THE fifth India-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue was held last week. Now, the focus is on the Xi-Biden meeting on the sidelines of the three-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which begins in San Francisco today.
The India-US engagement has global implications beyond the bilateral context. This makes the Xi-Biden meeting of keen interest to India. Given the success of the 2+2 format bilaterally, India and the US are closely engaging to steadily expand their partnership. This is evident from the joint statement of the 2+2 dialogue that involved India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. The dialogue has acquired a periodicity and salience of its own.
Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal is presently in the US for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework discussions, which are moving quite rapidly. Therefore, with three of India’s senior ministers directly engaged with the US, there is an expectation that India’s interests will be kept in mind by the US when it seeks to re-engage with China.
The Biden-Xi meeting did not take place during the G20 summit in New Delhi in September as the Chinese President decided to skip the event. The last meeting between them was in November 2022 at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. In the year that has passed since then, much has happened. The West Asia crisis has surfaced amid the Ukraine war.
China and the US are assessing each other with greater intensity and seeking re-engagement on parameters and terms that both now consider in their interests. The extent to which this will materialise at the upcoming meeting is the key issue. India is aware that the US is keen on a partnership of sorts with China. India, too, would like to have such collaboration on larger issues such as climate change, renewable energy, post-Covid consolidation, maritime security and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
What is unclear is whose vision would prevail because China has its own initiatives for these matters and does not accept US leadership in this regard. India, given its problems with China, is keener to partner with the US. On wider global issues, there is certainly potential for a meaningful partnership to emerge for the public good.
There is also the element of rivalry. The US and the European Union believe that China is getting too big for its boots, and they aim to contain its economic and technological progress to reduce systemic rivalry. Additionally, they seek to challenge China on issues related to democracy, human rights and the like. China firmly challenges the US and brings forth its view of the world, the path for development and its own political system. India, too, feels the pain of that challenge and, therefore, wishes to work more closely with the US and other partners. The manner in which the Quad has repositioned itself over the last two years is a functional challenge to the Chinese view of doing things. The Quad vision provides a contemporary set of non-military options to partners in the Indo-Pacific.
There is also the aspect of contestation turning into a prolonged conflict at times. India has seen this in Ladakh. The Philippines is currently suffering this in the South China Sea and Japan has problems around the Senkaku Islands. The Chinese threat to Taiwan is real, but they do not acknowledge that anybody else has a role to play in it. The US, Japan, Australia and the Philippines are all seeking to mount a robust challenge to China in case it moves to take over Taiwan.
This is where India would have the maximum concern. New Delhi knows that China is an aggressive challenger, whereas the US is supportive of India’s global ascent. Be that as it may, India does not want to participate in any collective military challenge against China in the Indo-Pacific, especially concerning a potential Taiwan crisis. If the Xi-Biden meeting reduces tensions around Taiwan, it will certainly aid India. The growing nature of the India-US defence partnership leads the US to anticipate India becoming a more visible partner in addressing challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The expectation extends beyond support for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations by India. It prefers robust support to a free and open Indo-Pacific, including a direct challenge to China, if necessary.
This is the context in which India will have to observe how the Xi-Biden meeting develops. India does not want to be drawn into a military confrontation with China, nor does it want to be left out of new regional arrangements that the US and China might agree upon.
China is clear that the US should not raise the Taiwan issue. Besides, it opposes the US supporting groupings in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad and the AUKUS, with which it has grievances. China also resists challenges to its development model, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and urges the US to stop encouraging ‘China plus one’ economic and technology solutions.
So, as long as the US and China build a partnership for the global good with mutual understanding, India could benefit from that. Regarding rivalry, India would not want the de-risking of economies and technology to diminish. The ‘China plus one’ policy needs to be continuously encouraged so that more investment comes to India. If the US lifts sanctions on high-technology engagement with China, it might redirect some investments back to China that could have potentially been heading towards India.
India’s position on the post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine, the situation in Israel and restarting the dialogue on Africa is showing congruence. China’s role in all these matters is on the other side of the divide, as it supports Russia in Ukraine, aligns with Arab nations and Iran in West Asia, and pursues an alternative model of engagement with Africa. India can be a partner to the US in some of these segments, but it certainly has its own interests in these areas that need attention. India will continue to engage with the US to build a determined partnership that is not confined to being an anti-China tieup.
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