Author : Probal DasGupta

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 01, 2020
India, China and the US Factor: A Trump Card of Counterbalance

This article is part of the series America on the ballot


During the 2000 US election campaign, George Bush’s adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote that America needed to pay closer attention to India which was "an element in China’s calculation and should be in America’s too".

There is a backstory to this thinking. After the Soviet Union disappeared as a political entity, the early signals of an emerging power arrived during the Asian financial crisis in 1990s. As currencies and stock markets collapsed, the Chinese yuan held steady. China offered more than USD 4 billion in financial aid to the IMF, in contrast to a reluctant United States. In early 2000s, as China began to grow quickly, the US thought to hyphenate India with China. India – a democracy – held out promise to be a key counterbalance against communist China.

The last two decades have witnessed the rise of Asia’s most ambitious political, economic and military powers. India and China graduated from being countries with an unenviable history of two border conflicts in 1960s to argumentative nuclear powers that engage in sparring for surrogate supremacy in the neighbourhood without mounting direct military hostilities against each other.

Rise of Ambitions and Frictions

Under Xi Jinping, China has emerged as the most assertive and aggressive state the US has had to contend with, after the demise of Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese have pursued economic imperialism that threatens a US-led global economy. Besides, China has had frictions with numerous countries along territorial fault lines – whether in the South China Sea or along the border with India. China’s assertions against these countries – American partners such as Japan, India, Philippines – have challenged US hegemony.

"Under Xi Jinping, China has emerged as the most assertive and aggressive state the US has had to contend with, after the demise of Soviet Union."

Will the scourge of the coronavirus divide the world into two halves? Will the post-coronavirus period see a more active role of the US in relations between India and China – not only because it might view India as a counterbalance in the region, but also because it could sense this as an opportune time to scuttle the growing threat to American interests. And thus, America sees a greater relevance of India’s role in its future, than ever.

A glance at the previous India-China standoff in Doklam in 2017 tells us about America’s increased trust in India’s ability to deal with China. In recent years, India has shown an undisguised clarity in its approach on disputes with China by maintaining a firmness on ground alongside a calm diplomatic response, devoid of shrill rhetoric. While China’s efforts in coercive influence in maritime disputes have resulted in stalemates, India delivered a case study in Doklam on dealing with China – without substantial American involvement.

This decade also saw a sharp change in the trajectory of Sino-US ties. The Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia-Pacific” strategy failed to contain the rise of China and increased the latter’s mistrust of the US. The arrival of Donald Trump as US president coincided with increased friction between the two countries, especially on tariffs, trade and disputes. With China burning its numerous bridges, America’s belief in India’s expanded regional role has now become more unambiguous than ever. In three years, there has been a significant American tilt towards the Indian position. After Doklam in 2017, there has been progress – such as QUAD talks, signing of COMCASA, or the joint sail through the South China Sea that included India, Japan and the Philippines. The increased tactical embraces confirm that the occasional vacillation between the two has ebbed.

It is no secret that President Trump voices strong differences with India on several issues – whether tariffs, trade or Iran. However, on China, the US supports India on border disputes with China though it acknowledges India’s complex relationships on trade and borders. The recent LAC disputes will only help India choose friends more decisively. US Congressman Eliot L. Engel, who heads the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he was “extremely concerned” over the ongoing Chinese aggression along the LAC. “China is demonstrating once again that it is willing to bully its neighbours rather than resolve conflicts according to international law”.

The American Dream: Chasing Pivotal Position in the Region

China’s belligerence at the borders against India comes at a time when its global credibility has hit a low. Ironically, it coincides with America’s belief that India now has the ability and the desire to play the role of a more active ally in the region.

The hardening of the Chinese stance will have an important bearing on stances of both Democrats and Republicans vis-à-vis China and India, in the lead-up to the US election. Jeff Smith from The Heritage Foundation in Washington doesn’t foresee a scenario, “in which a future Democratic or Republican administration swings back hard toward an engagement strategy that assumes China will become a more open country and more responsible stakeholder.” Smith thinks a Biden administration wouldn’t depart from the competitive posture the U.S. has adopted towards China.

It is this altered environment, dominated by the COVID19 crisis, in which India will bank on US support to assume a leadership role. For instance, India and the US have differing views on the reforms in WHO – whereas India presses for hard reforms, Trump has exited the WHO. There are such areas that need to be ironed out, as Harsh Vardhan is about to step in as chairman of the board. It is possible that the US in exchange for support, will want India to play a more explicit counterbalance to China, in consonance with American interests in the region.

It is during these times of churn that messages can convey decisive meanings. Trump has expressed his desire to expand the G7 group of nations, to include India, Russia, Australia and South Korea. The move, meant to rankle China, has hit its mark. India finds itself in the middle of a complex game in Asia. With a growing set of issues around Hong Kong and its nationalistic resolve to regain Taiwan, China will not win many friends in the west. Interestingly, the timing of recent repression of protests in Hong Kong coincided with a climb down of China’s stance on LAC. Trump and Mike Pompeo’s offer of helping India sounded alarm bells in Beijing, introducing a new and hostile element into a predictable dispute.

"The move, meant to rankle China, has hit its mark. India finds itself in the middle of a complex game in Asia. With a growing set of issues around Hong Kong and its nationalistic resolve to regain Taiwan, China will not win many friends in the west."

For once, the coronavirus issue has left China unsure and rattled about its future. A prospective threat of increased American support to India could force China to leave room for negotiations with India on future positions. As the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, the American dream in the region will see it play a more active part alongside India. In 2000, Condoleezza Rice made an astute prediction, ‘India is not a great power yet but it has the potential to emerge as one.’ India is now in a position where it is likely to sup with the Americans while it spars and susses up the Dragon.

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