By Swapan Dasgupta
It's a great feeling to stumble upon a real gem. While browsing through a London bookshop last summer, it was chance that my eyes fell on a slim book, Whatever happened to Tanganyika? It turned out to be quirky page-turner on what its author called "nostalgic geography" - an A-Z of long-forgotten names of places and countries that interest a handful of dotty stamp collectors today. Yet, behind the trivia about Bechuanaland, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and why national borders in Africa are often straight lines and right angles, there was a larger story: the tale of venerable statesmen meeting in Berlin, Versailles and Yalta to divide the world into colonies, protectorates and spheres of influence.
The 21st century is said to be a great leveller, a time yesterday's great powers repudiate the great games of yore. Yet, there was a disturbing imagery from another age behind the choreography of President Barack Obama's visit to China last week. For many, the reference in the joint statement to supporting "the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan" was a "casual remark", about as significant as proforma commitments to foster cultural exchanges. However, since joint statements are not usually a casual collation of stray thoughts - unless the joint India-Pakistan statement in Sharm-el-Sheikh becomes a template - and certainly not regarded as such by China, it may safely be assumed the reference was calculated.
India may not quite be yesterday's Tanganyika but the assumptions behind including it in a US-China joint statement weren't dissimilar to those imperial leaders who rolled out maps and coloured their spheres of influence in red. For the US it was one step backward: it repudiated the Bush doctrine of nurturing India to offset China's dominance in Asia. For China it was a giant step forward: it secured US endorsement for taking an active interest in South Asia, including India. Together, Obama and President Hu Jintao agreed that India, for all its potential as a rising economic power, doesn't yet qualify for a place on a high table; it remains bound in a hyphenated relationship with an imploding Pakistan.
The Indian response to this new architecture of intrusiveness has been revealing. It has reacted with all the emotional indignation of a lover who senses the possibility of being jilted in favour of a star attraction. For the record, the Ministry of External Affairs has registered a feeble and tangential protest but it has not been accompanied by any tantrums, lest it sour Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the White House. Despite tell-tale signs of strains in the relationship, New Delhi has been desperately attempting to maintain some toehold in the Obama Administration's emotional firmament. It's becoming a losing battle. What once seemed a China-India tussle for the affections of a declining West seems to have gone China's way. India has firmly been shown its subordinate place.
This relegation does not imply that the damage control exercises by US diplomats should be brushed aside. There is certain to be an overdose of homily and flattery during Manmohan Singh's Washington visit. There will be talk of the commonality of values, the virtues of democracy and the potentialities of India. Pageantry will be used to soothe ruffled Indian feathers. But the India that will be celebrated will be the exotic India - perhaps reminiscent of the adulation that greeted the Queen of Tonga at Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953. The importance of India as a hard-nosed regional power has been quietly discounted.
The taming of India has been a colossal victory of Chinese diplomacy. During Obama's visit, China secured everything it wanted - the political dividends of funding $800 billion debt to an ailing US economy. Having locked the US into economic inter-dependence, it also used American vulnerability to legitimise a much larger role for itself. Hitherto China was the greatest champion of "national sovereignty" which it deftly contrasted to the West's intrusiveness. The seemingly innocuous reference to India and Pakistan marks a new willingness to step into an emerging void. China is not going to flex its muscles in a hurry. It has set the markers for a new, global architecture of power that will follow its inevitable emergence as the world's biggest economy. India has reason to worry.
In the early days of reforms, Deng Xiaoping set the parameters of China's global conduct: "Observe developments soberly, maintain our position, meet challenges calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership." Contrast this patient calculation that's now yielding tangible results with India's ostentatious gloating over every small step forward. Like Obama, India too must shed hype for worthwhile achievements.