Ris­ing ten­sions be­tween Trump’s Amer­ica and Xi’s China present op­por­tu­ni­ties and risks for In­dia


INthe weeks lead­ing up to Don­ald Trump’s Jan­uary 20 in­au­gu­ra­tion, the dif­fer­ent de­part­ments of China’s gov­ern­ment be­gan a unique stock­tak­ing ex­er­cise. Each was asked to as­sess the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies—such as Trump’s threat to be “tough on China”—and to come up with coun­ter­mea­sures. For in­stance, if Trump went ahead with his cam­paign prom­ise to im­pose a 45 per cent tar­iff on Chi­nese im­ports, how could Bei­jing re­spond?

The gov­ern­ment fi­nally con­cluded that the en­tire ex­er­cise was point­less given Trump’s fre­quently chang­ing pro­nounce­ments, which of­ten ended up con­tra­dict­ing one an­other. “The only cer­tainty now is un­cer­tainty,” said Gao Zhikai, a lead­ing for­eign pol­icy ex­pert in Bei­jing who was once the in­ter­preter to for­mer leader Deng Xiaop­ing. That was un­der­lined in the first two weeks of the Trump pres­i­dency. If “hop­ing for the best, pre­par­ing for the worst” was the mantra Bei­jing fol­lowed till Jan­uary 20, the fo­cus now shifted to prepa­ra­tion, not hope.

On Fe­bru­ary 10, Trump fi­nally spoke with China’s pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping, but only af­ter hav­ing done so with more than a dozen other world lead­ers, in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. This was a striking re­flec­tion of the strained Sino-Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ship. And, be­sides al­ready be­ing dis­pleased with Trump’s tough talk on trade, cru­cial to his ‘Make Amer­ica Great Again’ agenda, Bei­jing was in­censed with Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion cosy­ing up to Tai­wan. By speak­ing in his of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity as Pres­i­dent of Amer­ica to Tai­wan’s pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen, Trump be­came the first US pres­i­dent to do so since the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of Sino-Amer­i­can ties in 1979, when the US recog­nised China’s ‘One China’ pol­icy.

Xi was ap­par­ently re­luc­tant to speak with Trump af­ter he had threat­ened to re­view the ‘One China pol­icy’ and use it as a bar­gain­ing chip in trade ne­go­ti­a­tions. The clear mes­sage from China was there would be no call un­less Trump pub­licly en­dorsed the ‘One China pol­icy’. So, just weeks af­ter threat­en­ing to over­haul it, Trump was forced to do a U-turn. He “agreed at the re­quest of Pres­i­dent Xi to hon­our the ‘One China pol­icy’”, the White House said in a read­out of the call, with Trump re­al­is­ing that “the art of the deal” in diplo­macy was per­haps a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than in real es­tate.

Un­charted Wa­ters

These events have only un­der­scored the un­cer­tainty that sur­rounds re­la­tions be­tween the world’s two big­gest pow­ers. Trump, both as can­di­date and as pres­i­dent-elect, has pledged a much tougher ap­proach to China, on both trade and se­cu­rity is­sues. His first week in of­fice, which saw him is­su­ing ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to ful­fill cam­paign prom­ises—such as with­draw­ing from the 12-na­tion Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP) trade deal and im­pos­ing a travel ban on seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries—has only deep­ened per­cep­tions in China that fiery cam­paign rhetoric could well be­come pol­icy in the Trump White House. Seven days into the Trump pres­i­dency, the PLA

Daily went so far as to say that the like­li­hood of war had be­come more “real”, as the US in­di­cated it would mount a more ro­bust re­sponse to cur­tail Chi­nese ac­tiv­i­ties in the South China Sea. “A ‘war within the pres­i­dent’s term’ or ‘war break­ing out tonight’ are not just slo­gans, they are be­com­ing a prac­ti­cal re­al­ity,” warned the com­men­tary, au­thored by an of­fi­cial of the PLA’s de­fence mo­bil­i­sa­tion depart­ment.

Many in Bei­jing, like Gao, were alarmed when Henry Kissinger, the US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Advisor un­der Richard Nixon who is widely re­spected in China for his role in the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of ties, de­clared he had told Trump “war is not an op­tion”. “For him to say that,” Gao notes, “some­one must have asked him first if it in­deed was an op­tion to con­sider!”

Huang Jing, a lead­ing ex­pert on Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, says China’s “most ra­tio­nal choice for now is to wait and see”. He echoes the sen­ti­ment in Bei­jing that de­scribes Trump as “very im­ma­ture on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs”, and ex­presses the hope that “no mat­ter how un­pre­dictable” he would not be able to over­turn “in­ter­na­tional sys­tems and in­sti­tu­tions es­tab­lished for decades”.

Few peo­ple in Bei­jing or Wash­ing­ton ex­pect re­la­tions be­tween the world’s two big­gest economies to de­scend into con­flict. But just the fact that they are even con­tem­plat­ing such an out­come un­der­lines

the deep un­cer­tainty into which Trump has plunged the re­la­tion­ship. Of­fi­cials and an­a­lysts in Bei­jing ex­pect greater ten­sions in ties and a more ro­bust US se­cu­rity pol­icy to­ward Asia, even if Trump’s Amer­ica with­draws eco­nom­i­cally from re­gional trad­ing agree­ments.

