Behind the pomp and largely behind closed doors, one issue lurked in the background of President Barack Obama’s visit to India: China.
The United States is working to renew its relationship with India in part because the White House hopes that New Delhi’s increasing economic and military strength could tip the power balance in Asia, as China continues to rise.
Obama has engaged Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent months but he still sees Xi’s country as an economic rival and an aggressive neighbor that’s picked territorial fights with the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and others.
“It’s always the elephant in the room,” said Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies South Asia issues. “Both the U.S. and India will suggest they are not ganging up on China. But both countries are profoundly worried about China.”
In size alone, India – slated to surpass China to become the world’s most populous nation in two decades – is a major player on the globe. But it will be a long time before India can compete with China in other crucial ways, including economic and military power, in part because it has far more poverty and deficiencies in infrastructure.
In talks with India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, Obama pledged to help India work toward becoming a global leader in a variety of ways: $4 billion in trade and investment, a compromise that clears the way for U.S. companies to help build India’s energy sector and a new 10-year defense framework.
There’s still much to do.
India accounts for only 2 percent of U.S. imports and 1 percent of its exports. Annual bilateral trade has reached $100 billion, but that’s still less than a fifth of U.S. trade with China.
Ashok Wadhwa, 55, a longtime business owner who has a car and motorcycle shop in New Delhi, said he hoped Obama could help boost manufacturing in India. He said China took India’s manufacturing ideas on everything from clothes, electronics and toiletries, and then undercut India’s products.
“China has killed the India market,” he said. “Business is finished.”
Obama, who left India for Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, didn’t mention China much publicly, if at all, on his three-day trip to India. But he often spoke of the values shared by India and the United States, the world’s largest and oldest democracies, respectively.
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“My confidence in what our nations can achieve together is rooted in the values we share,” Obama said in his final speech in New Delhi on Tuesday. “For we may have our different histories and speak different languages. But when we look at each other, we see a reflection of ourselves.”
Obama’s trip to New Delhi was being watched closely in China, which has become increasingly aggressive in trying to counter U.S. influence in Asia. Even before Obama arrived, Chinese state media attempted to play down the significance of his visit.
“The shortened three-day visit is more symbolic than pragmatic, given the long-standing division between the two giants, which may be as huge as the distance between them,” China’s Xinhua news agency said in a commentary Sunday.
In a separate piece, China’s Global Times newspaper, an arm of the Communist Party, warned China not to “fall into the trap of rivalry” with India set by the West. “This fixed pattern of thinking was created and hyped up by the West, which, with ulterior motives, regards the ‘Chinese dragon’ and the ‘Indian elephant’ as natural rivals,” according to the commentary published Monday.
In response, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the United States and India weren’t looking for confrontation with China or even to contain China, but that they were committed to the rule of law.
“The purpose of that cooperation is to ensure stability in this part of the world, to ensure balance in this part of the world . . . that you don’t have a situation where bigger nations can bully smaller ones, but you’re working cooperatively,” Rhodes said.
For years, the United States had prodded India to become more involved in the region to counter China.
Modi appears to want to use the relationship with the United States to counter China, benefiting from the increased access to American technology that could help him develop his country.
But despite India long considering China competition and a neighbor it shares a border dispute with, India had been reluctant to act.
“The U.S. is naturally interested in India stepping up to the plate and taking a greater interest,” said Robert Hockett, a professor at the Cornell University law school who studies global economics. But, he said, India has long been worried about being “used” just to counter China.
Stumbling blocks remain in the India-U.S. relationship.
India remains concerned not only about the U.S.’s relationship with rival Pakistan, but also its relationship with China. Obama and Xi started to build their own relationship through a summit in California in 2013 and then in China last year, when they announced landmark new targets for greenhouse gas emissions intended to help curb climate change.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif, the nation’s only Indian-American member of Congress, who accompanied Obama to India, said the United States and India had important trading relationships with China that shouldn’t preclude the United States and India from having a close relationship.
“It doesn’t have to be India or China playing off each other,” he said. “It can be how do you find that mutually beneficial nexus for all three countries.”
Stuart Leavenworth in Beijing contributed to this report.