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US, China signals in the time of political transition

Wednesday, 23 April 2014 - 6:10am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

The general expectation is that the Lok Sabha election would result in a government with a new set of people and policies. Regardless of whether this comes about, many countries are taking positions to stay on the right side in this time of transition.

In doing so, foreign governments have conveyed that they do not share the alarmist views of the media in their country about Narendra Modi. Envoys of many governments, including the US, the UK and China, have established a rapport with Modi and expect this to stand them in good stead.

The big interest, however, is on India's relations with the US and China because of its importance to global power play.

Since the US had rejected Modi's visa application, in recent months Washington has been at pains to woo him, making the point that his political rise makes him not simply acceptable, but desirable and valued. Modi, in turn, has indicated that the "visa issue" would not influence his dealings with the US.

Yet Modi, like anyone else aiming to head a new government, must be aware of the yawning policy gap between India and the US, and that relations are at their worst since 1998. As Indian Ambassador to the US, S Jaishankar had pointed out, the romantic phase of bilateral relations is over, and the two countries need to be more realistic.

The Khobragade affair was the last straw on the camel's back in a relationship that was getting increasingly burdened with irritants, impositions and threats of trade sanctions. Even now, for example, though the Khobragade case is behind us, the issue remains unresolved.

As if to underscore the growing distance between India and the US, recently RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and former US central bank head Ben Bernanke made their disagreements public. Rajan, in Washington, pointed out that US-led monetary policy has wreaked havoc on emerging markets. Bernanke, in Mumbai, argued that the alternative of managing exchange rates would further hinder global recovery. Bernanke did not answer why coordination between central banks within the G20, started after the financial meltdown in 2008, was stopped when the US began showing signs of recovery.

This is a reminder that India-US relations are still in the phase when differences would be aired publicly; and, that there is a long way to go before relations recover some of the lost warmth and trust. A show of political will on Obama's part as reflected in his choice of a new US ambassador to India may set the tone for how the new government deals with Washington.

In contrast, Beijing has positioned itself better, and not only because Modi has visited China and developed a rapport with the leadership. When Sujatha Singh went to Washington as the new Foreign Secretary, insensitive US officials chose that moment to brutishly humiliate the Indian Consul General in New York. The effects of that are still vitiating bilateral ties and may persist for much longer even if Obama politically upscales the relationship.

Unlike her visit to the US, which has left a bad taste, Sujatha Singh's first visit to China as Foreign Secretary was, by all accounts, rewarding and pleasant. The exchanges were warm and the tone friendly at the two-day Strategic Dialogue last week. The atmospherics during the Foreign Secretary's visit were upbeat. Observers attribute this to President Xi Jinping's assertion — when Ambassador Ashok Kantha presented his credentials — that "furthering the strategic partnership with India is my historic mission".

Such positive signals — calculated to undo the damage done by last year's Ladakh incursion — may add new momentum to India-China relations

.In the US-China race to win India's favour, the latter is one up now.

The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator

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