It was in 1988 at a meeting between Chinese prime leader Deng Xiaoping and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi that Deng referred to the impending times as the ‘Asian century.’
Today, the world is on the threshold of change and Deng’s prediction seems to be coming true at least in respect of China. Under Xi Jinping, who now presides over both the government and the party, the Chinese are moving to centrestage in the world with the US facing image relegation, thanks primarily to an American president who appears clueless about how to perpetuate the US’ sole superpower status.
There is no better example of this than the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Quindao, China which was held almost simultaneously with the G-7 summit in Canada. The first marked the complete sway of China while the G-7 summit was characterised by appalling differences among member-states reflected strongly by how US president Donald Trump ridiculed the Canadian prime minister, calling his host “dishonest and meek”.
True to his volatile temperament, Trump left the summit without signing the joint declaration, showing the G-7 unity in smithereens. On an earlier occasion, Trump and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had exchanged barbs and caustic comments and the G-7 manifestly is a house divided.
The discord essentially is over US’ trade policies under Trump which reflect a siege mentality of looking upon most influential countries with a degree of distrust and suspicion.
By contrast, Xi Jinping is a charmer of no mean proportions, though he is crafty and focussed in having his way. He carried the day even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi made known India’s strong reservations on Chinese-promoted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir which is by right Indian territory. India had boycotted the Belt and Road Forum in May last year which was attended by 29 heads of state and government.
That China’s BRI initiative could help India’s long-overdue integration with Eurasia that has remained physically inaccessible to India because of the conflict with Islamabad, India regards as a welcome development and Beijing cannot be oblivious of that. Likewise, the accent on terror at SCO was in conformity with India’s unequivocal stand on the issue.
That SCO is an initiative in which Russia is in the forefront with China makes this grouping a rival to the US-supported and Europe-centric G-7. The Trump administration has hit China hard by imposing high tariffs on Chinese imports citing the huge trade deficit the US has with China. But it is not just China that the US is seeking to arm-twist — many other countries, including India, are facing the heat, too.
Close on the heels of Trump’s assault on G7, Trump accused India of charging 100 per cent tariffs on some US goods and in the same breath threatened to sever trade ties with countries he said were ‘robbing’ the US.
Trump’s big grouse against India is that the Indo-US trade balance is in India’s favour, with India’s exports to the US at US$47.9 billion and her imports at US$26.6 billion. He points out that higher duty-free imports by India are hurting US industry, with the key items being motor vehicle parts, ferroalloys, precious metals, rubber tyres and travel goods.
The Trump line is that India should buy more US goods. The tariff on Harley-Davidson motorbikes used to be 75 per cent. Last February the tariff was reduced to 50 per cent on the US President’s prodding but he is not satisfied and wants it down to 0 per cent.
The other area of contention is stents, knee implants and medical devices on which the US administration wants price caps to go and greater access to Indian markets. Likewise, greater access is sought on dairy products, chicken legs and poultry. At the same time, the Trump administration is in favour of imposing higher duties on import of steel and aluminium as a measure of balancing the trade deficit. India, on the other hand, has told the Americans that in quest of balancing the trade with the US, India’s airlines are willing to order 1,000 new aircraft and to import more natural gas.
While some of the US consciousness of being taken for a ride is justified, by painting every other country black, the US administration is driving itself into a corner, seriously hampering the acceptability of the US as a superpower with a large heart that towers over others.
US protectionism is bound to go down well with a section of American youth and a sizeable domestic lobby, and Trump is banking on that but internationally, the Chinese are stealing a march over the US and countries that are accustomed to the US indulgence are looking askance at the new administration.
Geopolitically, India tended to depend a lot on a US umbrella against a collusive China-Pakistan attack on this country. But, with the coming of Trump with his narrow vision and his penchant for a selfish worldview, India cannot feel reassured that the US would come to its aid if there is a joint attack.
Perhaps, that is reason enough for India to gravitate towards Russia and China, much to Beijing’s delight. While China’s ascendancy is well on the cards in an ‘Asian century’ scenario, India, though the fastest growing economy, is hemmed in by several negative factors which are an offshoot of liberal, democratic rule.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.