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CONTINUITY AND CHANGE
- How the US election and China’s new leadership affect India

Earlier this month, we witnessed the outcome of presidential elections in the United States of America, the preeminent global power and the world’s oldest democracy, and the change of leadership in China, the foremost rising global power which is poised to emerge as the world’s largest economy. From India’s perspective, these developments involve our most important and broad-based strategic partnership, and our evolving relationship with our largest neighbour in which we have very high stakes.

Barack Obama was re-elected as president with a decisive mandate. His party retained majority in the US senate. However, the Republicans held on to their control of the House of Representatives. Three-fifth of governors of states remain Republican. Obama’s share of the popular vote was also the lowest of any second-term US president. This reflects not only a deeply polarized polity but a society split down the middle in terms of colour and class, and gender and generational gap. The impact this will have on the administration’s ability to address domestic and foreign policy challenges remains to be seen. However, given the strong bipartisan support to a strategic partnership with India, our relations with the US should not be unduly affected by the election outcome.

Obama and Manmohan Singh have established a personal rapport and the strategic partnership established during the George W. Bush administration has been consolidated and enriched with new scope and content. With Obama’s re-election, India-US cooperation can continue seamlessly, without pause and without missing a beat.

There has, however, been clear disappointment in the US, both among Republicans and Democrats, regarding the tardy progress in the two major areas of strategic cooperation, namely, on civil nuclear and defence cooperation. There is a feeling that while prior agreements with Russia in 1988 and more recently may be taken into account in the context of our nuclear liability law, our prior commitment to the US government may not be given equal consideration.

In spite of a significant number of high-value contracts concluded in recent years, irritants persist in India-US defence cooperation. American authorities and vendors seek deviations from our transparent and non-discriminatory defence procurement procedures. They show a continued tendency to raise new issues at every stage, including after conclusion of negotiations. We have not encountered such problems with other countries. On the other hand, a recent US proposal for a review at the level of US deputy defence secretary (minister of state equivalent) for resolving these problems to mutual satisfaction was apparently not found acceptable by us. Earlier agreements which had been finalized were put into indefinite cold storage.

Both India and the US benefit from continuity in their relationship. It would be unrealistic to expect another big bang initiative. We will both have to maintain the momentum of cooperation in diverse areas to keep relations from stagnating or stalling.

The 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China ushered in the fifth generational change in the leadership of that country. Considering that this was the first such change not directed by the last undisputed leader, Deng Xiaoping, and in view of the tensions and scandals which spilled over into the public domain, the transition was remarkably orderly.

Xi Jinping emerged as the clear leader, as Communist Party general secretary, president and chairman of the Central Military Commission. As expected, Li Keqiang is the second ranking politburo member and premier-designate. There was unnecessary speculation on whether Hu Jintao would, like his predecessor, take over as chairman of the CMC for an interim period. He had no military experience or background like Ziang Zemin. Xi Jinping has defence experience and close contacts with the military-industrial complex. The CMC has also been reconstituted on two previous occasions. The inclusion of more armed forces officers meant greater professionalism and not necessarily a more militaristic or hawkish orientation of policies.

The composition of the CPC politburo and its standing committee also appears to reflect a balance of professional competence and experience and of various interests groups. Given the unstated norm of retirement ages, another reshuffle is expected in 2017. It is likely that Xi Jinping will directly handle Tibet. It remains to be seen to what extent he continues Hu Jintao’s policies in this regard.

Both Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have visited India in the past — Xi as a provincial leader and Li as part of a youth delegation. This is of incidental interest since both are pragmatic professionals who will be guided by China’s interests and priorities. The only country that China regards as its equal is the US. For both China and the US the most important relationship is that with each other, either as strategic competitors or collaborators or a varying mix of both. They do not regard India,or Russia for that matter, as being in their league.

The leadership changes should not have significant implications for Sino-India relations. We should continue to monitor the evolving situation and be guided not just by statements of intent but by capabilities in terms of military modernization, including maritime, space, cyber and other capabilities.

We should continue to cooperate in areas of mutual interest in the international fora, and strengthen bilateral cooperation with our second largest and fastest growing trading partner. We should encourage greater collaboration in power generation, road building and other construction, apart from availing ourselves of reasonable quality equipment, competitive pricing and attractive financial packages. We could maintain restrictions in ports and certain power and telecommunication grids. We should persuade China to import more manufactured and value-added goods from India to reduce the trade imbalance. We should be balanced and pragmatic in reconciling our urgent development needs with our security interests.

It is not in our interest to join the US or any other country to contain, let alone confront, China. We had resisted repeated Soviet overtures to join an Asian collective security arrangement directed at China, although China did not hesitate in aligning with the US against the former Soviet Union and with Pakistan vis a vis India. Rajiv Gandhi had rebuffed strong pro-Soviet lobby pressures within his party to defer his visit to China in 1988. Yet we should not have any reservations in playing a balancing role to counter the emergence of any Asian hegemony. Thus the US move on rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific region is certainly closer to our interests than earlier moves by Bill Clinton and Obama to establish a Sino-US condominium in our neighbourhood.

There can be no artificial Indian equidistance from or equilibrium between China and the US or any other country that is divorced from their actions which affect our vital interests. These include their policies and actions in our immediate and extended neighbourhood, nuclear and missile proliferation, defence cooperation and other issues. For instance, China is the main defence partner of Pakistan while the US remains a significant arms supplier to that country. But the US now prefers to supply defence equipment to India rather than to its major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally. The US also prevents its Western and other allies from sending defence supplies to China, in spite of some of them straining at the US leash. The US policies towards India’s neighbours also changed radically under the administration of George W. Bush, by taking India’s sensitivities into account in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and, to a significant extent, Pakistan as well, since 2007. There has also been better awareness by the US and a number of other countries of our interest in the run-up to the post-2012 transitions in Afghanistan. Yet we should not entirely give up hope that the vision of Deng Xiaoping — of Sino-Indian partnership being a prerequisite for the 21st century to be an Asian century — would be realized at some point of time.