US-China truce: Where India needs to assess the changes in great power relations

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By C. Raja Mohan/Indian Express

New Delhi, November 16: As US and Chinese leaders try and arrest the steady downslide in bilateral relations, India has little reason to worry about a structural shift in the world’s most consequential great power relationship in the world today.

Since the variations in the US-China relationship affect all major powers and regions, there has been global interest in this week’s summit between US President Joe Biden and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco on the margins of an Asian economic summit.

While there are always concerns in India about a ‘G-2’ or a Sino-American collaboration in Asia, the San Francisco summit was about organising a truce in a conflictual relationship rather than restoring the kind of strategic partnership that seemed possible at the turn of the century.

New Delhi, however, needs to pay close attention to some of the new areas of US-China engagement – such as regulating artificial intelligence – that Biden and Xi discussed on Wednesday. Potential US-China understandings are bound to have a major impact, over the long term, on the evolution of the global rules on AI.

In the near term, though, the Indian government and business must note the serious bid by President Xi to woo back the US business leaders, who in the past were the biggest champions of China in Washington. India can’t bet that the ‘China option’ is no longer viable for Western businesses or get complacent about India’s attractiveness. Productive engagement with the Western capital should remain a high priority for Delhi.

India will also need to monitor the follow-up from the conversation between the two leaders on regional security issues in the Indo-Pacific, the current crisis in the Middle East and Ukraine war in Europe. There was no sign of any major breakthrough in this regional security dialogue, especially on Taiwan, which China sees as the “most sensitive issue” in bilateral relations. Xi Jinping wants the US to stop supporting “Taiwan’s independence”, while Washington wants Beijing to renounce the use of force to unite Taiwan with the People’s Republic.

The decision to renew high-level political and military communications between the two sides is, arguably, a success for the US in setting the terms of engagement with China.

Having confronted relentless economic and military pressures from the US over the last few years and faced with an economic slowdown at home, Xi appears to be toning down the recent triumphalism on China’s ineluctable rise and America’s terminal decline. The Chinese leader now insists the two countries can’t afford to turn their backs on each other. He also declared in San Francisco that the world is “big enough for both China and the US”.

Xi sought to reassure Biden that China has no intention to surpass or replace the US as the dominant power in the world. In return he wants the US to stop containing China.

Through the last three years, the Biden Administration has insisted that the vigorous competition with China must be backed by a dialogue on preventing the contestation from spinning out of control. As Washington pressed for a dialogue on ‘guardrails” to stabilise the relationship, Beijing demanded that the US lift the variety of restrictions it has imposed on economic and technological cooperation with China.

For now, the US restrictions remain in place, and the focus of the Biden-Xi summit was on confidence building measures. The Biden Administration has made major geopolitical gains in Asia over the last three years. Three include stronger bilateral alliances with Japan, Korea and Australia, the creation of a trilateral strategic framework with Tokyo and Seoul, a revitalised alliance with the Philippines, and new strategic partnerships with India and Vietnam.

Further, the US has elevated the Quadrilateral forum with Australia, India and Japan to the summit level and created a new forum called AUKUS with Australia and the United Kingdom.

Yet, the US faces major crises in Europe, where the West is struggling to reverse the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in the Middle East, where the war in Gaza is threatening to upend the regional order. Engaging China and keeping the relationship reasonably stable is likely to remain a major objective for the US in the days ahead.

While it must continuously assess the changes in great power relations, especially between the US, China and Russia, India’s emphasis should be on taking advantage of the new possibilities to strengthen its ties with the US, maintaining its long-standing ties with Russia, and managing the difficult ties with China.

India’s own rise in the international system allows it to effectively handle any sudden shifts in great power relations. For now, the word from San Francisco is that the prospect of any dramatic change in US-China relations is remote.


C. Raja Mohan is a senior fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.


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