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Improving India-US Relations Unnerves Beijing

Chinese state media both denigrated President Obama’s historic trip to New Delhi this week and excoriated American policy in what appears to be a concerted effort to undermine US-Indian ties. 

On Monday, an American leader attended Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital for the first time ever, and Obama became the first US president to visit India twice while in office. 

Beijing was obviously concerned, putting forward two broad themes across its media platforms. First, Xinhua News Agency, in a commentary titled “US, India Unlikely on Same Page,”referred to “the superficial rapprochement” of the two democracies, telling readers the visit “is more symbolic than pragmatic, given the long-standing division between the two giants.” Issues, such as climate, agriculture, and nuclear energy,divided the US and India, the commentary, which ran on Sunday, said.

“Three days are surely not enough for Obama and Modi to become true friends,” the commentary correctly remarked. “After all,” Xinhua stated, “only one year ago, US diplomats were expelled from New Delhi amid widespread public outrage over the treatment of an Indian diplomat in New York and Narendra Modi, [now] India’s prime minister and then chief minister of Gujarat, was still banned from entering the United States.”

Given Xinhua’s take, Beijing had no need to worry about the summit, yet worry it did. In its second theme, Chinese media pointed out that America was disrupting the peace in Asia. “The US wants to use India to contain China,” China National Radio stated, also on Sunday. 

Then on Monday, Global Times ran a piece titled “India, China Mustn’t Fall into Trap of Rivalry Set By the West.”The “craftily set” trap, the Communist Party’s nationalist newspaper said, was the West “egging India on to be fully prepared for ‘threats’” posed by Beijing. “A zero-sum game is not what China and India are asking for, but under Western influence, India is sliding into it.” 

It’s hard to understand what Beijing thinks it can achieve with “commentary” like this. Indeed, Chinese leaders appear to be oblivious to the consequences of their own actions. Beijing’s policy has taken on an increasingly hard edge in recent years, and this has been pushing China’s neighbors away. Indian leaders are not moving closer to Washington because Obama has devised a nasty ambush for them; they are embracing America because, for instance, Chinese soldiers are constantly advancing into Indian-controlled territory along their disputed boundaries. 

Beijing policymakers have suffered setbacks elsewhere as well. In Sri Lanka, Beijing’s man, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, lost snap elections this month. In late November, the China-friendly Kuomintang in Taiwan suffered its worst defeat in more than six decades in the so-called “nine-in-one” local polls. The residents of Hong Kong, once proud to be “Chinese,” are challenging China’s rule, occupying streets and plazas late last year. North Korea, China’s only formal military ally, has even branded Beijing an “enemy.” Burmese generals, once China’s most reliable friends, are now turning toward America and the West. Vietnam, where anti-China sentiment is on the rise, these days welcomes vessels from the Seventh Fleet.

And now India has a prime minister determined to defend his country’s borders, even if that means inviting the leader of an old adversary to his capital as guest of honor on his nation’s special day. What Beijing should take away from Obama’s symbolism-rich trip this week is not how far apart the US and India now are but how much they have come together since Modi became leader in May. As Xinhua notes, it was not long ago the prime minister was not even allowed into the United States. In September, he was the honored guest at the White House. 

Someone in Beijing should get the message. 


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