U.S. is now more clear in support for India on China border issues, says researcher

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping. File Photo.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Amid heightened tensions on the India-China border, top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia Alice Wells on May 20 hit out at China, saying the tensions reminded the world of the “threat” posed by Beijing. China slammed the remarks as “nonsense”.

Jeff Smith, Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington and author of 'Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century', says her comments are significant with the U.S. in the past not always forthcoming about expressing support on the boundary issue. The U.S., he says, wants to ensure it is in a position to facilitate stronger security ties with countries in the region concerned about China’s rise.

At the same time, Washington has developed an understanding of India's complex relationship with China. The Trump administration, notwithstanding the rising U.S.-China rivalry, is unlikely to push India to assume positions on China that Delhi is uncomfortable with. Excerpts from an interview.

Have you been surprised by the latest tensions on the border? How unusual is it to have flare-ups at four different locations?

Yes, I found the flare-ups surprising. As you noted, China and India relations had been on a more stable footing since the Wuhan summit in 2018. I think there was recognition after the 2017 Doklam crisis that both sides wanted to move away from the brink, and away from a period of elevated tensions. While there was no resolution of their underlying disputes, there was some desire in both capitals to move the relationship back toward a more stable, cooperative framework. Over the last two years or so, they were mostly successful. And with China under some level of duress, both from actions initiated by the Trump administration, but also greater international scrutiny over the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not appear to be an opportune time for China to start making trouble on its land borders with India.

Before this month, the LAC (Line of Actual Control) appeared to be relatively quiet, though we now know that recorded Chinese incursions across the LAC surged in 2019 to over 600, the highest total I’ve ever seen. But yes, the events of this month did come as a surprise to me.

Alice Wells, the outgoing top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia, said on May 20 that the border incidents served a reminder that it wasn’t just about China's rhetoric, and the border reflected a pattern of behaviour we also see in the South China Sea. Do you think both are linked in some way?

Ambassador Wells made a series of fairly robust assertions in her remarks, including underscoring U.S. recognition of the McMahon Line and Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh. These are in fact long-standing positions of the U.S. government, but positions it has not always been forthcoming about. In 2012, I recall asking State Department officials, when was the last time the U.S. government reiterated support for the McMahon line and Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh? They replied they couldn’t find any comments on the matter in a search of archives stretching back to 2000.

I recall writing about this in September 2012, and in December 2012 then U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell publicly reiterated U.S. recognition of the McMahon Line. There have been a few more public comments on it since then but having Ambassador Wells reiterate the position during a time of crisis is noteworthy. I think you’re right to point out the linking of Chinese actions at the border with its challenges to the rules based order and its actions in the South China Sea was relatively new. I’m a little hesitant to draw connections among the different fronts, because I do think they have their own logic and China calibrates each policy individually. But I think her broader point which does hold true is that in an era countries aren’t launching wars to seize territory any more, or using force to exact revenge for perceived historical grievances, there’s one country that’s been continuously disruptive on territorial questions, that’s continuously pushing the boundaries, using grey zone coercion tactics along multiple fronts and creating instability, whether it’s in the South China Sea or the LAC. In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether they’re linked. What matters is that China is generating friction with multiple neighbours with its assertive behaviour along territorial fault lines. And that’s just another reminder to the world that China's rise has really assumed a different trajectory since 2008.

Do you expect to see a different approach from the U.S. towards the region going forward as concerns about China continue to rise?

I think each country in China’s periphery is trying to strike a very delicate balancing act, trying to reap all the benefits of continued engagement with China while taking measures to protect their sovereignty and independence. For each country, it’s a different equation. A different mix of threat perceptions, different levels of economic engagement with China, different levels of Chinese influence over their domestic politics. There are also different levels of determination not to allow China a veto over their foreign policy. So we have seen some traditional internal and external balancing behaviour among China’s neighbours, weaker among ASEAN than we have seen among the Quad [the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia grouping]. I think the U.S. government wants to ensure that we’re in a position to facilitate stronger security ties with any of these countries that are interested. I think that, frankly, we've done a good job in the last few years with the Quad, with not only reviving it, but with upgrading it to the ministerial level and adding new aspects to the quad like counter-terrorism exercises. The Quad countries are also involved in some COVID-19 pandemic response coordination as well, with regular calls among officials from the Quad and those from South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand, though it’s not formally a Quad initiative.

Stepping back, there hasn’t been a wave of regional balancing activity the way some realist theorists might have predicted, in part because China has done a very effective job winning over elites in neighbouring capitals, and convincing them of the economic benefits of engagement with China. That’s true even in cases like the Philippines where you have a population and national security establishment incredibly wary of moving closer to China. But you have a group of elites that have been essentially captured. Being able to directly funnel financial incentives to political leaders and their patronage networks in autocracies and flawed democracies can take you a long way in some parts of the world. So we do see some rising concerns about Chinese behaviour and some movement toward the U.S., but within the context of this constant balancing act which, particularly in Southeast Asia, may leave some of these countries vulnerable.

One concern you hear in many countries asking as they navigate this balancing act is that with the Trump administration, is this a Washington they can count on?

