During her talks with the Chinese President Hu Jintao as part of the US-China Economic and Strategic Dialogue last week, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton asserted that “the China-US relationship is stronger than it’s ever been.”  All the evidence, of course, points to a dramatically different conclusion.
After trying to create a strategic partnership with China soon after assuming office, the Obama Administration is now taking a realistic approach in dealing with the emerging superpower. The US-China ties have been undergoing a transformation of their own and two recent episodes underscore the growing complexity of the Beijing-Washington relationship. The whole sage leading to the purge of Bo Xilai from the Chinese Communist Party started when Wang Lijun, investigating Bo’s wife in connection with the murder of a British businessman, sought shelter in a US consulate fearing for his life. And more recently, Chen Gungcheng, the blind human rights lawyer, asked for the US help in seeking protection from the Chinese state security apparatus out there to stifle his voice.

The latter has been more controversial because it happened just when the annual economic and trade talks between Washington and Beijing were about to start. The US thought it had a deal as Chen was handed back to the Chinese authorities. But soon Chen was complaining that he had to agree to the deal under duress and that the US actually abandoned him. This has plunged Sino-US ties into one of the biggest diplomatic crises in recent years with Beijing demanding an apology from the US for offering refuge to Chen. A face saving arrangement was worked out when China agreed that Chen could apply to study outside China like other Chinese students studying abroad.

After trying to keep human rights away from the spotlight, the US has been more vocal about the issue in recent months. The Chen episode therefore comes at a difficult time. Meanwhile, Washington has been geopolitically active in the Indo-Pacific, trying to assuage the concerns of its partners that it is there to stay in the region. Clinton arrived in China after visiting Japan where the Obama Administration has been bust reaffirming the centrality of US-Japan alliance to US strategic priorities in Asia. The US has also signaled its readiness to sell F-16 fighters to Taiwan. In the context of escalating tensions between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea waters, the US has initiated a high-level defence dialogue with Manila. The Philippine government has even indicated that its plans to invite US troops to have a presence on its territory. Despite attempts by the ASEAN member states to turn a non-binding 2002 political declaration into a legally binding ‘code of conduct’ to discourage aggression, China continues to reject arrangements that would force it to negotiate with a bloc of nations over the disputes, preferring one-to-one talks with individual claimants instead. This makes America central to the strategic calculus of the smaller regional states.

It is against this backdrop that Delhi and Washington need to urgently recalibrate their bilateral ties. These are not the best of times for the US-India partnership. Troubles are mounting on virtually every front. India’s economic dynamism, the most potent of factors in transforming the US-India relationship over the last two decades, is under threat primarily because of policy paralysis plaguing New Delhi. Some of the expectations from the Delhi-Washington entente have clearly been unrealistic but most of the responsibility for a seeming backsliding in the tone and tenor of this very important relationship lies in the corridors of power in New Delhi.

The Obama Administration’s tightening of restrictions on the entry of highly educated Indian professionals in the information technology sector has created a climate suspicion with any warning about an impending ‘trade war.’ India’s decision to retroactively change tax laws related to foreign mergers and acquisitions is dampening the enthusiasm for India as a destination for investment.

Clinton was in India last week in what might be her final trip to India as Secretary of State and she therefore focused on big ticket items like Iran, Afghanistan and the next steps in the nuclear deal to give some momentum to slackening ties. On Iran, New Delhi has made a concerted attempt to reduce its dependence on Iran but Washington would like India to do much more. There was an expectation that during her trip to Delhi, Clinton might announce a waiver to exempt India from US sanctions but it did not happen. Despite public pronouncements of defiance, India has been cutting down its oil imports from Iran with the year ending on March 31 witnessing a decrease of more than 20 percent from the previous year. Clinton also pushed for a revival of the nuclear pact which is languishing for all practical purposes and after years of marginalizing New Delhi in favor of Islamabad, Washington is also now seeking a higher profile for India in Afghanistan.

But it is China that should exercise the diplomatic energies of both Washington and New Delhi as differences mount between China and the US and the region struggles to come to terms with a rising China. Confident of its economic prowess, Beijing views the US as a declining power. The US has started working proactively to challenge that perception and a strong US-India partnership will do a long way in managing power transition in Asia.

The writer is a reader in International Relations, King’s College London