The Sydney Morning Herald

By C. Raja Mohan

The subcontinent's role as the crossroads between the eastern and western parts of Asia was reinforced by the emergence of a strategic triangle involving the United States, China and India during the Bush years.

At first, President Barack Obama had trouble managing Bush's legacy on China and India. There was never any doubt in either Washington or Beijing that the Bush administration's newfound interest in India was rooted in the perceived need to balance the rise of China. Although neither side wished to define their new partnership in terms of China's rise, Beijing was clearly the elephant in the room as Washington and Delhi sat across the table. This clarity began to blur as Obama reframed Asia policy. As the Obama administration coped with the detritus of two wars, a financial crisis, and deepening economic interdependence with China, confronting Beijing was out of the question.

Everyone in Washington seemed to agree on the importance of re-engaging Asia at the dawn of the Obama administration, but there were many who underlined the importance of building durable strategic co-operation with China. This position was reflected in the proposition that Washington and Beijing must build a new partnership, the so-called Group of Two, to manage new international challenges, from the financial crisis to global warming. Although the administration did not use the term G-2, the concept gained currency. Delhi was firmly in the first camp and senior officials in the government publicly expressed concerns about the potential consequences of a Sino-US condominium in Asia and beyond. India's concerns were magnified as the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton skipped Delhi in her first trip to Asia. As she travelled to Beijing, Clinton downplayed concerns about human rights and underscored the importance of engaging China. The new approach of accommodating China reached its peak during Obama's visit to Beijing in November 2009, when the two sides declared their readiness to co-operate in promoting stability in south Asia. India reacted strongly against American support for Chinese over-lordship on the subcontinent. It could not help but note the similarity of the Obama-Hu Jintao joint communique of November 2009 with that issued by presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin in Beijing in June 1998, weeks after India's nuclear tests. Unlike Clinton, however, Obama had an opportunity to make amends as he hosted the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, for the administration's first state banquet at the White House in November 2009. Obama went out of his way to emphasise India's role as an Asian power. While sceptics saw this as little more than a formal reassurance, there was enough evidence to suggest that Obama was committed to build on the foundations laid by Bush. Despite much reluctance in the administration, Obama pressed ahead with the implementation of the controversial civil nuclear initiative and expanded defence co-operation with India. A year later, he travelled to Delhi to endorse India's candidacy for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, agreed to support India's membership of the nuclear export control groups and called for greater co-operation between India and the United States in the management of global commons - the oceans, outer space and cyber domains. Visiting India a few months later, Hillary Clinton urged India to take on the leadership mantle in Asia and expressed strong support for a larger Indian role in Asia and the Pacific. While some in India did not want to be seen as doing US bidding in Asia, Clinton's strategic enthusiasm certainly resonated with India's aspirations, which go back to the very founding of modern India. The new emphasis from Obama and Clinton marked a return to at least some of the assumptions of the Bush administration about Delhi's relevance to a stable security order in Asia. This return was probably facilitated by the failure of Obama's outreach to China. Although Obama had offered some variant of G-2, the Chinese were not willing to accept the US terms for a rapprochement. Further, Chinese assertiveness and its efforts to undermine US alliances in the region and constrict US naval operations in the western Pacific suggested its ambitions were much larger than becoming a joint leader with the United States. Despite its initial flip-flops towards south Asia and the many challenges it confronts, the Obama administration has begun to engineer an important change in the American geopolitical conception of the region. On the one hand, it has articulated the vision of Afghanistan's future as a bridge between the subcontinent and central Asia. Clinton has called for greater flows of energy and commerce between the two regions as part of the efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. The potential implications of a partnership between Islamabad and Beijing have also underscored for Washington what growing Chinese influence means for Asia as a whole. While the Obama administration has welcomed a larger Chinese role in stabilising Afghanistan, it cannot but begin to contemplate the consequences of Beijing's expanding influence in south and south-western Asia in collaboration with Pakistan. Equally significant is the repeated affirmation of the Obama administration about India's role in bridging the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As Clinton told her audience in Chennai, a port city facing south-east Asia: ''The United States has always been a Pacific power because of our very great blessing of geography. And India straddling the waters from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean is, with us, a steward of these waterways. We are both deeply invested in shaping the future of the region that they connect.'' With the simultaneous rise of China and India and the intersection of their interests, the strategic community in the US has begun to recognise the importance of developing an integrated strategy towards the east and south Asian regions. As China seeks to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean, India announces itself in the western Pacific and Asia's maritime disputes acquire a new edge, securing the Indo-Pacific has become an important element of US strategy. As the pre-eminent maritime power that has managed the order in the two oceans for decades but faces new challenges from a rising China, the United States is now seeking a strong security partnership with India in the Indo-Pacific. As the American and Indian navies find that they have no option but to work together, the traditional differentiation between these two theatres is likely to rapidly disappear.

C. Raja Mohan is a member of India's National Security Advisory Board.This is an edited extract from his essay in the latest edition of American Review published by the US Studies Centre.