When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits the White House next week, Obama and his administration would do well to employ their much-practiced skills at making nice. New Delhi rightly fears outside meddling after this week’s U.S.-China Joint Statement, which contained a sentence widely interpreted as an affront to India:
The two sides [China and the United States] welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.
The Joint Statement’s timing was particularly bad considering the recent India-China border dilemma. Both countries have reportedly increased troop presence near the blurry border, and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Indian territory that is still claimed by China did little to improve the relationship. China has emphasized that its “more pronounced” territorial issue is its border dispute with India. So New Delhi has good reason to be nervous about Chinese prying at Washington’s behest.
A spokesman from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly commented on the Joint Statement, stating that “a third country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary” regarding India-Pakistan relations.
Already, both China and the United States are trying to downplay the significance of the Joint Statement reference.
China’s Foreign Ministry denied that a discussion took place between Obama and Chinese heads of state about U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, and its statement emphasized Beijing’s support of regional stability. The spokesperson added that China “values its friendly cooperation with” India and Pakistan and “hopes to see relations between the two continue … improve and grow.”
But India can hardly be blamed for frustration at the Obama administration’s mixed message. Yesterday, Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the United States welcomes China’s participation in stabilizing the India-Pakistan region. But he also added, “We have always said, in terms of Indo-Pakistan relations, that’s really up to India and Pakistan to decide how and when and the scope of that.” Also yesterday, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, declared that better relations with China do not necessarily come at the cost of India.
One can only hope that the ill-considered phrasing of the Joint Statement won’t hinder next week’s discussions. No doubt Obama will want Prime Minister Singh’s support on nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention climate change. That Singh is the first head of state to visit the Obama White House in itself highlights the importance of Indian cooperation. If the mix-up is merely linguistic, it can be overcome. But if the lack of clarity lies within Obama’s foreign policy itself, expect a rocky summit. Obama’s diplomacy and eloquence will be tested as he attempts to please both India and China.