Analysis: Widening U.S.-China rift fuels Trump’s Modi outreach

The new U.S. approach to China is bipartisan and likely here to stay regardless of the outcome of November’s elections.

February 25, 2020 09:17 pm | Updated February 26, 2020 09:30 am IST

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive for a joint news conference in New Delhi on February 25, 2020.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive for a joint news conference in New Delhi on February 25, 2020.

A tectonic shift in America’s relations with China under Donald Trump’s presidency — one that Indian officials believe is here to stay and will outlast the current U.S. President — is providing a new impetus to defence, security, trade and technological cooperation between New Delhi and Washington in the region.

The U.S.-China trade and technology war is the clearest manifestation of the change, and the sense in Delhi is this widening rift is neither a Trump phenomenon nor transient. The new U.S. approach to China is bipartisan and likely here to stay regardless of the outcome of November’s elections. In fact, Trump is being seen as far from the most hawkish voice on China in Washington, given his well-known proclivity for wanting to “cut a deal”.

Shared concerns about China’s rise are not new , and have underpinned India’s relations with the United States going back to the 1950s. These concerns provided the backdrop for the landmark nuclear deal finalised during George W. Bush’s 2006 visit, as well as for the joint strategic vision unveiled during Barack Obama’s visit in 2015.

But “the dynamic has now changed in a fundamental way”, said former Indian Ambassador to China Ashok Kantha. In 2005, the U.S. and China were largely cooperative despite differences. Now, the U.S. is clearly looking at China as a strategic “competitor” and “revisionist power”, as a 2017 national security strategy put it.

This offered opportunities and challenges for India, which has carefully expanded ties with America while reluctant to upset China — a neighbour with which it shares an unresolved border. “Calibration becomes tougher as we are under greater pressure from both,” said Mr. Kantha. “My own view is the situation creates openings which we should take advantage of, rather than only think of balance.”

One such opening is the Quad Initiative with the U.S., Australia and Japan, which Mr. Trump said on Tuesday he and Prime Minister Modi were “revitalising” including through expanded cooperation on maritime security “to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

On Tuesday, both countries inked a $2.6-billion defence deal for 24 MH-60 Seahawk helicopters , another indicator of growing defence ties, which have seen a logistics exchange agreement in 2016 to provide mutual access to designated military facilities and a communications compatibility agreement i n 2018 to enable greater interoperability and sales of high-end technology.

“It’s no secret that Chinese submarines and warships have begun regular operations in the Indian Ocean over the past decade and this arguably provided some of the impetus behind greater joint efforts on maritime domain awareness, intelligence sharing, and naval exercises including the first-ever tri-service military exercise last December,” said Jeff Smith, South Asia scholar at the Heritage Foundation, stressing that “shared concerns about China are defensive in nature, rather than intended to produce an offensive, containment-style strategy”.

Mr. Kantha said India should do more with the Quad, starting with including Australia in the trilateral naval Exercise Malabar with the U.S. and Japan and working more closely in humanitarian and disaster relief and protecting sealines of communication. “Working on such initiatives does not mean we are looking to contain China and will in no way undermine India’s strategic autonomy,” he said, adding that India had no reason to be overly sensitive to China’s concerns, noting how China considered Indian sensitivities in its ties with Pakistan.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday highlighted regional connectivity and the Blue Dot Network pushed by the U.S., Australia and Japan to promote private sector-led, sustainable and ‘trustworthy’ options for infrastructure — a veiled criticism of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Mr. Modi said India agreed with the U.S. on the importance of sustainable and transparent financing in the development of connectivity infrastructure across the world.

Hurdles, however, remain. As a January 28 study by the Centre for New American Security in Washington put it, the U.S. effort in the region remained “inconsistent, uncoordinated and under-resourced”. Convergence may be growing, but walking the talk is still a challenge.

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