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Elephant and dragon hug mutual interests

05 February 2015

The specific reference to the South China Sea disputes, along with the forward movement on the US-India nuclear deal, in the joint statement issued by US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Jan 25, is seen by analysts and some Indian media outlets as a significant outcome of Obama's recent visit to India. The US-India joint statement issued in September 2014 during Modi's visit to the US too had mentioned the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

While Washington and New Delhi have seen a significant improvement in their relations over the past decade, the presence of Obama as the chief guest at India's Republic Day celebrations on Jan 26 was a symbolic move signifying that India would not let the baggage of the past influence its ties with the US.

But despite the progress in Indo-US ties, Indian prime ministers over the past two decades have sought to build a strong relationship with China.

The current geopolitical situation is in stark contrast to the 1970s when India's relations with the US and China both were strained. While a "non-aligned" India's close ties with the Soviet Union during the Cold War prevented it from having the best of relations with the US, and the 1962 border war strained its ties with China.

In the intervening years, however, Indian and Chinese leaderships' efforts to improve ties have yielded dividends: the two countries have been working closely in the BRICS bloc and making efforts to make the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor a reality. The two countries have also found common ground on climate change at global forums.

The links between the two countries today go deeper than economics and trade. During Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India an agreement was signed to establish sisterly relations between Guangzhou province and India's Gujarat state. New Delhi and Beijing, Kolkata and Kunming, Bengaluru and Chengdu, and Ahmedabad and Guangdong are already sister cities. Thus it would not be wrong to say that diplomacy between China and India has become multi-layered and multi-dimensional.

Of course, there remain irritants in bilateral relations, with the most significant being the border dispute, China's increasing influence in South Asia and the skewed balance of trade.

But that the current Indian government is serious about its relationship with China has been demonstrated by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's just concluded visit to China and the announcement of Modi's visit in May 2015.

Also, during his visit to India in September 2014, Xi and Modi discussed all the important issues, including territorial and water disputes, and the Chinese president promised an investment of $20 billion in India over a period of five years.

What the naysayers in both countries need to realize is that in a changing world and with its growing economic clout, India cannot remain a non-aligned or be excessively dependent on any one country. It is for this reason that India has been following a policy of "multi-alignment" over the past two decades. This does not imply any compromise with its core strategic and economic interests, rather it means keeping national interests at the forefront. Modi seems to be following this policy by emphasizing that New Delhi is open to engagement with all countries.

So while India and the US may converge on economic and strategic issues, China and India can be on the same page on other issues vis-à-vis the West, which among other things include climate change. The increasing economic and strategic clout of the two countries also means that after the withdrawal of US combat forces from Afghanistan, they need to jointly fight terrorism and find areas of cooperation to help the battle-ravaged country's economic reconstruction.

Relations between China and India have numerous layers yet one thing is for certain that they are likely to be dictated by realism and rationality rather than idealism and emotion.

The author is a senior research associate with the Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat. India.