Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 02, 2017
Both the US and India are on the same side of the fence when dealing with China.
India-China relations and Trump

2016 has not been a good year for India-China relations. Seething frustration and simmering anger against China has been evident in India in recent months. Bilateral ties have deteriorated because the Indian establishment, media, civil society, academia and common people have found the Chinese leadership, party-controlled media, and think tank community to be dismissive of India's most fundamental concerns in the area of terrorism, territorial sovereignty and desire to play its due role in international affairs.

This is demonstrated by the "technical hold" that China first imposed on designating Maulana Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations and subsequently converted it into a veto. This inexplicably hostile action is compounded by China's strident opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The last straw on the camel’s back is the protection that China continues to provide to its "all-weather ally" Pakistan even after conclusive evidence of the string of terrorist attacks engineered by it against India, starting with the Pathankot air-base attack on 1 January 2016, culminating in the gruesome Uri attack on 18 September 2016. The fact that China has continued to shield Pakistan on the issue of terrorism notwithstanding the incontrovertible proof that is available against Masood Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba for attacks in Punjab and Kashmir has not only emboldened Pakistan to continue on this path with impunity, but has also severely eroded China's credibility in its fight against international terrorism and exposed its double standards on this vital issue.

India's reasoning with China on these critical matters in bilateral, regional and international appear to have fallen on deaf ears. At the bilateral summit during the first visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asserted that a "climate of mutual trust and confidence; respect for each other's sensitivities and concerns; and, peace and stability in our relations and along our borders are essential for us to realise the enormous potential in our relations."

India's reasoning with China on these critical matters in bilateral, regional and international fora appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

During his visit to Hangzhou, China, for the G20 Summit in September 2016, PM Modi in his meeting with President Xi said: "India and China must respect each other’s aspirations, concerns and strategic interests." He added — "The response to terrorism must not be driven by any political consideration" — and that countries sponsoring and supporting terror should be isolated and sanctioned and not rewarded.

It was being cautiously hoped that President Xi's visit to Goa for the BRICS summit in October 2016 would help to allay concerns, settle ruffled feathers and impart new dynamism to bilateral ties. These hopes have been belied. Xi resisted all references to cross-border terrorism or even indirectly pointing to Pakistan although PM Modi had described Pakistan as the "mothership of terrorism" in his plenary address. China's strident opposition notwithstanding India was able to register significant gains in the Goa declaration with the strongest ever language used to condemn terrorism, unequivocal support for finalising the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, and exhortation to all countries to ensure that their territories are not used for terrorist actions.

More recently, the declaration at the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan at Amritsar on 4 December 2016 proclaimed: "We remain concerned.. by the high level of violence caused by the Taliban, terrorist groups including ISIL/DAISH and its affiliates, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaida, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Jundullah and other foreign terrorist fighters. Acknowledging the support that terrorism derives in our region, we demand an immediate end to all forms of terrorism, as well as all support to it, including financing of terrorism.. we strongly call for.. dismantling of terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens in the Heart of Asia region, as well as disrupting all financial, tactical and logistical support for terrorism." This was the strongest indictment of Pakistan at any international gathering. The declaration was adopted in the presence of Chinese delegation.

It is not very likely that China will change its unwavering support for its "iron friend" with whom its relation is higher than the seas and deeper than the skies, or the other way around, or modify its position on India’s membership of NSG or UN Security Council in a hurry.

It is not very likely that China will change its unwavering support for its "iron friend."

Election of President Donald Trump and his inauguration on 20 January 2017 has introduced huge uncertainty in relations between US with most major powers of the world including Russia, China, Europe, Japan and to some extent India. While relations of US with Russia and India are expected to improve in the coming days, it would appear that relations with China are in for a huge setback. What is clear is that it is not going to be business as usual as far as US-China relations are concerned. The writing is on the wall for everyone to see.

During the election campaign, Trump had strongly castigated China as a currency manipulator, for stealing American jobs and being the reason for shutdown of American factories. It was hoped and expected that President Trump would be different from candidate Trump and that after the election, Trump would significantly moderate and temper his declarations. This did not happen.

In fact, soon after his election but before being sworn in, Trump took a congratulatory telephone call from the Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing-Wen, the first time since 1979 that any US President-elect or President had a direct interaction with Taiwan. To China's strong adverse reaction, Trump retorted that he was fully within his right to take a courtesy call from Taiwan which is a significant buyer of billions of dollars of defence equipment from the US. Moreover, he added, China does not seek US approval when it manipulates its currency or when it constructs islands in the South China Sea. This episode was quickly followed by Trump's interview to Fox News on 11 December 2016 where he questioned the salience and validity of the One China Policy which has been the edifice of US-China relation for the last forty years. On being reminded that this is the political foundation of bilateral ties, Trump sad: "I fully understand the One China Policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a One China Policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade." A few weeks after that, Trump made a comment in the Wall Street Journal in which he said: "Everything is under negotiation, including One China." China pushed back strongly against this comment saying that the One China Principle is non-negotiable.

The situation witnessed further deterioration when during his Senate confirmation hearings, Rex Tillerson, nominee for Secretary of State, said that US is opposed to China's construction of new islands and militarisation in the South China Sea and would block China's access to these islands. This was countered belligerently by the Chinese Communist Party sanctioned tabloid Global Times with the comment that "unless Washington plans to wage a large scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.. If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash."

The official response by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Tillerson and Trump's attacks was more muted than the fiery rhetoric in China's press.

The above developments do not bode well for US-China relations. It, however, needs to be noted that US-China ties in trade and economy are sturdy. Both countries are tied at the hip in bilateral trade in goods and services. While the bilateral trade turnover in 2015 was USD 659.4 billion (exports were USD 161.6 billion; imports were USD 497.8 billion). Trade deficit against US stood at USD 336.2 billion. In addition, China holds more than a trillion dollars of US government bonds. There is huge interdependence between the two economies. Both will suffer if the applecart is jolted, even if not upset. It is however generally felt that China has more to lose in the economic arena if relations between the two countries deteriorate.

Trump has moved out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. He has also not spoken on the pivot to Asia that was launched by Obama. Both of these were major initiatives by Obama designed to curtail China's geostrategic ambitions.

The future, however, is uncertain and unpredictable. It is not clear what concrete actions Trump will take to contain the growing influence of China in economic, political, military and strategic terms. It is, however, obvious that both the US and India are on the same page when dealing with China. Increased pressure by the US on China would hence have beneficial consequences for India as it would reduce the space available to China to assert itself and dominate the region and beyond. While collaborating with the USA, India will need to ensure that it continues to retain its strategic autonomy which would inter alia include improving relations with China in non-contentious areas.

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Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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