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Naila Altaf Kayani

The writer is a PhD scholar in International Relations at NUML, a political and social analyst based in Muzaffarabad, and a human rights campaigner. Twitter: @NylaKayani E-mail: [email protected]

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Hilal English

Shifting Tides: How U.S. -China Dynamics Reshape India's Geopolitical Landscape

June 2024

The latest developments indicate that the U.S. and China may seek to manage their competitive outlook further. While the U.S. may also look forward to strengthening its ties with India, India might continue navigating its foreign partnerships via balancing and perusing a foreign policy originating from its strategic autonomy doctrine.


The relationship between the United States and China is understood to be one of the most ‘consequential’ inter-state relationships of contemporary world politics. Predominantly characterized by the U.S.-China trade war, competition over the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the technological race, bilateral ties between the two great powers notably experienced a downward dip in 2018. The situation worsened in 2022 when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. This chain of events consequently signaled the threat of U.S.-China relations ebbing into economic decoupling and a military conflict in the worst-case scenario. 
However, in recent months, the U.S.-China relationship has experienced a thaw owing to the San Francisco Summit in 2023 and the telephonic conversation between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping in April 2024. Hence, recent developments indicate a probable rapprochement between the U.S. and China, which may also affect the dynamics of the ongoing competition between great powers worldwide. Likewise, the softening of relations between the U.S. and China may bring about geopolitical implications for India, which claims to be a major player in this great power rivalry, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
China's rise as a great power has led Washington to view Beijing as a potential threat to its status and global structure. In 2017, the National Security Strategy (NSS) document published by the U.S. called China a 'revisionist power' that sought to displace the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific and reorder or rearrange the region as per its interests and goals. The NSS also affirmed the onset of a “geopolitical competition between the free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific. A similar position was reiterated in the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region' published by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2019. In November 2019, the U.S. Department of State published the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision’, yet another foundational document regarding Washington's Indo-Pacific policy, which emphasized the need to work with strategic partners, particularly with India, to respond to the challenges about the region. However, it is also worth mentioning that the U.S.' economic engagement in this region has remained particularly weak, a factor further exacerbated by the U.S. withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership. Conversely, China has been actively enhancing its engagement in the region. While China is already a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), it is pushing forward to accede to the Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). 


While India seeks to harness engagement with regional countries to compete against Chinese influence in the region, New Delhi's undermining of its 'Neighborhood First' policy coupled with China’s economically tangible and deliverable engagements in the region tend to undermine New Delhi’s efforts.


On the other hand, the Sino-India conflict has been playing out in the South Asian region for decades, with China and India engaging in military confrontations several times. In this regard, India has been trying to push back against Chinese influence in the region. India's contemporary threat perception vis-a-vis China revolves around Beijing's probable encirclement of India through neighboring countries, a strategy that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) shall buttress. Beijing's development and investment-oriented engagements with the regional countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Nepal, have further exacerbated New Delhi's fears. While India seeks to harness engagement with regional countries to compete against Chinese influence in the region, New Delhi's undermining of its 'Neighborhood First' policy coupled with China’s economically tangible and deliverable engagements in the region tend to undermine New Delhi’s efforts. 
In this geopolitical context, Washington and New Delhi’s threat perception vis-a-vis China has ushered in an emerging partnership between New Delhi and Washington. The initiation and maturation of the U.S.-India strategic and economic partnership is perhaps one of the key geopolitical developments to have taken place during the first half of the 21st century. This evolution in the U.S.-India partnership was highlighted particularly in June 2023 when Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi addressed the U.S. Congress during his state visit to Washington. President Joe Biden and his counterpart also publicly affirmed their close partnership during the G-20 Summit in New Delhi in November 2023. While India has transformed into a hub for global markets, U.S.-India bilateral trade has flourished over time. The bilateral trade volume between the two countries is reported to have surpassed USD 200 billion per annum, with both countries eyeing to further increase it to USD 500 billion in the coming years. In addition to this, the two countries are also collaborating on a number of other bilateral and multilateral arrangements, including the Trade Policy Forum, the Commercial Dialogue and CEO Forum, the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, the 2+2 Strategic Dialogue, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). 
In recent years, cooperation between the U.S. and India has evolved to designate the two countries as close allies in the Indo-Pacific and South Asian regions. This mainly stems from Beijing's attempts to expand its presence in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region. In 2016, the U.S. designated India as a major U.S. defense partner, deeming India vital for its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. In this lieu, while attempting further to strengthen their bilateral partnership, the U.S. and India also signed foundational defense pacts, including the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020. In February 2024, the U.S. approved the sale of the MQ-9B drones and the F414 engines to enhance New Delhi’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and deal with the Chinese threat along its borders. 
While the U.S.-India relations are primarily premised on common goals vis-a-vis China, recent months have experienced a thaw in U.S.-China rivalry. The November 2023 San Francisco Summit, participated by the two countries' presidents, indicated both countries' willingness to manage the simmering inter-state conflict. The summit led to the announcement of various economic and security-related deliverables to manage the continually depleting U.S.-China relations. As a result, both countries agreed to resume their military-to-military dialogue via different channels and committed to expediting efforts towards expanding renewable energy and minimizing AI-related risks. It was a key international development in that it set the tone for future engagements between the U.S. and China to secure maximum chances of avoiding U.S.-China confrontation. 
Another rather recent development in this regard is the telephone conversation between President Biden and President Xi in April this year. The call has been hailed as a significant geopolitical development in the context of U.S.-China competition and the first high-level interaction between the two states since the San Francisco Summit. It is reported that the conversation between the U.S.-China presidents revolved around bilateral concerns and the need to maintain cooperation in regional stability, trade, people-to-people relations, military-to-military communication, climate change, AI-related risks, and counternarcotics. In addition to this, the two leaders also exchanged views on key international conflicts, including the Russia-Ukraine war, the Middle Eastern crisis, the Taiwan conflict, and the Houthi rebels. Followed by it in an attempt to further bolster Chinese investments in the U.S., President Xi also held a meeting with influential American business leaders in May 2024. 


