Textbook diplomacy

Washington’s engagement with Beijing is par for the course. Delhi should not panic, must enhance its global standing.

That it took 10 months to organise the first bilateral summit between US President Joe Biden and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping says a lot about the uneasy state of relations between Washington and Beijing. That there were few concrete outcomes from the summit points to the continuing instability of the ties between the two great powers. This uncertainty matters for the entire world, given their enormous economic and geopolitical weight. It is of special concern for India, whose relations with China have rapidly deteriorated in recent years. This, in turn, has accelerated the strategic partnership between Delhi and Washington. Many in the Indian establishment worry that any relaxation of tensions between US and China would undermine India’s position in relation to China.

India must carefully monitor the state of US-China relations. But there is no reason for Delhi to panic at Washington’s engagement with Beijing. China is far too important for any major power to ignore it. India has continued its engagement with China even after the PLA’s aggression in Ladakh in 2020. Just last week, Delhi was coordinating its position at the COP26 with Beijing. All of India’s Asian and European partners have huge stakes in a productive economic relationship with China. Engagement among major powers, including China, is a fact of international life today. What has changed in the last few years is the deepening structural contradiction between the US and China. That contradiction is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Four years ago, President Donald Trump had Xi flying into his resort in Florida within weeks after he was sworn into office. Although Trump’s election rhetoric in 2016 was against China, Xi was hoping to return to “business as usual” between Washington and Beijing. But the four years of the Trump Administration saw a decisive disruption in the bilateral relationship. Under Trump, the US shifted from engagement at all costs with China to challenging it across a broad front, including trade, technology, human rights, security, and global governance. Although many expected Biden to reverse Trump’s policies, he has reinforced them. Unlike the politically chaotic Trump, Biden has moved more systematically in challenging China — by strengthening US alliances and focusing on domestic economic renewal. If there is a strong domestic consensus in the US today on addressing the China threat, in Beijing too there is strong political support for Xi’s policy of standing up to America. Yet, both leaders recognise the need for a measure of predictability in bilateral relations and a responsible management of their current geopolitical rivalry and economic interdependence. The answer to India’s dilemmas on US-China relations lies in strengthening its partnership with all major powers, including the US, Europe, Japan and Russia, and enhancing its own standing in the great power constellation. Unlike in the past, India can’t see itself as a victim of great powers but as a nation that can shape the regional and global balance of power.

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