China wants India on its side in the trade war that US president Donald Trump has unleashed on Beijing. Asia’s two largest nations can join hands to face America’s tariff onslaught. After all, Trump has often castigated India for its high tariff barriers. Moreover the world economy will take a hit if the US and China continue their tit for tat tariff onslaught. Developing nations like India will be bear the brunt. The US and China are India’s largest trade partners.
The overture has come at a time when, after three years of strained relations, ties have improved dramatically. The 73-day Doklam stand-off in Bhutan was possibly an eye opener for both sides. The Wuhan summit in May this year, has helped to reset bilateral relations.
Since then, ties have gathered momentum with a number of high level visits from China. India and China also announced after Wuhan about co operating in stabilisation of Afghanistan and taking on joint programs. One, in helping training Afghan diplomats. When it was launched in India earlier this month, China’s ambassador, Luo Zhaohui, said: “The launch of this program today marks an important step forward. It reflects the closer coordination and cooperation between our two countries on regional affairs and represents a positive development in China-India relations.”
China has come under increasing pressure from the US. Not just on the trade front, but it is also been challenged in the Indo-Pacific waters by the US. Knowing that trade tariffs affect India as much, China is looking for support from its Asian neighbour. Is India ready to do so? Should it gang up with China against the US? Like President Xi, Modi has spoken out against the protectionist policies many times in international forums, and called for maintaining the existing free global trade regime. Earlier too, despite differences, India and China have often stood together at the UN and other global forums for the rights of the developing world.
Ji Rong, the Chinese embassy spokesman in Delhi, in an unusual move, issued a statement recently on this. The Chinese embassy seldom does that, confining itself mainly to routine statements. The foreign office spokesman in Beijing deals with most bilateral questions.
“Under the current circumstances, China and India need to deepen their cooperation to fight trade protectionism. As the two largest developing countries and major emerging markets, China and India are both in the vital stage of deepening reform and developing economy, and both need stable external environment. Practicing unilateral trade protectionism in the name of “national security” and “fair trade” will not only affect China’s economic development, but also undermine the external environment of India and hinder India’s booming economy. China and India share common interests in defending the multilateral trading system and free trade.’’
All that the statement highlighted is correct. As developing countries, both will be affected and need to buttress themselves from the headwinds. But is India ready to play ball with China? Can Delhi seriously consider China’s offer and trust President Xi? There is a trust deficit in India-China ties.
More so because China has always been regarded as the all weather friend of arch rival Pakistan. Beijing has batted for Pakistan on many important issues. In recent years it has ensured that the UN Security Council, does not slap sanctions on Jaish e Mohammed chief Masood Azhar despite repeated requests from Delhi. India has refused to join China’s ambitious Belt an Road Initiative, mainly because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through PoK. Delhi claims that it belongs to India.
Moreover, the Indian establishment carries a bitter historical baggae about the “Chinese aggression”. The humiliating defeat of the Indian army in the 1962 border conflict is an institutional memory. The unprepared Indian army had to withdraw from Arunachal as the PLA marched in with their tanks. The Chinese troops were on the frontiers of Assam, when they inexplicably withdrew. Taking the cue from the government of the day, the short border war, Indians regarded China as the aggressor. The lingering doubt about China cannot be easily removed, more so because border intrusions by China continues on and off and a sudden flare-up cannot be ruled out.
China has been watching with concern India’s growing proximity to the US. Washington’s attempts to help India modernise its defence and give a leg up to Indian industry, is seen as America’s way of balancing China’s growing political and military clout. So making friends with India makes sense to China at the moment.
India will have to take a call, too. While it is perfectly happy to tango with China against the US on trade, and fight for a better deal for developing nations, Delhi will not let it be at the cost of ties with the US. The US can provide India with the cutting edge technology it has long wanted. America can open many doors for India, including to an expanded UNSC.
Though the unpredictable and temperamental Donald Trump is always a concern, India is unlikey to allay itself with China against the US. That level of trust has so far not been forged between India and China.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.