pakistan within the ambit of the “Belt and Road Initiatives” are expected to lift the Sino-Pak relations to a qualitatively new level that would complicate India’s strategic assertion of being the regional superpower in South Asia and Indian Ocean.

India seems signaling to China that it may explore its own options, given China’s failure to accommodate its legitimate interests and aspirations as a rising power. Will China feel apprehensive that India may play the “American card”? There is nothing to suggest so far, as China seems confident that it is simply not in India’s DNA to give up its strategic autonomy and turn itself into a gate keeper like Australia or Singapore in the Indian Ocean region. Clearly, some sort of brinkmanship is playing out.

Now comes the difficult part. Carter certainly came to India well-prepared with the agenda to fathom Modi’s willingness to align India with the U.S.’ containment strategy against China. India has been a reluctant traveller so far. Carter’s one-time predecessor Leon Panetta once even offered a status for India to be a “lynchpin” in its “pivot” strategy. But there were no takers in Delhi at that time in June 2012.

Interestingly, Carter invited India to participate in the forthcoming U.S.-Japan naval exercises. Unsurprisingly, Washington is nudging Modi to be a bit more upfront on China and to practice at least a tiny slice of what he says privately to American interlocutors – in short, like his close friend Japan’s Shinzo Abe does, Modi too should stand up and be counted as a partner in the U.S. “pivot” strategy in Asia. How the Indian Navy responds to Carter’s invitation will be interesting to know.

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