In controversial remarks more than likely to raise New Delhi's ire less than two months before President Barack Obama India tour, a top United States' State Department official strongly defended a greater Chinese role in South Asia even as he acknowledged India's sensitivities over such a Beijing role.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, in the question-and-answer session that followed a major address on The Impact of US-China Relations in Asia at a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, asked about the 'administration's thinking on the proper role for China in South Asia,' said, "China has an important role. It's a neighbor of South Asia. And it's unimaginable that China would not be involved."
"And so the question is, can we work together in a positive way on shared interests in creating peace, stability and economic opportunity in South Asia. I know there's a certain sensitivity in India about that, but I don't see that it should be the case," he argued, and added: "India has a good and rich relationship with China. Very fortunate to have the very knowledgeable China hands now at senior levels in the Indian government. And I think that's a good thing."
Thus, Steinberg declared, "We welcome a constructive involvement by China."
Last year, just weeks before Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh visited the US on a state visit on the invitation of President Obama, there was considerable angst in India when Obama visited Beijing and, in a joint statement with President Hu Jintao, suggested that the US and China should work together on resolving contentious South Asian issues.
The joint statement created such a furor that some members of the opposition and the Left Front and a cross-section of political pundits and commentators even called on Dr Singh to cancel his trip to Washington.
At the time, the White House and State Department spokesmen began scrambling and trying to reassure an incensed New Delhi that the joint statement was not meant as US-China cooperation in trying to mediate on issues such as the Kashmir imbroglio and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns just days before Dr Singh's state visit to Washington delivered a major speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace doing damage control to state that the US and China had no designs on interfering or pushing India to resolve its issues with Pakistan.
Steinberg's remarks, which now in a sense resurrects the concern that followed the US-China joint statement also comes at a time when President Obama himself has directed his senior-most aides that he wants to leave his imprimatur on his India trip with some significant and signature agreements that would signal transformational ties with India reminiscent of President Clinton's March 2000 visit and also alleviate India's perceptions that the US considers New Delhi a lesser global player than it does Beijing.
Only last week Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao held important discussions with Burns, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and other senior administration officials to try and resolve some of the irritants that have cropped up in US-India relations and could be a dampener on Obama's visit.
In responding to the question by Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, Steinberg continued that because the US wants China to play a constructive role in South Asia was the reason the US had "talked to him (President Hu Jintao) about it -- because we would like Chinese involvement to be constructive, to help us deal with the challenge of peace and stability in Afghanistan, and dealing with making sure that it doesn't become a terrorist haven again, which would threaten all of us."
He said such a scenario would not only threaten "all of us," but also preclude "building a relationship and cooperating to allow democracy to continue in Pakistan, and to deal with the economic challenges that they face so a more secure Pakistan can be a better partner for India and other countries in the region."
Thus, Steinberg reiterated that "I see many positive reasons for China to be involved," and emphasized that Beijing "will be involved because its interests are there, and its economic interests, security interests, political interests."
"But it ought to be done in a way that's not at the expense of others, and it's clear that we are very sensitive to the interests of all our partners there," he said.
Steinberg said just as much as China had a role in South Asia, the US saw a role for India in East Asia. "Just as we talk about South Asia with China, we talk about East Asia with India, and that's an important part of our dialogue."
He noted that "we just had a very, very productive meeting chaired on our side by Assistant Secretary (Kurt) Campbell with the Indian counterparts, and I think it's notable thatas you all knowSecretary Campbell is not the Assistant Secretary for South Asia, he's the Assistant Secretary for East Asia."
Steinberg said the dialogue that Campbell had with his Indian counterparts was because "we see India as an East Asia country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays".
He said in terms of the evolving order in East Asia, "One of the elements of it is that we think India's a key part, and we think the institutions should reflect that because we think that India has both an important interest and a lot to contribute to the common interest there."
"So, I think at the end of the day, it will be important for all of us to work together," he added.
Interestingly, when Steinberg was asked a question on the US policy on Tibet by Brahma Chellaney from the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a visiting scholar at the Wilson Center, the senior Obama administration official said that "our policy on Tibet is that we have engaged very intensively with the Chinese in support of building a dialogue more directly between the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans and the government in Beijing."
"(But) ultimately these issues have to be resolved between dialogue between the two of the. We don't think these are issues that outsiders can resolve," he said.
Steinberg reiterated that "dialogue will be in everyone's interest, and so we have strongly encouraged that. We've encouraged that within the framework of what is the political perspective of the United States, which is to recognize that Tibet is a part of China, but that there are important religious and cultural issues that should be addressed and that are part of the broader commitments to human rights and respect for religion that the United States believes in everywhere."
"So, we think within the framework of dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama as represented is the best way to try to address these issues," he said.