Will Xi Jinping-Barack Obama meet leave India at the risk of strategic marginalisation?

The following article originally appeared in the Economic Times on June 7, 2013.

When George W Bush was US president, an invitation to his ranch at Crawford, Texas, was considered the ultimate signal of intimacy with a visiting dignitary. Barack Obama doesn’t have a comparable retreat (other world leaders have sometimes complained that he is impersonal and aloof). For that reason alone, the calculated informality of Obama’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Sunnylands estate in California on Friday and Saturday will mark a noticeable break with tradition.

India is not projected to feature prominently in the discussions between Xi and Obama, with cyber security, North Korea and military contacts expected to top the agenda.

But New Delhi should nevertheless be observing developments carefully, for the outcome of the Sunnylands meeting could signal the direction Obama and Xi intend on taking the bilateral relationship between the US and China over the next four years.

At one level, the meeting will be an opportunity for the two leaders to feel one another out. They previously met last year before Xi’s ascendance to the chairmanship of the Communist Party and the presidency of the People’s Republic. It could also mark a “reset” of sorts on the matter of cyber espionage, a sensitive issue about which American allegations concerning China’s activities have become more frequent, detailed and pointed, particularly regarding the ostensible theft of industrial and military technology. Obama may raise the issue of state responsibility for cyber activity emanating from a country’s territory, and could also hint at measures that the US might consider should such cyber espionage continue.

More importantly from India’s vantage point, the summit could represent a renewed effort at establishing an informal compact between the US and China as the world’s two preeminent economic and military powers: what some analysts have termed a G-2. This is an approach that continues to be propagated by policymakers in Washington, including Obama’s former envoy to Beijing in an opinion article he co-authored last week. Serving US officials, including Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, have also been playing down the military aspects of the American pivot to Asia, which was widely perceived as an effort at responding to China’s rapid military modernisation. And Washington appears to have accorded other important relationships in the region — most notably, with India and Japan — a lower priority in recent months.

In essence, a prospective G-2 would see the US and China accommodating one another’s concerns on certain key strategic issues, potentially compromising the interests of India and other Asian powers that might harbour anxieties about China’s predominance in its neighbourhood.

The arguments in Washington in favour of such an approach are based on the belief that most global challenges — ranging from humanitarian intervention and regional stability to energy security and the preservation of an open trading system — require Beijing’s cooperation and that China’s rise could help the US overcome some of its own domestic challenges.

However, recent experience does not inspire much confidence in Washington’s efforts at injecting greater stability into relations with Beijing. In 2009, similar efforts backfired when China refused to accommodate US concerns on matters such as monetary policy, climate change, Iran’s nuclear programme and North Korean belligerence.

From India’s standpoint, any hint of a renewed effort by Washington and Beijing at reaching an exclusive arrangement — even if tacit and informal — is certainly cause for concern. It reinforces the belief that India cannot take the US’ stabilising presence in Asia for granted and that New Delhi may need to forge its own network of balancing relationships in Asia as China continues its rapid rise as the region’s preponderant power.

Recent attempts by India at cementing deeper strategic ties with Japan — highlighted during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tokyo — indicates that a partial reorientation may already be underway as a consequence of the Chinese military’s incursion into Ladakh in April.

India’s recent experience suggests that proactively building partnerships may be the best way to mitigate any setback to its strategic position. In other words, India should anticipate and offset the risk of its strategic marginalisation by more actively engaging the widest possible set of strategic partners.

A willingness to pursue deeper ties with the US, China, Europe, Japan and other countries in India’s vicinity in the mid-2000s produced a virtuous spiral of improving relationships, a process that was naturally facilitated by the fact that the Indian economy was booming. Coming particularly at a time when India’s international reputation is experiencing a setback as a result of slowing growth and political scandal, a forward leaning foreign policy may provide a much-needed boost to India’s increasingly perilous position in international affairs.