June 06, 2012

US, China woo India for control over Asia-Pacific

Rajat Pandit & Sachin Parashar, TNN | Jun 7, 2012, 02.37AM IST

While visiting US secretary of defence Leon Panetta said India would be a linchpin in America's new defence strategy, the Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang told foreign minister SM Krishna that Sino-Indian ties would be the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.

NEW DELHI: With the Asia-Pacific region emerging as the theatre of escalating US-China rivalry, India on Wednesday found itself in a rare and enviable situation: of being wooed by the competing giants. 

Visiting US defence secretary Leon Panetta said India would be "a linchpin" in America's unfolding new defence strategy that revolves around "re-balancing" its forces "towards" Asia-Pacific, while Chinese vice premier Li Keqiangtold foreign minister SM Krishna that Sino-Indian ties would be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st Century. 

Li's remark to Krishna, on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Beijing, is significant not just because he is slated to take over as China's premier from Wen Jiabao after the transition process starting July this year is over. But also since it virtually echoed US President Barack Obama's statement earlier to Indian Parliament terming the ties between the two democracies as the "defining partnership of 21st century". 

Panetta said, "America is at a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing the new defence strategy. In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and South Asia. Defence cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy." 

China, which after the over 5,000-km Agni-V missile's test had sniggered at India for harbouring super-power ambitions, seems to have switched to a conciliatory tone and, suddenly, respectful of New Delhi's strategic autonomy. 

The tactic found expression in the People's Daily which gushingly proclaimed that India with an independent foreign policy could not be manipulated, even as it slammed the new US strategy that includes progressively shifting 60% of the formidable American naval combat fleet to Asia-Pacific. 

Recognizing Asia-Pacific's emergence as the new economic hub, the US has decided to focus on the region as part of what they call the pivot towards Asia. The new strategic posture has been welcomed by the countries in the region which have been at the receiving end of the muscle flexing by China that claims the entire South China Sea as its exclusive domain. 

Caught between? 

The unfolding rivalry creates problems for India. It is uneasy about China's aggrandizement and wants unhindered access to and through the South China Sea. Yet, it does not want to be seen as being part of any American grand design to contain China, already miffed with the new strategy being enunciated by the US. 

India wants to further step up its defence cooperation with the US on a bilateral basis but clearly does not want additional naval forces in an already-militarized IOR and surrounding regions. 

Defence minister AK Antony indirectly conveyed to Panetta that the US needed to recalibrate or rethink the policy. He emphasized there was a "need to strengthen the multilateral security architecture" in the Asia Pacific and that it must "move at a pace comfortable to all countries concerned". 

Antony, however, did say India fully supported "unhindered freedom of navigation in international waters for all", given its own bitter experience of being needled by China in the contentious South China Sea. 

But in another indication of India not being supportive of US actively jumping into the fray in South China Sea, where China is jostling with countries like the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore on territorial claims, Antony said it was "desirable" that the "parties concerned themselves should settle contentious matters in accordance with international laws". 

Panetta, after earlier ruffling the prickly Chinese feathers, on Wednesday also struck a conciliatory note. Delivering a lecture, he said that even as India and the US "deepen" their bilateral defence partnership, the two would also seek to strengthen their ties with China. 

"We recognise China has a critical role to play in advancing security and prosperity in this region. The US welcomes the rise of a strong, prosperous and a successful China that plays a greater role in global affairs - and respects and enforces the international norms that have governed this region for six decades," he said. 

India was pleased with the outcome of the Krishna-Li meeting, making the Indian foreign minister one of the first leaders to have any substantial interaction with next generation of Chinese leaders. 

Xi Jinping, who has been anointed successor to President Hu Jintao, was scheduled to visit India last year but it never materialized. Many described it as a missed opportunity for India in engaging the leader who would be president. 

But on Wednesday, India had reason to be happy. "Repeatedly emphasizing how important ties were between the two countries, Li told the foreign minister that he looked upon the ties between the two nations as the most significant bilateral relationship of the 21st century," said an official. 

Krishna, who will also meet Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi on Thursday, had on his way to Beijing said there were no contentious issues between the two countries apart from the border dispute.

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