Well, I think there's a very broad consensus among the national security community, both Republican and Democrat, that the Indo-Pacific is, in many ways, the most important theatre for U.S. foreign policy, and certainly the most important theatre of competition with China. When you review the Trump administration’s key national security and strategy documents, they paint a pretty clear picture that the U.S. priority is and will remain the Indo-Pacific. I understand why, at times, the President's rhetoric can create some doubts and uncertainty in the region. But when you look at the broader sweep of U.S. foreign policy, the machinery of the State, Congress, the military, the national security community, and many of the Trump administration's senior most officials and Cabinet officials, I think they’ve all been very clear and uniform in underscoring America's commitment to the Indo-Pacific, that it’s going to be enduring, that it’s going to grow, and that the U.S. isn’t going anywhere. I think that’s a very safe bet.

What do you think is driving the deepening security cooperation we are seeing between India and the U.S.? Is China one of the factors?

The amount of progress the Modi and Trump administrations have made over the last three years or so, in many cases outside of the headlines, is remarkable. If you just look at the revival and upgrading of the Quad, the establishment of a 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers dialogue, the signing of COMCASA [Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement], the likely signing of the BECA [Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement] this year, the stationing of Indian officer at CENTCOM [Central Command], our first tri-service military exercise. We had a joint sail through the South China Sea that was joined by Japan and the Philippines.

The Trump administration revised U.S. export control laws to put India in a privileged category with NATO and key non-NATO allies.

If I had a wish list of items to strengthen the U.S. India strategic partnership before the Trump administration, I'd say they've already accomplished 90% of them. And not always to great fanfare. But these are the building blocks of a 21st century strategic partnership that will endure beyond the Trump and Modi administrations. So I give both governments a lot of credit for making substantive progress even as they were navigating trade friction that that seemed to dominate the headlines.

Of course, the fact that they were unable to reach an even modest trade deal was newsworthy, and disappointing. But even as they struggled with trade negotiations there was progress being made on the defence side. I would say that is in part a credit to some veterans in the Trump administration like Ambassador Alice Wells, like Lisa Curtis at the National Security Council, as well as a new willingness in the Modi government to pursue alignment with the U.S. in ways that previous governments proved reluctant to do. I think the impetus to move closer to the U.S. has grown stronger. And some of the historical baggage and philosophical reservations that prevented previous Indian governments from taking some of these concrete steps, I think the Modi government has in some ways moved past those limitations. It has carved out more space to do cooperative things with the U.S. within a framework that still emphasises strategic autonomy.

While there are shared concerns about China, there have been divergences about how to deal with China. In the past, U.S. administrations have been sensitive to India’s own consideration vis-à-vis its relationship with China. Has that changed with the Trump administration? Is it pushing countries to choose?

I don't think that has changed. It’s been 15 years since the civil nuclear deal was announced. In that time I think Washington has developed an understanding of India's unique disposition, its sensitivities, and its complex relationship with China. The policy community in Washington isn’t under any illusions about what India will or won’t do vis-a-vis China. And if you look at the record, to my knowledge the Trump administration has not really pushed for India to assume any positions on China it is uncomfortable with. It’s certainly been encouraged when India has supported things like upgrading the Quad or engaging in a joint sail through the South China Sea.

Where there has been some friction it has been over sanctions related to Iran and Russia. On China, the Trump administration hasn’t made any attempt to force India to choose. In fact, it’s come closer to India’s position on things like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Belt and Road Initiative. It has been vocal with India about its concerns related to Huawei, but that’s been the case with all of America’s partners and India had its own concerns about Huawei that predate the discussion now under way in the U.S.

We are headed into an election year. Is the U.S. approach to China here to stay regardless of the outcome?

I believe so. I think you can trace this shift back to the end of the President Obama's second term. With the President and the centre-left national security establishment there was a sense that they had tried their best at engagement with China, and it was producing declining returns. Of course, this also paralleled a change in Chinese foreign policy, and came at a time China’s behaviour was growing substantially more assertive. That eventually catalysed a rethinking on both sides of the aisle about U.S. policy toward China. It prompted more scrutiny of the engagement strategy that guided policy for decades and more scepticism of its benefits and wisdom.

We're still fighting over the details, but it led to a general consensus that it will require a more competitive relationship with China to defend America's interests and those of its allies and partners. For a long time I think China was given a free pass with the promise of expected future benefits, including economic and political liberalisation. Those days are over.

I think that bipartisan consensus has not only held but sharpened over the past few years. There are certainly parts of the Democratic establishment that are uncomfortable with some of the things the Trump administration is doing with China. To be honest, many Republicans, including the Heritage Foundation, are uncomfortable with the tariffs and aspects of the trade war.

So it's very likely we see candidate Biden trying to create some space between himself and President Trump on China. We've already seen attack ads from both sides on the China question. But I think it's unlikely that a Biden administration would depart from the more competitive posture the U.S. has now assumed. Even where they have criticised President Trump the Biden team hasn’t complained that it's been too tough on China. Or that it was wrong to increase Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, or block Huawei from US 5G networks, or revive the Quad, or stake out a position in opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative, or crack down on Chinese espionage efforts in the U.S. These policies have support on both sides of the aisle. The Democratic grassroots has been complaining for years about China and its unfair trade, investment, and labour practices. Left wing human rights groups are rightly appalled at what's happened in Xinjiang and Tibet. So I struggle to envision a scenario in which a future Democratic or Republican administration swings back hard toward an engagement strategy that assumes China will become a more open country and more responsible stakeholder.

The competition is here to stay and is likely to intensify. The contours of that competition and points of emphasis might change under different administrations but there is clearly a change under way that I think will be lasting and will endure, regardless of who is in the White House.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 6:24:20 AM |

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