There is no mistaking the fact that today India figures in the US scheme of things as a potential bulwark against China which can be built up as a counterpoise in Asia to the deadly dragon. The build-up started during the Barack Obama regime and it is being furthered during the Donald Trump era, much though the US President differs radically from his predecessor in many other things.
How long the bonhomie between Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will endure is anybody’s guess but for now the wariness against Chinese designs is driving the two into each other’s embrace. There is indeed a new convergence of interests which is driving the relationship.
Trump and his administration recognize that China needs to be contained or else it would become unstoppable. That it has extra-territorial ambitions and is building up its navy with the intent of controlling sea-lanes is widely feared. India, which is at arm’s length from China cannot agree more with the US for its own strategic considerations.
Yet, when it comes to terror emanating from Pakistan where American interests are not impinged upon, the US pays mere lip service to the closure of terror training camps and the infiltration of terrorists into Kashmir. All talk of Indo-US friendship is hogwash. It is pure and simple cold calculations on self-interest which guide the US.
The two countries cannot but be alarmed at the roadmap laid out by Chinese President Xi Jinping in a marathon address to the 19th Communist Party Congress recently. Xi made no bones about China evolving into a global power by 2050. This, when seen in the context of China claiming ownership over the entire South China Sea which affects the sovereignty of much of Southeast Asia, projects a grim picture of Chinese hegemonistic designs. Lest anyone miss the point, Xi noted at the party congress: “A military is built to fight”.
On top of other Chinese moves that spell aggressiveness there’s the Chinese plan to build a road giving access to the Indian Ocean for China through Pakistan’s territory that once belonged to India and of accessing other countries under the One Belt One Road initiative.
Amid apprehensions that the Chinese are seeking to block or regulate access for trade to countries like India and to strike hard at US influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the US-India tie-up is supplemented by the to-be-revived quadrilateral of US, Japan, India and Australia guiding strategic interests.
That the first step towards the revival of the quadrilateral (which was first put into shape by Japan in 2007 as a regional grouping but disbanded as Australia pulled out under Kevin Rudd) was taken in Manila last week with officials of the four countries holding a preparatory meeting, is happy augury.
But each of the four countries has stakes in keeping up ties with China for trade reasons which they will find difficult to shake off.
President Trump had two principal issues with China — reducing America’s massive trade deficit and countering the North Korean nuclear threat. While there has been some softening of North Korea’s rhetoric against the US, the trade issue made no real headway on Trump’s Beijing visit. Containing Chinese attempts at establishing hegemony is not central to US efforts though it is a part of the whole geo-political game.
The Chinese were wily enough to lay out the red carpet for Trump which seemed to work. Trump was more conciliatory and less aggressive in his fulminations while on his five-nation trip.
While Trump was circumspect on his Beijing visit, he left it to Secretary of State Tillerson to underscore China’s actions in the South China Sea as a direct challenge to “the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for,” suggesting provocatively that the United States will “never have the same relationship with China, a non-democratic society, that we can have with India.”
Tillerson said while the US “seeks constructive relations with China”, Washington “won’t shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order or where China subverts the sovereignty of neighbouring countries and disadvantages the US and our friends”.
If that was a veiled threat to China on some sort of adventurism in the South China Sea and in India’s Arunachal Pradesh, it was timely and well-thought-out.
The regional quadrilateral of which the US is the kingpin would ideally like to emerge as guarantors of free trade and defence cooperation across a stretch of ocean from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean to Africa.
The first lap of Trump’s five-nation tour was a mixed bag. The US’s $69 billion trade deficit last year with Japan was second only behind China, fuelled by American imports of cars and electronics. Earlier this year, the two nations created a separate economic dialogue to smooth out differences over currency and trade, particularly agricultural tariffs and American car sales in Japan.
The talks have yielded some success, but the sides remain far apart on other top trade issues. The US negotiators are keen to remove a safeguard mechanism on imports that has increased Japanese tariffs to 50 per cent from 38.5 per cent on the US frozen beef, resulting in a 26 per cent drop in imports in August compared with the previous year.
In Vietnam, Trump offered to mediate on the South China Sea dispute of Southeast Asian countries with China while in Manila it was the ASEAN summit all the way, besides the bilateral parleys in which the aspect of ‘containing China’ formed the fulcrum of discussions.
All in all, Trump’s five-nation tour was undramatic and it gave the US President a breather from the troubles on the home front.
The author is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.