It is reported that the conversation between the U.S.-China presidents revolved around bilateral concerns and the need to maintain cooperation in regional stability, trade, people-to-people relations, military-to-military communication, climate change, AI-related risks, and counternarcotics.


The aforementioned factors indicate the U.S. and China's efforts towards managing bilateral relations to boost cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, the relationship between the U.S. and India is reaching a point where it may require a reset. India's doctrine of strategic autonomy and the resulting Indian posturing on key global issues like the Russia-Ukraine crisis or the Middle-Eastern crisis suggest that India envisions itself as an equal partner vis-a-vis the U.S. in this bilateral partnership. Also, while the U.S. may view India as a strategic bulwark against China, the partnership between the two countries cannot solely rely on the aim of countering China's threat in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, India can be at the receiving end of this probable U.S.-China rapprochement.
In January 2023, President Biden cancelled his visit to India on India's Republic Day. In tandem, he postponed the QUAD summit, a development that raised concerns regarding the stability of the US-India partnership. Moreover, the U.S. also continues to adopt a firm position over the Indian involvement in the assassination bid of the Sikh separatist and U.S. national Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. While the exact magnitude of the Pannun case's impact on the U.S.-India partnership is yet to be assessed, it can potentially become a major irritant going forward. 
India's diplomatic posturing as a great power will likely strain U.S.-India ties. While India has been participating in forums like QUAD, which favor Washington's geopolitical interests, however, on the other hand, India has also been actively participating in BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Russia and China primarily lead. In addition to this, New Delhi has also been maintaining its strategic and economic partnership with Moscow, particularly in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war. In this regard, Daleep Singh, the Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States, also visited India in April 2022 to warn of potential "consequences" for India-Russia ties. India and the western world have also been at loggerheads over the climate policy question. In this regard, the upcoming U.S. elections further add to the ambiguities surrounding the US-India partnership. While Biden's re-election may result in continuing current policies, in case otherwise, policies like Trump's "America First" may advocate for withdrawal from global engagements. 
Overall, the relationship between the U.S., China, and India is complex and characterized by intricate engagements influenced by different geopolitical and geostrategic considerations. The latest developments indicate that the U.S. and China may seek to manage their competitive outlook further. While the U.S. may also look forward to strengthening its ties with India, India might continue navigating its foreign partnerships via balancing and perusing a foreign policy originating from its strategic autonomy doctrine. While doing so, India must also recognize that Washington's engagements with India should not be unconditional or all-out. As bilateral ties between China and India experience a thaw, India may need to closely monitor the emerging developments, as a conciliation between Beijing and Washington may challenge New Delhi's interests. However, this does not suggest that the U.S.-China relationship is expected to experience consequential convergence over key issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong, bilateral trade and military engagements, and freedom of navigation in the long run. Nevertheless, it appears to be in the greater interest of New Delhi to ensure that the U.S.-China rapprochement may not lead to India’s isolation. As such, under the given circumstances, India may keep pursuing to strengthen bilateral ties with the U.S. and continue cooperation on multilateral forums.


The writer is a PhD scholar in International Relations at NUML, a Muzaffarabad-based political and social analyst, and a human rights campaigner. 
Twitter: @NylaKayani
E-mail: [email protected]
 

Naila Altaf Kayani

The writer is a PhD scholar in International Relations at NUML, a political and social analyst based in Muzaffarabad, and a human rights campaigner. Twitter: @NylaKayani E-mail: [email protected]

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