China’s aggressive action in Ladakh seems to have forced India’s hand.
India was normally reticent about ruffling China and always down-playing the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) incursions into Indian territory, (insisting there were mechanisms in place to sort them out) and not bringing in a third country into the equation.
However, on Tuesday (June 2), India acknowledged publicly that the stand-off in Ladakh was discussed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump during their telephone conversation on Tuesday.
In the past, New Delhi had never admitted to discussing its problems with the US with a third country fear of provoking Beijing. Either the government believes that the current crisis is more serious than it had previously acknowledged or it wants to send across the message that the international community is well aware of China’s transgressions.
Is India now ready to make the transition and acknowledge that it is now firmly in the US camp? Under Modi’s watch, India is getting closer each day to the US. Does the government now think that its growing alliance with the US will best serve India’s strategic interests?
Whatever the reason, the Modi government has broken its own past track record of working out its problems with China through quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. For the moment, the Trump administration’s escalating tension with China plays into India’s own irritation with China’s provocative action along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. The short-term self-interest of both the US and India are converging at the moment.
President Donald Trump’s call to Prime Minister Modi on Tuesday was ostensibly to invite him to a G-7 meet in the US around September. Trump wants to expand the G-7 to include India, Australia, South Korea, and Russia (expelled after the annexation of Crimea).
The 30-minute phone conversation between the two leaders also discussed China and the situation in Afghanistan where the US is hoping to work out a fragile peace agreement between the Ashraf Ghani government and the Taliban. However, for India, China is in focus at the moment.
Top Trump administration officials have been speaking out against China, as President Trump himself began ratcheting up the rhetoric against the Asian power. As Trump faces presidential polls in November, he is making bashing China a part of his election agenda.
The anti-China rhetoric had served him well in his last election campaign. His conservative support base hold China responsible for taking away their jobs, as US companies flocked to China where the cost of production is much lower. Trump’s biggest achievement in his first term was the economy which had performed admirably and brought down the unemployment numbers in the US.
But the pandemic has wiped off all of this and Trump is being criticised for mishandling the COVID crisis with his faulty messaging. So, China is now Trump’s beta noire and whether it is the pandemic, its aggressive intent in the South China Sea, the Hong Kong legislation or the intrusion into India, the administration is targeting China.
No Chinese carriers would be allowed to land in the US from June 15. Top White House officials are leading the charge.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this week, “The recent Chinese actions, be it on the India border or Hong Kong or the South China Sea, have been part of Chinese behaviour… We’ve seen… continued Chinese building of military capabilities, and then more aggressive action,’’ US defence secretary Mark Esper spoke to defence minister Rajnath Singh, pointing towards China.
“I am extremely concerned by the ongoing Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control on the India-China border. China is demonstrating once again that it is willing to bully its neighbours rather than resolve conflicts according to international law,” Congressman Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, a Democrat has said recently.
Friendship with India is something on which the Republicans and the Democrats agree. For both parties, it has to do with balancing China’s emergence to the ‘great power’ status.
The US wooing of India began in 2005 with the India-US nuclear deal. The idea promoted by the neo-conservatives in the Republican administration of President George Bush was to counter China’s growing military and economic might in Asia by helping India’s growth.
The US did some heavy lifting to get the Nuclear Suppliers Group to endorse India. All of this with an eye to encourage a large Asian country in balancing out a rising China.
President Barak Obama continued Bush’s policy of developing ties with India. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi carried it forward with renewed vigour and established a personal rapport, so essential in the Trump style of functioning.
It is a fact that China has been watching the growing warmth in India-US ties with some degree of unease. It knows well that Washington is keen to make India an integral part of the loose defence alliance to guard the Indo-Pacific region, which now stretches to the Indian Ocean.
Considering that the PLA Navy is constantly prowling the Indian Ocean, India is also ramping up its naval capabilities. In fact, the annual Malabar exercises between India and US, and now Japan, is an attempt to ward off Chinese advances. The US, Japan, Australia, and India quadrilateral, coming together of four democracies is again another formation which China resents.
Yet, China is as busy circling into India’s neighbourhood. It already has a strategic partner in Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, with an investment of $60 billion by Beijing, which is part of Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is firmly in place. China has always stood up for Pakistan as a bulwark against India. So, for the moment it serves both US and India to openly declare their worry about China.
What happens when Trump or a new US administration decides to repair ties with China is difficult to say. However, Indian policy makers are also well aware that, while the US may mouth support for India in the current stand-off, India’s security is solely its own responsibility.
US is not going to rush to India’s side in case of an unlikely military confrontation. Hence, taking what is offered by America in the sense of diplomatic support suits India for now. It is also a fact that the US’ and India’s strategic interests are not the same. So, Delhi should remain cautious.
(The author is a senior journalist who has worked for several national newspapers, specialising in foreign affairs)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)