G Parthasarathy

A reset in ties with China on the cards

G Parthasarathy | Updated on March 02, 2020 Published on March 02, 2020

Same page: India’s status as a strategic partner to the US has been reaffirmed   -  THE HINDU

Backed by the Trump administration, India can now openly resist China’s attempts to undermine it in the Indian Ocean region

US President Donald Trump’s visit to India was, amongst other reasons, to give himself a political boost at home. He was preparing to commence his re-election campaign with a successful visit to India — the world’s most populous and diverse democracy. The visit was, in fact, to be showcased in his address to a massive and cheering crowd in Ahmedabad in the largest cricket stadium in the world.

Things, however, did not quite work out the way Trump wanted, as communal tensions were getting out of hand and increasingly violent in Dehi just when he was arriving. He was pilloried on his return to Washington as being insensitive to democratic freedoms and not speaking out against alleged violations against freedom of minorities in India. But Trump did not budge from justifying his visit. He recalled assurances that he received from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had stated that he was personally committed to respecting the religious freedoms of all citizens in his country.

Global trade winds

While India and the US are on the same page for a number of international and bilateral issues, economic relations between the two countries have been embittered recently on issues in bilateral trade. While the world led by the US had been celebrating and advocating economic liberalisation, over the past two decades, US public opinion has turned its tide.

During this period, cheap imports, especially from China, increasingly drove American-made products out of the market. The Chinese, meanwhile, made full use of the American naiveté by holding out inducements to American high-tech companies to set up manufacturing units in China. These industries were duly replicated and even improved upon, by the Chinese. The Americans in turn chose to ignore the dangers posed by China’s ingress, till Trump drew attention to the country being ‘ripped off’ by trade arrangements, which not only damaged employment opportunities but also endangered national security.

Trump’s views resonated amongst the middle-class Whites in the US, who felt cheated by the entire process of excessive liberalisation and consequent unemployment. But he did not confine himself to just modifying trade practices with China. He turned against virtually all countries that mattered, including the neighbouring Canada and Mexico, his European allies and large countries like India, which had a trade surplus with the US.

In fact, taking offence at India’s relatively small trade surplus of $24.3 billion in 2016, Trump included it in a large list of countries on which he applied enhanced tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium. He also withdrew tariff reductions for Indian goods, which India was entitled to as a developing country. India responded by enhancing tariffs on a range of American agricultural products.

There are, however, indications that Trump will act soon to roll back some of the measures he has taken against India’s exports, following his discussions in New Delhi. In the case of China, which has a massive trade surplus of $345 billion with the US, it was confronted by massive trade sanctions, which soon compelled the country to agree to import a vast range of US products.

Negotiations have, meanwhile, reached an advanced stage for the construction of six nuclear reactors by Westinghouse (of the US), in Andhra Pradesh, after the company was backed strongly by the Trump administration to enable it to undertake this project. These reactors will supplement the nuclear power reactors installed in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, by Russia.

While former President George Bush worked to end global nuclear sanctions against India, imposed after its 1998 nuclear tests, no US company was in a position to supply India the type of nuclear power reactors it needed for over a decade. Moreover, following talks that President Trump held with Indian industrialists in New Delhi, JSW Steel has agreed to invest an additional $500 million for upgrading a newly-acquired steel plant in the US state of Ohio.

Standing up to China

India has fought shy of making common cause with others to deal with China’s actions, which seriously compromise its national security. The most serious of these transgressions include the supply of the know-how, designs and material for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes. In more recent years, China has sought dominance over the entire Indian Ocean region. Beijing has backed governments and political organisations in countries ranging from the Maldives and Sri Lanka to Nepal and Myanmar, which support it in undermining Indian influence.

Worse still, China has in recent months deliberately sought to internationalise the Kashmir issue in organisations like the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Commission.

This policy of virtual Indian subservience in the face of Chinese provocations has now been put aside in a document issued by Trump and Modi entitled Vision and Principles for the United States-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. The document reaffirms India’s status as a “Major Strategic Partner” of the US. It pledges US support to “the transfer to India of advanced US military technology”. It dwells at length on expanding the US-India cooperation in renewable energy projects.

Geopolitically, it refers to a “close partnership between the United States and India” for the development of a “free, open, peaceful and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region”. Consultations are to be enhanced within the “Indo-Pacific Region, through trilateral Summit meetings (among) United States, India, Japan, meetings between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of India and the United States, and Quadrilateral consultations between the United States, India, Australia-Japan, known as the “Quad”.

India has sought to build bridges of cooperation with China for over three decades now. What India got in return was continuing Chinese hostility and Chinese determination to undermine its influence across the Indian Ocean Region. China will now face an India, more determined to pay it back in its own coin, by joining others who are also facing such pressures from the former.

India will now be more open to joining others to oppose China’s violation of the maritime boundaries of virtually all its neighbours, ranging from Japan and South Korea to Vietnam and Indonesia. China should, however, be assured that India remains committed to peace and tranquility along its borders, while working for an early settlement of differences on the border issue in accordance with the principles enunciated by the Prime Ministers of the two countries, in 2005.

While Trump is relatively forthcoming about improving his country’s relations with Moscow, his views are not shared by most of his opponents, or even by his supporters. It is important that even as India firms up its new approach to China, it reaches out to Russia to further strengthen bilateral ties and cooperation.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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Published on March 02, 2020
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