Watching the televised January 26 meetings of Prime Minister Modi and President Trump in Shanghai with Chinese academic colleagues, these International Relations professors concluded that the visit must be viewed as a success from the Indian perspective. Their point of reference was the April 6 meeting of President Trump with President Xi Jinping, who, like Modi, was meeting with the US president for the first time. China, like India, had been referred to critically by Trump during the presidential campaign, but it appeared that Modi had been able, as Xi Jinping had earlier done, to use the meeting to place the relationship on a firmer footing. The Joint Statement issued at the end of the Modi-Trump meetings portrayed two countries with similar goals on the common terrorist threat they face (and it took Pakistan to task for not cracking down sufficiently on cross border terrorist activity against India), noted the continuing security cooperation (such as the sale of unmanned drones to India), and called for respecting issues of sovereignty, responsible debt financing practices and the environment in regional connectivity projects (almost certainly a reference to China’s One Belt One Road project), and reiterated support for freedom of navigation (a likely reference to China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea). The results, they said, seemed to tilt the US toward India on some of its differences with China. This suggests a renewed American commitment to a balance of power in Asia to prevent any single country (read China) from establishing predominant power. Given the similarly glowing references to China after the Xi Jinping meeting, my Chinese colleagues said it would take actual events to test the US position.
My Chinese interlocutors noted that US President Donald Trump is relatively popular in China and his preference for a bilateral and transactional diplomacy should work to China’s advantage in the Sino-American relationship. They contrast this with the importance his predecessors gave to human rights issues, often used to criticize China, and to the strategic notion of creating an Asian balance of power aimed at constraining China. They watched the Modi meeting with the US President to see if there were concrete signs of a policy shift to older policy positions. While acknowledging that no single set of meetings will provide an answer, they point out that this transactionalism on the part of President Trump resulted in a very successful April 6 visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping that appeared to indicate a commitment of the US could work with China to address several key issues effecting the two countries. The two most important issues in their view are (1) the American recognition that China will be needed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and (2) the US will need China’s active help to reduce the huge US trade deficit, over 600 billion dollars in 2016, a large part of that deficit is China’s huge trade surplus with the US. While acknowledging the very positive optics of the Modi-Trump meeting, they doubted if a businessman-president with a transactional bargaining style would find Modi’s India nearly as useful to American interests as Xi Jinping’s China. On the massive US 600-billion-dollar trade deficit last year, only a very small part (about 30 billion dollars) is the Indian trade surplus. Trump also needs China to address the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, though they acknowledge that he seems to be losing patience with the lack of any apparent change in North Korea’s behavior, even stating publicly that hope of China producing some results has “not worked out”.
Contrasting China’s apparent greater ability to accommodate the US President’s transationalism, they see no comparable issue such as North Korea in which India could play a similarly vital role important to the US. On the issue of religiously -inspired terrorism, however, Indian counter-terrorism cooperation with the US could help reduce the threat, much of which has a base of support in Pakistan and Afghanistan. India, the direct recipient of terrorist violence from that area, sees the US as a natural ally in tackling terrorism, though it is disappointed that the US has not put more pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorists. But the Joint Statement calls on Pakistan to take a tougher stand against terrorist groups and to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 2008 attack on Mumbai and subsequent cross border terrorist activity. Modi during his June 25-26 trip to the US made public references to the terrorist threat and to India’s willingness to take bold action to confront it. The US for its part announced that Syed Salahudeen, chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, an organization India has charged with dozens of terrorist actions, is now considered by the US as a “specially designated global terrorist”. Modi was clear that he will take tough action against cross border attacks by non-state actors. He told an India American audience that “When India makes surgical strikes, the world sees that not only does India keep restraint, but when it is essential, India also shows its capabilities.”
The two issues in the Modi-Trump meetings that most interested my Chinese colleagues are (1) President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Road One Belt (OBOR) project aimed at linking China to Europe, and (2) China’s claims in the South China Sea. Neither the US nor India has expressed enthusiasm for this connectivity project, viewing it preeminently as a Chinese project meant to enhance Chinese influence in Asia. But the US did send a delegation to the May 14-15 Beijing conclave on this subject, and my colleagues interpreted this American attendance as a more accommodative US view on the project. Therefore, they were puzzled by the implicit criticism of the project in the Joint Statement. Regarding India, China made a special effort to get India to attend the Beijing conclave, but the Modi government boycotted it entirely primarily because a major portion of the project goes through a part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir claimed by India but in Pakistani possession. For India, the issue is one of sovereignty. Attending the Beijing conclave would be tacit admission that Pakistan legitimately controls this disputed area. Indians are also irritated at the lack of consultations that address a range of issues such as security, environmental damage, and the economic impact of loan repayments, especially with countries that already have high external debts such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. These concerns were included in the Joint Statement. The second issue of significant concern to my Chinese interlocutors was the South China Sea where China’s island building activities and claims of sovereignty over that body of water have been rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hauge. At the second January 19-21 2017 Raisana Dialogue in New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi said “We believe that respecting Freedom of Navigation and adhering to international norms [regarding freedom of navigation] is essential for peace and economic growth in the larger and inter-linked marine geography of the Indo-Pacific.” Indians were gratified to hear US Defense Secretary Mattis repeat Modi’s words on the importance of protecting Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea at the June 2-4, 2017 Shangri La Dialogue at Singapore. The Chinese reaction to his statement was predictably swift and critical over what much of the Chinese press said was a core security issue. The reaction of my colleagues to implicit critical references to it in the Joint Statement was equally negative.
My Chinese interlocutors – and almost certainly the Indian visitors to Washington DC -- were also watching closely to see if the policy of working to achieve a balance of power in Asia remained as important to Trump as it did to his two predecessors. India with its 1.3 billion people, its rapidly expanding economy, its relative political stability and its vital geostrategic position is a key factor in any such policy. India has reacted to the rise of China and its growing assertiveness by moving closer to the US and Japan but without abandoning its policy of strategic autonomy (i.e. staying out of military alliances). The US (and Japan) seem to have accepted India’s caution and view a strong India as satisfying the security requirements of a balance of power in Asia. India had been designated a “major defense partner” paving the way for the sale of a wide range of sophisticated US military equipment (with total sales approaching 15 billion dollars), and justifying the regular rounds of US-Indian military exercises, most prominently the annual Malabar naval exercises that now includes naval contingents from Japan. The US announcement to sell India 22 Guardian drones during Modi’s visit to the US seems to affirm the continuation of this policy. My Chinese colleagues cautioned however, that real crises will test this policy and that the US President is famous for changing his stands.
Drafted by Dr Walter Andersen
School of Advanced International Studies
Johns Hopkins University