China’s trade with the ASEAN nations, compared with India’s $60 billion
is already at work on a bullet train from Kunming that connects Bangkok and Singapore.) Perhaps the biggest shift in the Modi government’s approach is its realistic appraisal of the limitations of acting alone in ‘Acting East’. Delhi no longer appears shy— and less mindful of China’s sensitivities—in leaning over towards Tokyo and Washington in its engagement with the region.
This appears logical. When ASEAN’s linkages with Japan and the US are considered, the region looks far less dependent on China. The region’s total trade with India, Japan ($239 billion) and the US ($212 billion) combined is one-and-a-half times its commerce with China. The Donald Trump administration, for its part, has more prominently emphasised India as a vital partner in the region, describing its Asia policy as emphasising “a free and open Indo-Pacific region”, a broader conception than Barack Obama’s ‘Asia pivot’. In Manila, the three countries and Australia will hold their first meeting since 2007, when the ‘quadrilateral’ dialogue was short-lived in the face of strong Chinese opposition. The jury is out on whether this closeness will translate into demonstrable action in security cooperation or in providing an economic alternative to China.
This shift is being closely watched in Beijing. Xi Jinping’s first term saw Beijing have a free run. It successfully bolstered its military presence in the South China Sea with ‘island building’ activities, and thwarted a unified ASEAN response with nimble diplomacy. It has turned around ties with the Philippines and healed a rift with Vietnam, all the while keeping its wallet open. Trump, meanwhile, withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal—the biggest effort yet to counter China’s economic dominance—with one of his first acts in office.
Many in Beijing believe Trump will be an unreliable partner for India. “I see nothing coming from Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” says leading strategist Shen Dingli. “The Indo-Pacific has always been free and open. Oceans can’t be divided. China is an Indian Ocean player, and the Indian Ocean doesn’t belong to anyone—to China, India or the US. Obama’s work will be undone by Trump, and all Trump is doing will be undone by his successor. By wasting American time, energy and resources, they are successfully bringing China to the top of the world.”