U.S.-India relations: The China Factor

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Rapidly deteriorating relations with China bode well for United States and India

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the USIBC video conference on India Ideas. Photo: Twitter

United States and India could well be closer than they have ever been to forming a stronger alliance to waylay China’s regional and global ambitions. In fact, China could be the lynchpin for bringing about the deeper bilateral confidence needed in Washington and New Delhi, to make it a reality.

To recount just a few of the more recent events in the unfolding downward spiral of bilateral relations with Beijing — President Trump blaming China outright for the global pandemic, accusing Beijing of allegedly spying through numerous means, the 5 G Huawei dominance including the house arrest of the company’s top official in Canada, and the latest order to close the PRC’s Houston consulate, with possible quid pro quos in the offing from China; India’s latest clash on the Himalayan border, the seeming bilateral dialogue, followed by Beijing’s partial withdrawal but continued militarization; India banning 59 Chinese apps – and quid pro quos to follow in coming weeks.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressing the July 22, 2020, videoconference on India hosted by USIBC. (Photo: videograb from YouTube)

At an online conference hosted by the U.S. – India Business Council, July 22, 2020, China was the latent variable underlying Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks about democracies, open markets, etc. Not so for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who let fly a barrage of criticism against Beijing and advised India to cut ties with the Asian economic giant.

The messages appear in sync though they come from different reference points with China as the lynchpin bringing them together. Beijing may yet be the key to building a sustainable more equal bilateral relationship between the United States and India, seeing as how the “Middle Kingdom” is seen by both countries as hegemonic, particularly in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, spreading its tentacles through aid and other means across the Silk Road and in Africa, and most importantly, dominating the telecommunications sector, to be at Washington and New Delhi’s doorsteps.

Despite the rhetoric emanating from U.S. and India (which was repeated one may say during the USIBC conference) about ‘natural’ partners, growing defense ties and burgeoning trade, it has been a mixed bag for both with constant irritants and obstacles popping up from complaints of slow liberalization to visa, immigration, and trade restrictions.

Rick Rossow, Wadhwani Chair for U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.

“It’s always been a bit difficult to match up India and the United States to fire out of the same cylinders,” says Rick M. Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in U.S. India Policy Studies at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

American motives to build a stronger strategic relationship with India going back to the President George W. Bush administration were certainly framed–quietly–as a hedge against potential threats from China in the region, Rossow contended.

Now a combination of circumstances has both clarified Washington’s anti-China view – emanating both from President Trump and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. Putting aside his words, “Trump’s actions against China have been pretty consistent,” and all in all, “It gives India more comfort,” Rossow said.

After nearly 2 decades of hard work, the U.S. and India trust each other more deeply, he said. “And both nations are openly sharing concerns about China’s aggressive, expansionist approach to its Asian partners. So the opportunity to pursue deeper strategic ties is upon us,” Rossow said.

 At The Summit

The annual India Ideas Summit brought together some high profile movers and shakers apart from Pompeo and Modi. The included India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, Ambassador of India to the United States Taranjit Singh Sandhu, U.S. Ambassador to India Ken Juster, U.S. Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia; Representative Ami Bera, D-California; U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donohue. Lockheed Martin Corporation CEO James Taiclet, Tata Group Chairman N. Chandrasekaran, ATC CEO Tom Bartlett and more.

The theme of the summit was ‘Building a Better Future’ one which as the COVID-19 experience had shown, should give equal importance to efficiency and optimization of the past to resilience against external shocks by building stronger domestic economic capacities, Modi said in his address to the USIBC online gathering.

“India is contributing towards a prosperous and resilient world through the clarion call of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. And, for that, we await your partnership!” Modi said, claiming India presented a “perfect combination of openness, opportunities and options ” for interested foreign investors, coming out clearly on the side American principles of a capitalist economy.

“India celebrates openness in people and in governance. Open minds make open markets. Open markets lead to greater prosperity. These are principles on which both India and the USA agree,” Modi declared.

This rhetoric, said Rossow, has been repeated on India’s side, “But India’s actions haven’t always followed lofty statements about open markets,

“Prime Minister Modi’s speech to USIBC hit the correct tones. But the hard work lies ahead- key domestic reforms, encouraging trade flows, and pressing India’s states to improve their business environments,” Rossow said.

