China and US in trophy tug of war

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  • Published 18.11.06

Beijing, Nov. 18: The US Senate’s approval of the nuclear bill days before Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Delhi reveals how India is becoming a valued prize in the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

“China feels it needs to engage India more, and it should not be that the US uses India as a tool against China,” said Sun Shihai, deputy director of the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies in Beijing.

India’s burgeoning economy and muscular military can tip the balance of power in Asia, and both the US and China are eager to draw the country’s weight to their side.

The perception in Beijing is that under Manmohan Singh, India has been drifting very close to the US, and Hu’s visit is a vital step in China’s own wooing of its neighbour.

In the 1990s, China had focused all its expertise and efforts on improving ties with the US. But since Hu came to power in 2003, he has turned the country towards more European-style social policies and worked hard to expand relations with Africa, Latin America and India.

“China’s view is that of a multi-polar world,” said Shi Yinghong, director at the Center for American Studies in Beijing. “Countries like China and India should work to make sure no one can dominate” the world.

Some analysts and politicians worry that India lacks the political dexterity needed to manoeuvre between the US and China, which are both acquiring covert influence over Indian politics and business.

“The CIA has always had a major presence here and since 1998 (when India conducted its nuclear tests) the Chinese have been making a play as well,” said Madhav Nalapat, professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. “We estimate Chinese intelligence services spend about $200 million a year here and the US even more. Their tactics run the entire gamut, from funding politicians, to bankrolling NGOs and newspapers, to some very sleazy stuff. This is part of geopolitics (but) the question is does India have the ability to manage its own interests independently?”

Critics of India’s closer ties with the US say the Bush administration is only interested in using Delhi to counterbalance Beijing, and welding India into the chain of its strategic allies, such as Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore, encircling China.

Nalapat said China’s main objective is even more negative. “China really wants to keep India from getting too close to the US.”

The first analyst to table the idea of a Russia-China-India alliance in 1983, Nalapat has since been calling for closer ties with the US. “China does not want a military alliance with India, it just wants India submissive enough not to interfere with the games it’s playing with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma”, whose present ports, oil fields and trade routes it would like to control, he said.

Despite the goodies and smiles Hu will try to charm Delhi with, India is clearly choosing to be much closer to the US, its largest trading partner, than China, the second-largest. It has fashioned its relationship with Washington into a “strategic partnership” while defining its ties with Beijing as “strategic cooperation”. (Washington, for its part, has labelled China a “strategic competitor”.)

The message was received loud and clear earlier this year when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rebutted Hu’s vision of a “multi-polar world” by saying nations must recognise the US’s special place in the world, during an address to the Combined Military Commanders’ Conference.

But Sun said this has only strengthened Hu’s determination to forge closer ties with India. China’s aim, officials here say, is to draw India into fighting for the same issues — better WTO terms, deferring accession to the Kyoto Protocol, altering the global, or at least Asian, financial system and keeping the US from controlling oil-rich Central Asia.