Why China's neighbors are eager to befriend Obama

Don't believe everything you read in the paper. Take this headline that appeared a couple of weeks ago, when I was in New Delhi, in The Hindustan Times: "U.S. Not Seeking to Contain China: Clinton." It was referring to a statement made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while on a swing through Asia. No, Washington is not trying to contain China the way we once did the Soviet Union, but President Obama didn't just spend three days in India to improve his yoga.

His visit was intended to let China know that America knows that India knows that Beijing's recent "aggressiveness," as one Indian minister put it to me, has China's neighbors a bit on edge. None of China's neighbors dare mention the C-word — containment — in public. Indeed, none of them want to go there at all or intend to promote such a policy. But there's a new whiff of anxiety in the Asian air.

All of China's neighbors want China to know, as the sign says: "Don't even think about parking here." Don't even think about using your growing economic and military clout to just impose your claims in border disputes and over oil-rich islands in the South China Sea. Because, if you do, all of China's neighbors will be doomed to become America's new best friends — including India.

That's why each one of China's neighbors is eager to have a picture of their president standing with Clinton or Obama — with the unspoken caption that reads: "Honestly, China, we don't want to throttle you. We don't want an Asian Cold War. We just want to trade and be on good terms. But, please, stay between the white lines. Don't even think about parking in my space because, if you do, I have this friend from Washington, and he's really big. ... And he's got his own tow truck."

I'd call this "pre-containment" or "containment-lite" — triggered in the last year by a sudden upsurge in China's assertion of claims to all the South China Sea. It marks a stark contrast to the mood in the region just two years ago. As Christian Caryl, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, noted in an Aug. 4 essay: China for years was being praised by Asian experts for being so shrewd, so clever, so deft, in building cultural and economic ties with all its neighbors — and outmaneuvering the stupid, oafish Americans. But in just six months, China has cast itself in the role of bully and prompted its neighbors to roll out the red carpets for Uncle Sam.


''In recent months," noted Caryl, "Beijing has elevated its claims to territory in the South China Sea to the level of a 'core national interest' on par with Tibet or Taiwan, and that has sparked considerable anger among the other countries in the region — including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam — that claim ownership of pieces of the sea. Then, just in case the Americans and the Southeast Asians still didn't get the message, the Chinese Navy staged large-scale maneuvers in the sea, deploying ships from all three of its fleets. Admirals watched as the ships fired off volleys of missiles at imaginary enemies — all of it shown in loving detail by Chinese television."

China has also muscled Vietnam into halting its oil exploration in what Beijing claimed were Chinese territorial waters and forced Japan to release a Chinese fishing boat captain, who was arrested after a collision with two Japanese coast guard vessels near disputed islands in the East China Sea. China got its way with Japan by halting China's exports to Japan of rare earth elements crucial for advanced manufacturing.

''With the Chinese Communist Party increasingly dependent on the military to maintain its monopoly on power and ensure domestic order, senior military officers are overtly influencing foreign policy," wrote Brahma Chellaney, a defense analyst at Delhi's Center for Policy Research.

But the Indians, like their fellow Asians, really do not want to go beyond containment-lite with China — for now. Sure India and China are at odds over borders and Pakistan, but China is now India's largest trading partner.

Also, never forget that Indian foreign policy has a long history of nonalignment. "Until a year ago, the big Indian debate was how do we deal with American hegemony," said the Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan. Many of India's older elites still fear U.S. "imperialism" and "neo-Liberalism."

And, finally, says the Indian defense analyst Kanti Basu: "Deep down, the Indians who pay attention in the strategic community sense that the Chinese are rising and the Americans are fading — and it doesn't look like the Americans are going to fix their problems any time soon." So don't bet the silverware on America.

No, India is not going to jump into America's arms. But we're not asking it to. Democracy, geopolitics, geography and economics are all combining to move America and India closer together. And that's a good thing for both. If China plays it smart, Indian-American relations will never go beyond pre-containment. But if China doesn't play it smart, Obama to India could one day become the new Nixon to China: My enemy's enemy is my new best friend.

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