Trump tries again to get involved in India's neighbourhood disputes, offering to mediate with China, writes Arul Louis

US President Donald Trump is facing rising tensions with China, but he has turned his sights on India offering to mediate “mediate or arbitrate” the border dispute between the two Asian giants

Arul Louis May 28, 2020
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US President Donald Trump is facing rising tensions with China, but he has turned his sights on India offering to mediate “mediate or arbitrate” the border dispute between the two Asian giants. He tweeted on Wednesday, May 27, “We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!”

The offer came as tensions between the US and China are rising with both countries exchanging Cold War-style rhetoric making Trump's offer a political showmanship rather than a realistic one.

There are indications that China's actions could be related to its growing tensions with the West, especially the US, that have intensified over the spread of COVID-19, which originated in that country and spread around the world leaving a swathe of death and economic destruction.
Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party publication that is an outlet for the leadership's nationalistic perspectives on international affairs, published a commentary on Monday, May 25, headlined, “India should eschew Western views of China for border peace.”
The commentary said, “Some Indians believe slowed Chinese economy growth and some Western countries' blame game on China provide them a great opportunity where the border issue will fall to their advantage amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This may reflect the viewpoints of certain circles from the Indian government and military. However, this speculative mind-game is based on an incorrect judgment of the international order and China's national condition. This is flawed logic and ultimately detrimental to India.”

In the middle of the latest tensions with India, China's President Xi Jinping issued an open-ended warning on Tuesday, May 26, without mentioning a specific adversary: “It is necessary to explore ways of training and preparing for war" and

“It is necessary to step up preparations for armed combat, to flexibly carry out actual combat military training, and to improve our military’s ability to perform military missions,” he added.

A confrontation with India may be an attempt to divert attention from the criticism over its coronavirus role as well as its curtailment of Hong Kong's autonomy by placing it under a new security law and at the same time test the extent Western support for India at a time when the West is preoccupied with COVID-19 and is also dependent on China for supplies to deal with it.

While Trump has kept a steady drumbeat of criticism of China over the pandemic, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the confrontation to a new level on Wednesday, May 27. He told Congress that he could not certify Hong Kong's autonomy, endangering its special trade status that ultimately benefits China.

It is also an attempt by China to pressure India to not join the West in criticising it. Giving China's version of the latest crisis, the Global Times commentary issued a warning. It said that Indian Army “deliberately instigated conflicts with their Chinese counterparts. If India failed to stop such provocations as soon as possible, it will impact on Beijing-New Delhi ties – and may even exceed the sort of intensity of the Doklam standoff.”

The Doklam crisis arose in 2017 when China began building a road into Bhutanese territory and troops from India, which has Bhutan under its defence mantle, intervened. After several weeks of the standoff, both sides pulled back and relations between New Delhi and Beijing returned to near-normalcy with a visit to India by Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.

Now Pakistan has added to the tension with its own threats alongside its patron China's.

Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said on May 24, “Pakistan Army is fully alive to the threat spectrum and will remain ever ready to perform its part in line with national aspirations.”

“Disturbing strategic stability matrix in South Asia can lead to dire consequences,” he said referring to the situation where India withdrew its special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution last year.

“Kashmir is a disputed territory and any attempt to challenge disputed status, including any political-cum-military thought related to aggression, will be responded with full national resolve and military might,” he said.

Posturing as an international statesman, Trump has been keen to bring his diplomacy to the disputes between India and Pakistan also.

Last year he made the dubious claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to “mediate or arbitrate” between India and Pakistan.

India refuted his claim and said that such a request was ever made and pointed out that it holds that disputes between India and Pakistan are bilateral issues under the 1971 Simla Agreement between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and then-president of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Trump's State Department intervened to undo the gaffe by acknowledging that it disputes between the two countries were a bilateral issue.

Trump's grasp of the region's geography has been questioned by writers.

Trump did not know that India and China shared a border, a book published earlier this year by two journalists from The Washington Post claimed. The authors, Phillip Rucker and Carol Leonning, said in their book, “A Very Stable Genius,” that Trump told Modi, “It's not like you've got China on your border.”

“Modi’s expression gradually shifted, from shock and concern to resignation,” they wrote.

However, the reporting by the staff of the newspaper owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was based on anonymous sources.

(A New York-based journalist, the writer is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at arullouis@spsindia.in)

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