These changes are cer­tain to have sig­nif­i­cant ram­i­fi­ca­tions for In­dia’s se­cu­rity and eco­nomic in­ter­ests in the re­gion. Over the past decade, Bei­jing has seen its mil­i­tary and eco­nomic dom­i­nance in Asia ex­pand rapidly. It has emerged as the big­gest trad­ing part­ner for most coun­tries in the re­gion, and built a blue wa­ter navy strong enough to change the sta­tus quo in the South China Sea. A wor­ried In­dia has be­gun to more vo­cally ex­press its con­cerns on an is­sue it ear­lier pre­ferred to avoid.

A New Amer­i­can Pos­ture

Bei­jing has, in the past few years, built seven ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands and set up mil­i­tary in­fra­struc­ture in the Spratly Is­lands that could en­able it to po­lice nav­i­ga­tion across the South China Sea. The US, un­der Barack Obama, be­lat­edly pushed a “pivot” to Asia to counter China, which ul­ti­mately failed to back in­tent with ac­tions, with once in­dis­pens­able al­lies such as the Philip­pines now, re­mark­ably, seek­ing China’s em­brace.

When China, in De­cem­ber, seized an Amer­i­can un­manned un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cle in wa­ters off the Philip­pines, Trump slammed the move as “un­prece­dented”; for­eign pol­icy ad­vi­sors close to him have been scathing at the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ure to de­ter Chi­nese ac­tiv­i­ties. Peter Navarro, a Trump advisor now ap­pointed to head his Na­tional Trade Coun­cil—whose book

Death by China leaves lit­tle doubt about his views— in an ar­ti­cle for For­eign Pol­icy sug­gested that Trump would fo­cus on re­build­ing the navy and deep­en­ing ties with coun­tries such as Ja­pan, South Korea, In­dia and those who “view Bei­jing as a bully that must be bal­anced against”. Trump’s ap­pointee as Sec­re­tary of State, Rex Tiller­son, told a con­gres­sional com­mit­tee that the US would “send China a clear sig­nal” that is­land-build­ing had to stop and that its “ac­cess to those is­lands is not go­ing to be al­lowed”. Some in­ter­preted his state­ment to sug­gest the US may even con­sider a block­ade against China to deny ac­cess to the seven is­lands. Jeff Smith, direc­tor of Asian Se­cu­rity Pro­grams at the Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy Coun­cil, notes that few ex­perts have ad­vo­cated such a strat­egy and given that the re­marks were de­liv­ered sev­eral hours into the hear­ing in re­sponse to a ques­tion, “it is safe to as­sume Sec­re­tary Tiller­son mis­spoke or was mis­in­ter­preted”. A later clar­i­fi­ca­tion from the press sec­re­tary ap­peared “to sug­gest the ad­min­is­tra­tion would act to pre­vent China from seiz­ing ad­di­tional un­oc­cu­pied rocks and un­der­wa­ter shoals”. “While far less am­bi­tious than a pol­icy of ‘blockad­ing’ China,” Smith notes, “even this would sig­nal a bold new pos­ture from the United States.”

In­dia’s Op­tions

Ex­pand­ing mar­itime se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion with In­dia is “en­tirely con­gru­ent” with the poli­cies Trump and his ad­vi­sors have es­poused, adds Smith, not­ing that in the past, the great­est re­sis­tance had come from Delhi, not Wash­ing­ton. The head of the US Pa­cific Com­mand, Ad­mi­ral Harry Har­ris, said in Delhi in Jan­uary that the US wanted In­dia to sign two other agree­ments fol­low­ing Oc­to­ber’s land­mark Lo­gis­tics Ex­change Mem­o­ran­dum of Agree­ment (LEMOA) that pro­vides mu­tual ac­cess to bases. These in­volve com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­ter­op­er­abil­ity, which Har­ris said was cur­rently a big ob­sta­cle in deep­en­ing mar­itime co­op­er­a­tion, and on geo-spa­tial map­ping.

Bei­jing is war­ily watch­ing this grow­ing close­ness. “If China or In­dia want to sign up on the band­wagon of Trump against the other coun­try,” says Gao, “it will be a lose-lose catastrophe for all three coun­tries. Can you imag­ine the two largest economies in the world, and the two largest pop­u­la­tions in the world, en­gag­ing with each other for con­flict?”

Con­trast­ing this ro­bust se­cu­rity ap­proach, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sig­nalled its in­tent to with­draw from the re­gion’s trad­ing deals, in­clud­ing the TPP, seen by many coun­tries in the re­gion as a coun­ter­weight to China’s grow­ing eco­nomic dom­i­nance. Chi­nese ex­perts see this as a boon to Bei­jing, which is likely to now push with greater ur­gency the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (RCEP) that in­cludes In­dia.

Arvind Vir­mani, chair­man, Pol­icy Foun­da­tion and for­merly chief eco­nomic advisor and rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the IMF, ex­pects RCEP ne­go­ti­a­tions to be sped up, but says “the key is­sue is how to deal with a non-mar­ket econ­omy like China”. In­dia, he adds, should use this mo­ment to ac­cel­er­ate its own trad­ing ar­range­ments, such as BIMSTEC (in­volv­ing Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myan­mar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thai­land) and IORA (In­dian Ocean Rim As­so­ci­a­tion). For In­dia, nav­i­gat­ing this new re­gional land­scape means bal­anc­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by a deeper Amer­i­can se­cu­rity em­brace with its al­ready sen­si­tive re­la­tions and grow­ing trade ties with China. As Trump builds his China wall, un­cer­tainty seems the only cer­tainty.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.