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From DC, with love


This week, Tom Donilon, the US national security advisor, laid out a detailed Asia plan for Obama's second administration. The speech, much awaited in Asia, turned out to be short on specifics and long on strategic vision. For every country east of India, parsing through that speech, we were no wiser about how deep Obama's "pivoted" footprint in Asia is going to be.

We learnt all that was usual. In the past year, the US has nuanced its Asia pivot from being the robust variety espoused by Hillary Clinton to a more cautious one by John Kerry. Donilon, who, as NSA, really speaks for the president, stayed towards the cautious, continuing the thread of Obama's light footprint, moderate foreign policy.

Kerry focused on China;Donilon took time to set out the contours of other relationships including India. For the benefit of all us self-obsessed Indians, this is what Donilon said: "US and Indian interests powerfully converge in the Asia-Pacific, where India has much to give and much to gain. Southeast Asia begins in Northeast India, and we welcome India's efforts to 'look East', from supporting reforms in Burma to trilateral cooperation with Japan to promoting maritime security. " India has a lot of leeway here, it all depends how far we waSTnt to go.

Not too long ago, the US took a decision to "pivot" to Asia. "America is back, " declared secretary of state Hillary Clinton, with a degree of assertion that evoked different reactions in different parts of Asia. Concern in China, satisfaction in Japan, Australia, Singapore, India ... You get the picture. This came a couple of years after Barack Obama's chastening experience with a US-China 'G-2 ', the awesomeness of Chinese growth, but most important, the growth of a Chinese aggressive posture. Brewing territorial disputes in South and East China Seas brought US marines to Darwin, while a liberalising Myanmar brought the benevolent US into Southeast Asia again. Worryingly though, the US was less than forthcoming during the difficult days between Japan and China or between Philippines and China.

Obama 2 brings a new flavour to this new strategy. It has now been renamed "rebalance" to Asia, rather than a simple "pivot". But we are still no clearer to understanding the details of the rebalance, how it will be staffed and resourced, or what the goals are - containing China, or just being moral support for countries in the region;taking the lead in advancing certain goals here, or leading from behind, that is, bolster partner countries like Vietnam or Japan if they end up in a "situation" with China. These are getting clearer slowly - the US will install an early warning radar system in Japan and has promised to assist the Philippines in monitoring coastal waters. There is also a promise to send a radar system to deal with a potential North Korean threat and/or tensions with China.

Separately, the US is working on a free trade agreement with EU, a deal, if it goes through, that will rewrite the rules of global trade. Japan is announcing that it will join the other arm of US's trade outreach - Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both these mechanisms will keep China out, though, paradoxically, China is the biggest trading partner for all the participants of these formations. So how is this going to play out? Meanwhile, we have the long-winded John Kerry in the State Department with his own take on the Asia rebalance. "I am not convinced that the United States needs to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific, " he said, famously, putting new worry lines on the policy. Arguing for a more thoughtful approach, he said, "We have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. " He added that the Chinese must be wondering, "What's the United States doing ? Are they trying to circle us? What's going on?" This approach is probably the way the US will go, as it slashes Pentagon's hugely bloated spending bill. If Hillary Clinton's line in 2010 was that the US has "national interests in freedom of navigation", recently the US Pacific Command chief Admiral Samuel Locklear told reporters that the US would not be adding any more bases in the Asia-Pacific. Of course, the US continues to have more bases in this part of the world than it knows what to do with, but the statement served as a reality check on the meaning of the rebalance. This far, the clearest articulation of the rebalance has been given by Kurt Campbell, the freshly-resigned top official for East Asia. In his last interview before he left government, Campbell told Asahi Shimbun, the rebalance is "meant to connote revitalisation and a reengagement at a deeper level of our key relationships with Asia. "

The US rebalance to Asia is very important for all of us. But while Indian strategists split hairs on what it means, what is very clear is that it gives India a huge opportunity to fundamentally redraft its Asia and America outlook for many years to come. This is the time for India to manage its Asia strategy to reflect Indian interests rather than responding to Chinese power.

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