Hu, US and us By C. Raja Mohan Posted: Wed Jan 19 2011 When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described some time ago that the US-China relationship is â€œthe most importantâ€ in the world, there was much anxiety in New Delhi. There were two reasons for Delhiâ€™s heartburn. One, for decades, India had seen itself as an equal to China. It was difficult for Delhi to acknowledge that not only had China overtaken India, but it had also become a consequential global power, thanks to three decades of double-digit economic growth. Chinaâ€™s gross domestic product is now more than three times that of India; and that gap is likely to widen in the coming years even if Delhi produces outstanding economic performance. The other was an apprehension that a Democratic administration in Washington might replace President George W. Bushâ€™s special warmth for India with an emphasis on cultivating a privileged partnership with China. The pomp and ceremony that will mark Chinese President Hu Jintaoâ€™s reception at the White House this week and the intensity of the American debate on China underline one inescapable reality: Sino-US ties are the most important in the world today. Sixty-odd years ago, independent Indiaâ€™s attempts to craft a foreign policy were shaped by the nature of the relationship between Washington and Moscow. After the global financial crisis, which has brought into sharp relief the relative decline of the US and the rapid rise of China, the Sino-US relationship has become the principal external factor in Indiaâ€™s engagement with the world. Some predictions put 2027 as the date when the Chinese economy will overtake that of the US. Others suggest it could happen sooner, maybe by the end of this decade. While individual Americans will be richer than Chinese, the balance of power between the two is bound to evolve in Chinaâ€™s favour in many areas. Whether Delhi likes it or not, most big issues confronting the world â€” from rebalancing the world economy to managing climate change and the maintenance of international peace and security â€” will be shaped by the policies of Washington and Beijing. As India begins to recognise the centrality of the Sino-US relationship for world politics, it will confront what we might call the â€œGoldilocks Problemâ€. Like the girl in the fable who went into the house of bears in the forest, India does not want relations between Washington and Beijing to turn either too warm or too cold. Recall how Delhi went into a tizzy, when a joint statement was issued by US President Barack Obama and Hu at the end of their summit in Beijing in November 2009. The suggestion that Washington and Beijing might work together to stabilise the subcontinent saw Delhi froth at the mouth. For India, the idea of a Sino-US condominium or more broadly the notion of the â€œGroup of Twoâ€ is utterly unacceptable. At the same time, India also recoils at the notion of aligning with one against the other. Proposals from Washington for deeper security cooperation in East Asia and the Pacific make many in India nervous. Delhi is equally wary about relentless pressures from Moscow and Beijing to join a countervailing block against the US. Some in India would be tempted to think of â€œnon-alignmentâ€ between Washington and Beijing. Delhi must resist that temptation, for the Sino-US dynamic is very different from that between Washington and Moscow in the past. During the Cold War, India had the luxury of demanding peaceful coexistence between the two superpowers when they threatened each other and of denouncing their collusion when they acted together. Emerging Indiaâ€™s political and economic fortunes today are inextricably intertwined with the future of Sino-US relations and Delhi canâ€™t detach itself from what happens between Washington and Beijing. Unlike the Soviet-American dynamic which was centred around Europe and the Atlantic, the Sino-US power-play occurs right around us in Asia, in the shared periphery between Delhi and Beijing. Without a border with either protagonist in the Cold War, India was spared the direct impact of the rivalry although it had to deal with secondary consequences. With a long and contested border with China, India will be on the very frontlines of a potential Sino-American conflict. Unlike Soviet Russia, Communist China is part of the world economic system. Reordering the extraordinary financial interdependence between the worldâ€™s two largest economies â€” the US and China â€” is one of the main themes of Huâ€™s summit with Obama. How they deal with that issue will have a profound bearing on India. As Indiaâ€™s relative weight in the international system increases, though slower than that of China, Delhi canâ€™t return to non-alignment. It must develop a very different approach. Indiaâ€™s emphasis must be on becoming an indispensable element in the future balance of power in Asia and acquiring a decisive say in the construction of a new international order amid the rise of China and the weakening of the US. This in turn would demand a deeper engagement with both Washington and Beijing in order to influence the outcomes from the rapidly changing Sino-US relationship. On the face of it, the danger of a â€œG-2â€ between China and the US has passed amid the mounting tension between the two last year. Nevertheless, Obama and Hu must be expected to moderate their potential rivalry and find ways to cooperate. Delhi needs to develop strong political and economic leverage with both if it wants to avoid the negative effects of either collaboration or conflict between Washington and Beijing. Innovative diplomacy from Delhi in the last few years has generated a new level of political comfort with the US as seen during Obamaâ€™s visit to India last November. The relationship with China, however, has stalled amidst many new problems that remained unresolved in the talks with Premier Wen Jiabao last month. As it builds on the new opportunities with the United States, Delhi must also make some bold moves towards Beijing in the coming months. Delhi must ensure that its ties with Beijing do not fall too far behind the Sino-US relationship or the Indo-US partnership.