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India Tries to Strengthen US Ties Without Alarming China

U.S. President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, wave during a photo opportunity ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House, New Delhi, Jan. 25, 2015.

During President Barack Obama's recent visit to India, he and India's leaders committed to work more closely to promote stability and peace in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. But even as New Delhi makes a significant shift in aligning itself with Washington to contain China’s growing influence, it also is working to smooth ties with its Asian neighbor.

As India Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Beijing this week, Indian and Chinese leaders struck an optimistic note about growing the relationship between the two nations.

Chinese officials backed India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, as well as an Indian proposal for a resolution in the world body to punish countries that shelter and finance terrorism - widely seen as a measure that could target Pakistan.

The visit was seen as an effort to reassure Beijing after India and the United States forged what is being called a new alliance to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

During President Barack Obama’s recent visit to New Delhi, he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared an era of “new trust.” In a joint strategic vision they pledged to work together to protect freedom of navigation, maintain maritime security and keep air space safe in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

It was a significant departure for India, which has stayed away from explicitly aligning its security concerns with Washington.

Lalit Mansingh, the former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the United States, said India has virtually abandoned its policy of non-alignment.

“China is not directly mentioned, but there is a perception among the diplomats and strategic planners that in the long term China poses a threat. And therefore we see a greater convergence of Mr. Modi’s Act East policy and President Obama’s rebalance in Asia. So the U.S. is emerging not just as a strategic partner, but the principal strategic partner of India,” said Mansingh.

Although the economic relationship between India and China is thriving, deep suspicions linger - the fallout of a brief war they fought in 1962. Tensions occasionally flare over a simmering boundary dispute in the Himalayas - they cast a shadow over the Chinese President’s visit to India last year when New Delhi accused Chinese troops of infiltrating its territory.

India also worries about Beijing’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean region, and the docking of two Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka last year raised hackles in New Delhi.

Sukh Deo Muni, with the Indian Defense and Strategic Institute in New Delhi, said Indian policy makers hope that the new partnership with the United States will make it easier to deal with China.

“There is a feeling that China behaves properly when they know that they are under pressure. It would pressure China to be far more accommodative and far more soft, so far as India is concerned,” said Muni.

Since taking office last year, Prime Minister Modi has made no secret of his ambitions to play a greater role in Asia. He has moved decisively to forge closer ties with countries like Japan and Vietnam, which are involved in disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.

India wants to get weapons and advanced military technologies from the United States to modernize its armed forces to develop better capability to counter China.

Former diplomat Lalit Mansingh said the two countries are also expected to revive a loose security network involving other countries in the region.

“In the new 10-year defense cooperation agreement, there is a greater stress on expanding the joint military exercises and the idea now is to bring in countries like Japan and Australia into the joint exercises, so it quite clearly has an implication for China. Again, a signal that we are willing to be counted among those who oppose China’s aggressive designs in the region,” said Mansingh.

Responding to President Obama’s New Delhi visit, China’s state-run media called the friendship “superficial,” and cautioned India not to slide into Western influence.

President Obama told an interviewer that China “does not need to feel threatened” by good relations between the U.S. and India.

New Delhi is also taking steps to assure China that its growing relationship with the United States is not at the cost of Beijing. Prime Minister Modi heads to China in May and the pragmatic leader is expected to seek access to China’s market and Chinese investment in India. Leaders of both expanding economies speak of working together to build an Asian century.

Jayadeva Ranade at the Center for China Analysis and Strategy in New Delhi said that even as India builds good relations with the U.S., it wants to strengthen ties with Beijing.

“It is very important for us from the point of view of the economic potential of that relationship as well as the need to see that the borders remain peaceful and tranquil. So on both counts it is important, but I think while Modi will signal that the economic relationship has to be pursued, he will probably reiterate that intrusions and such activities will restrict the relationship,” said Ranade.

Analysts say the challenge for India in the months ahead will be to grow its friendship with Washington while not alienating Beijing.