Physician, businessman, and philanthropist
Dr. Sudhir Parikh, recipient of India’s Padma Shri award, and founder of Parikh Foundation for India’s
Global Development. (Photo: Twitter)

Dr. Sudhir Parikh, founder and chairman of the New Jersey-based think tank, Parikh Foundation for India’s Global Development, believes China’s intransigence and aggressive behavior toward both democracies, is a window of opportunity to ratchet up the U.S.-India relationship.

“The Indian-American community is committed to seeing a steady and strong national security and trade relationship between our two countries. After decades of working on it, we see a moment when it can be made more stable and more like European alliances forged by the United States, or closer to the kind it has with South Korea or Japan.”

Unbridled Critique

Pompeo did not mince his words or parse his language when he drew attention to the Himalayan border conflict placing the blame squarely on China, saying, “The recent clashes initiated by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) are latest examples of the CCP’s (Chinese Commuunist Party) unacceptable behavior,”

“It’s important for democracies like ours to work together especially as we see more clearly than ever the true scope of the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said, adding, “Our infrastructure projects, our supply chains, our sovereignty and our people’s health and safety are all at risk if we get it wrong.”

“But with our concerted efforts, we can protect our interests,” Pompeo said. “I especially commend India’s decision to ban 59 Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok, that present serious security risks for the Indian people,” he contended.

“India has a chance to … take away global supply chains from China and reduce its reliance on Chinese companies in areas like telecommunication and medical supplies, and others,” Pompeo  said. The United States wants to work with India on the blue-dot network, an initiative to provide high quality, transparent infrastructure development, Secretary Pompeo said, adding that the private sector was indispensable in overcoming the economic damage suffered because of the pandemic.

To achieve all the goals, Pompeo said, “India will need to encourage an environment that is more open to increased trade and investment.” Modi touted that huge market in his USIBC speech. “During the last six years, we have made many efforts to make our economy more open and reform oriented. Reforms have ensured increased ‘Competitiveness’, enhanced ‘Transparency’, expanded ‘Digitization’, greater ‘Innovation’ and more ‘Policy stability’,” Modi said in his address. He spoke about India as the “land of opportunities” and the dramatic expansion about to take place in the tech sector through frontline technologies like 5G, Big data analytics, Quantum computing, Block-chain and Internet of things.

In line with Rossow’s observations about the Prime Minister’s emphasis on investment rather than exports, Modi said the “options to invest in India are extensive,” be they in agriculture, healthcare, energy, infrastructure, civil aviation, defense and space, finance and insurance.

Investment is the best show of confidence, Modi said. he went further to say India offers many more opportunities. “We have what is needed to power the global economic recovery,” from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

For that vision of great investments and great returns, Modi said, there are “few better partners than the United States of America.”

Geopolitics

South Asia expert Walter Andersen, former
State Department official, on the faculty of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. (Photo: sais.jhu.edu)

In South Asia expert Walter Andersen’s view, Beijing may be abandoning long held foreign policy principles, such as maintaining a stable security environment through a generally cautious approach to foreign policy problems, and entering a new phase by pushing for hegemony in East Asia, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. In the Galwan imbroglio, he contends it was the classic Chinese “Two steps forward, one step back,” diplomacy, represented in its halting the disengagement pledged by both sides in the recent China-India Corps Commanders meeting. The difference now being that India is no longer willing to accept that, and public opinion in India against China has taken the hue that exists in parts of the Western world.

Andersen has taught several summers in Chinese universities, and is also a former State Department’s South Asia Bureau official as well as on the faculty of  the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

India’s option now strongly lay in using its clout as a huge consumer market and its potentially close alliance with the U.S., to push back against China, Andersen said. Yet, he added, ” The two sides however have stopped short of a defense alliance to maintain strategic ambiguity that works to India’s advantage in its relations with China.”

Despite talk of The Quad, military exercises etc., Andersen notes, “neither India nor the U.S. has called for the kind of close security alliance that exists between the US and Japan.” That, if anything, is a good thing, Andersen believes, because, “This preserves room for maneuver for India to get even closer to the US should the threat from China grow,” Andersen told News India Times. And the very existence of this potential alliance may be what led Beijing to the negotiating table in Ladhak.

“At the present, China is the lynch pin for nudging the two democracies closer together—and President Xi’s strategic goal of hegemony makes it likely that Indo-US security ties will be even closer in the future, whoever wins the next US presidential election,” Andersen predicted.

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