In India, however, Obama raised several issues that were aimed directly at China. He talked about implementing the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement signed by President George W. Bush; forging partnerships in high-tech sectors like defense and space; and taking India off the restricted export list so it can be “treated the same as our very closest allies and partners.” Technology that can be used for military purposes is denied to China, about which Beijing has long complained. Obama also endorsed a permanent UN Security Council seat for India, something China adamantly opposes.
Obama also assailed the stolen election in Burma as “unacceptable” which kept the military junta in power. The U.S. president told the Indian Parliament, “Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community — especially leaders like the United States and India — to condemn it…..It’s not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It is staying true to our democratic principles.” Such a statement is guaranteed to get the attention of the Chinese dictatorship.
Kaplan devotes a chapter of Monsoon to Burma, describing it as a strategic area where Indian and Chinese interests collide. He writes, “The most direct route into the heart of China is through Burma….And China’s attitude toward Burma is, as it happens, similar to its attitude towards North Korea.” The current regimes in both places may be “demented” but Beijing has a long-term interest in keeping India and Burma secure buffer states, as well as using them for sources of raw materials. With Burma at the top of the Bay of Bengal, India has had to shift more of its military strength and infrastructure development to its western frontier. If Obama understands the sensitivity of the Burma issue to both India and China, then his comments have to be seen as a jab at China.
When President Obama took office, he seemed determined to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while avoiding any new confrontations elsewhere. Beijing saw this as an opportunity to move forward on its agenda, especially when the West was shaken by the financial crisis. The days of American hegemony looked to be at an end. But China has moved too fast, alarming its neighbors. There has been an appeal to the U.S. to maintain a balance of power that can give the nations of Asia the freedom to develop along a more enlightened path than the model Beijing offers.
There are hopeful signs that at least some in the Obama administration have heard the call. But whether significant actions will follow is still unknown, because initiatives in the region are not coming from President Obama, who is personally still sending mixed signals about whether he wants to appease or contain China’s rise. And such ambiguity is neither good for alliance cohesion nor for the deterrence of aggression.
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