That it took 10 months to organize the first bilateral summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping says a lot about the turbulent state of relations between Washington and Beijing. The fact that there were few concrete results from the summit indicates the continued instability in the ties between the two great powers. This uncertainty has implications for the whole world given their enormous economic and geopolitical weight. This is of particular concern to 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 easing of tensions between the US and China will undermine India’s position vis-à-vis China.
India must closely monitor the state of relations between the United States and China. But there is no reason for Delhi to panic over Washington’s engagement with Beijing. China is far too important for any great power to ignore. India has continued its engagement with China even after the PLA’s aggression in Ladakh in 2020. Just last week, Delhi coordinated its position at COP26 with Beijing. All of India’s Asian and European partners have major interests in a productive economic relationship with China. Engagement between great powers, including China, is a fact of international life today. What has changed in the last few years is the growing structural opposition between the United States and China. That contradiction will hardly be resolved in the near future.
Four years ago, President Donald Trump caused Xi to fly into his resort in Florida within a few weeks of being sworn in. Although Trump’s 2016 election rhetoric was against China, Xi hoped to return to “business as usual” between Washington and Beijing. But the Trump administration’s four years saw a decisive disruption in the bilateral relationship. Under Trump, the United States shifted from commitment at all costs to 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 American alliances and focusing on domestic economic renewal. If there is a strong domestic consensus in the United States today to counter the threat from China, there is also strong political support in Beijing for Xi’s policy of standing up to America. Yet both leaders recognize the need for some predictability in bilateral relations and a responsible management of their current geopolitical rivalry and economic interdependence. The answer to India’s dilemmas over US-China relations lies in strengthening its partnership with all major powers, including the United States, Europe, Japan and Russia, and strengthening its own position in the constellation of superpowers. Unlike in the past, India can not see itself as a victim of great powers, but as a nation that can shape the regional and global balance of power.
This editorial was first published in print on 19 November 2021 under the title ‘Textbook diplomacy’.