LONDON (Reuters) - Washington’s focus on Pakistan and economic dependence on China are forcing India to reassess its own place in South Asia, reviving long-standing fears of strategic encirclement by its giant northern neighbour.
Analysts say Indian suspicions about China, suppressed during the boom years by burgeoning trade ties, have been stoked by Chinese involvement in Pakistan and a sense that Beijing has replaced India as the favoured friend of the U.S. in the region.
“There is a very strong feeling that China is India’s threat number one,” said Subhash Kapila at the South Asia Analysis Group, an Indian think-tank.
Under former President George W. Bush, the United States forged close ties with India -- in part seeing it as a counterweight to growing Chinese power -- culminating in a deal effectively recognising its nuclear-armed status.
India and China also made efforts to mend relations soured by a border war in 1962, while their growing clout in the world economy earned them the nickname “Chindia”.
But with the financial crisis highlighting U.S. dependence on Beijing to bankroll its debt, India is fretting that while it acquired a friendship, China bought the U.S. economy.
“During the Bush era, U.S. policy was seeking to build India as a counterweight to China,” Brahma Chellaney, from India’s Centre for Policy Research, said at a conference in London.
“As this was going on the Chinese and U.S. economic ties were getting thicker and thicker,” he said. “‘Chimerica’ is more meaningful than ‘Chindia’.”
Long Pakistan’s closest ally, China has been steadily building ties with India’s other neighbours, supplying weapons to Sri Lanka and improving its relationship with Myanmar and Nepal, all stoking Indian fears of strategic encirclement.
“India has been gradually ceding space in its own backyard, especially to China,” said Chellaney.
China has stressed it sees no competition with India, but rather that both can benefit from rising bilateral trade as well as cooperation on issues where the two countries share similar views, including on Doha trade talks and climate change.
“Neither of the two poses a threat to the other,” Ma Jiali, from China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the conference in London.
Until very recently, India shared that view and set aside distrust which lingered on from its defeat by China in the 1962 war. At the same time the government also played down alleged incursions along the disputed border to avoid spoiling the mood.
“There was this euphoria that trade is booming,” said Professor Dibyesh Anand at London’s University of Westminster.
That mood is now shifting, with attention turning again to tensions over the 3,500-km (2,200-mile) border, particularly Chinese claims to the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
India’s air force chief said in May that China presented a greater threat than Pakistan because New Delhi knew little about Beijing’s combat capabilities.
“The public mood is very much that Pakistan is the unreformed enemy, China cannot be trusted,” Anand said.
CO-OPERATION IN PAKISTAN
That traditional distrust of India’s two main rivals has been fused together by Washington’s renewed focus on Pakistan.
President Barack Obama’s administration is not only pouring money into Pakistan, but also looking to China to help put pressure on Islamabad to crack down on the militants.
“Their entire policy revolves around China,” Kapila said.
As well as supplying weapons to Pakistan, China has been expanding its economic interests there, notably through funding the new Gwadar deep sea port on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea to give it access to Middle East oil supplies.
“Pakistan’s reliance on both the U.S. and China for aid and diplomatic support means that coordinated approaches from Washington and Beijing provide the best chance for impacting Pakistani policies in a way that encourages regional stability,” Lisa Curtis, from the Heritage Foundation think tank, told a Congressional hearing in Washington.
In the meantime, India, which broke off peace talks with Pakistan after last November’s attack on Mumbai, fears it may come under U.S. pressure to reduce tensions so that Islamabad can focus on fighting its Taliban insurgency.
The newly re-elected Congress-led government has yet to spell out how it plans to navigate a political and economic environment which has changed radically in recent months.
Anand, who described India as suffering “a schizophrenia between arrogance and helplessness”, said the country had no real reason to feel under siege and should actually welcome the United States asking China to help in Pakistan.
He said the government should aim to carve out a long-term foreign policy that managed to rise above the public mood.
With both India and China competing overseas for energy and other resources, the foreign policy decisions made by the new government could determine how far New Delhi succeeds in securing supplies overseas to fuel its growing economy.
“They are rivals for a lot of energy projects against each other, although on occasions they have submitted joint bids; they have tried to cooperate,” said Beijing-based British author Jasper Becker.
But according to Anand, projecting Indian influence overseas will require a shift in India’s self-perception that goes beyond seeing itself as a victim of Pakistan and China.
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