China and India should stop fretting
By M K Bhadrakumar
As the world weighs the significance of President Barack Obama's cabinet appointments of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as the secretaries of state and defense, it's clear that a varied list of countries - China, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the Philippines - are going to be more affected than others.
China appears quietly pleased that Kerry has cast aspersions on the United States' "pivot" to Asia. Russia would like to estimate that Kerry and Hagel are good for a revival of the "reset" of the bilateral relationship, except that it can't be sure yet. Iran and Israel are getting mixed signals, while Turkey gets a lousy feeling that it is holding the Syrian baby. And the Philippines feels a little bit lonesome in the South China Sea.
All in all, angst wells up in the bosom when something new is
struggling to be born and uncertainty surrounds how good or bad it could be. The point is, the American economy is in distress; the world situation is turbulent and dangerous; the locus of world power is shifting; the US' capacity to "lead" is in difficulty; and most important, it is beginning to dawn on the American mind that an historic transition is under way. In sum, a long sunset has begun.
A sinking feeling
By all accounts, the Indian pundits too are gripped with anxiety. Some key assumptions on which the country's regional strategies were predicated through the past decade are being called into question.
Gnawing doubts arise as to what Kerry and Hagel signify for India's interests. The heart of the matter is that these powerful statesmen broadly share a world view that discounts the real worth of military force for the advancement of the US's global reach and influence.
In a manner of speaking, Kerry and Hagel are doing a favor to the Indians by making them realize a few home truths. India's internal problems are mounting and there is great urgency to reset the national priorities. India too needs an Obama-style re-prioritization of national policies.
More than priorities, this is also a matter of self-awareness of the limitations of power in the contemporary world situation. Some inspiring views have been articulated by Hagel and Kerry about the efficacy of solving regional issues through military force, and, more important, on the preference to "engage" adversaries in a calm and rational manner.
Meanwhile, Hagel has been dragged into a storm in an Indian tea cup over a previously unreleased 2011 speech that he made at Oklahoma's Cameron University, which was been brought to light by a US website with conservative leanings just as his appointment as defense secretary was about to be confirmed by the US Senate last Tuesday. Hagel apparently said, inter alia, in a wide-ranging speech:
"India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border. And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being [that] the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many, many years."
The Indian pundits are hopping mad. But then, this is not the first time that such a thing has been openly said. Way back in September 2009, then American (and North Atlantic Treaty Organization) commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal made an assessment for the then secretary of defense Robert Gates that "increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India."
The American officials are au fait with the decades old Indian mantra of a "second front" vis-a-vis Pakistan, but in the prevailing circumstances of Western military presence in the Hindu Kush, would have credited Indian policymakers with the discerning capacity to know what not to do.
Suffice to say, Hagel's 2011 speech had nothing stunningly new to it. However, the "course correction" of great interest to Indian interests lies somewhere else - what Kerry might have hinted in relation to America's "rebalancing" in Asia.
In the course of his Senate hearing, Kerry voiced support for the rebalancing policy, but added a caveat that he isn't convinced that increasing the US' military influence is critical yet, and pointing out that the US already has more bases in the region than any other nation. He also took note that Beijing is concerned about the increased number of US marines based in Australia. Kerry said:
"The Chinese ask what the United States is doing. 'They try to encircle us, what's going on' - and so every action has its reaction. We have to think thoughtfully about not creating a threat when there isn't one and understand where we can find bases for cooperation. I am not talking about retreating, I am simply trying to think about how we do this, not creating the reaction you don't like to create".
It was never quite realistic to imagine that the US was wedded to a Cold-War style containment strategy toward China, or that India would have a key role to play as the US's partner in the vast "Indo-Pacific" region (stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to Vanuatu), which Indian pundits unilaterally claim as their country's sphere of influence.
A new traction
Maybe, Hagel and Kerry disappoint them. But what saves the day for Delhi today is, that the policymakers "anticipated" Kerry even before he expressed the need to revisit the rebalancing policy. The National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon in a candid speech at Delhi on Monday before an audience of "China-watchers" took the bull by the horns:
"I have made it clear that in my opinion talk of Sino-Indian maritime rivalry is overdone and that it is not inevitable… In geopolitical terms, and in terms of the naval capabilities of the different navies other than the US that operates between Suez and Hawaii, this [Indo-Pacific] space still consists of three distinct areas: the Indian Ocean, the western Pacific, and the seas near China, (namely, the South China Sea, the East Sea and the Sea of Japan).
"Both India and China have a common interest in keeping the sea lines of communication through the Indian and Pacific Oceans open… Over the last decade an Indian presence in the waters east of Malacca and a Chinese presence west of Malacca have become the new norm. Both have happened simultaneously and without apparent friction. These are natural consequences of the development of India and China, and of their increasing dependence on the world as their economies globalize.
"The reason I cavil about calling the Indo-Pacific one space is because if we do, there is a danger of prescribing one medicine for the different security ailments that afflict the Indian Ocean, the seas near China, and the western Pacific."
In retrospect, India's policymakers have done well to decline the persuasive invitation extended to it by Washington to be a "linchpin" in "America's Pacific Century" - to borrow the title of Hillary Clinton's famous article in the Foreign Affairs magazine written just 16 months ago. 
2012 stands out as having been a truly transformative year in the Sino-Indian normalization. True, the intractable border dispute remains unsettled; China's Tibetan wound festers; China's all weather friendship with Pakistan worries (albeit less and less) - yet, a new traction is coming into the India-China engagement. India has become China's single biggest market for "project exports", trade is on an upward curve, high-level exchanges are frequent, and the top officials have begun acknowledging that the two countries may have more in agreement over the emerging world order than what might separate them. Indeed,
the latest evidence of the new traction is the proposal from Beijing to commence a structured "Afghan dialogue" with Delhi.
How does it all add up? What is there in it for India in the Obama-era US Asian strategies? Actually, there could be a lot if only India is geared up for it.
Only last week, the government-owned China Daily newspaper wrote that the US policies may create "friction" in Sino-American ties, but Washington "needs" cooperation - "The US needs cooperation with China, and vice versa, as cooperation helps promote the economic interests of both countries … The huge Chinese market potential will undoubtedly serve as an anchor for bilateral trade. If US exports to China grow by 12% annually over the next four years, a total of 143,000 jobs could be created in the US."
What emerges is also that India lags far behind China in figuring out the logarithm (after tabling the entries) of what is on the mind of Kerry and Hagel - and Obama.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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