An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration puts India on the back foot with Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “informal” summit meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, significantly, began on the same day as the inter-Korean summit on April 27. That Xi chose the same date for the two-day summit might not have been a mere coincidence, given that the historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea left China on the sidelines, with little influence over those proceedings.
It was Modi’s government, however, that initiated the effort at rapprochement with Beijing following a rocky year in which new disputes flared between the two Asian giants, including over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Dalai Lama’s visit to a Chinese-claimed Himalayan Indian state, transboundary river waters, and the Chinese military encroachment on Doklam plateau, which India’s ally Bhutan regards as its own territory. The relationship between the two countries, which make up more than a third of humanity and almost a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.
The Wuhan summit, with no set agenda other than to improve the relationship, was billed as a chance to “reset” ties. No breakthroughs on major disputes were expected. But no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the understandings reached at Wuhan.
For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that key phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.
Such differences are no surprise: The summit was long on political theater, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the Sino-Indian dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”
Compelling strategic reasons may have prompted Modi to seek reconciliation with China. Yet his abrupt policy shift is fraught with political risk at home, where it could potentially dent his self-cultivated image as a strongman boasting a 56-inch chest measurement. Modi decided to take the risk now because the national election is a year away. His gambit, however, sends confusing signals to India’s strategic partners, including about the country’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” — a key goal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
Behind Modi’s overture to China is India’s strategic imperative to develop a semblance of balance in relations with various powers, largely because his pro-U.S. foreign policy has failed to secure tangible benefits for India thus far. Trump’s increasingly transactional approach to international relations and narrow geopolitical calculations have generated growing American pressures on India, including to slash its $25-billion yearly trade surplus, cut back its ties with Russia and Iran, and maintain full diplomatic relations with Pakistan, despite the latter’s export of terrorists.
The U.S. is also warning that India’s defense and energy dealings with Russia would attract sanctions under the new Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, even as the Trump administration seeks “a flexible waiver authority” from Congress to protect relationships with India and others. Moreover, Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran, despite the 2015 nuclear deal, has emerged as an obstacle in the Indian project to expand and modernize the Iranian port of Chabahar, India’s gateway to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. Trump’s restrictive visa policy, meanwhile, is crimping India’s $150-billion-a-year information technology industry.
A feeling is growing in New Delhi that the U.S. takes India for granted while it handles China with kid gloves, to the extent that Beijing managed to create and militarize seven artificial islands in the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. The Trump administration did not issue a single statement in India’s support during last summer’s 73-day Doklam military standoff, even as Beijing threatened virtually every day to teach India a bitter lesson. By contrast, Japan publicly sided with India.
In fact, U.S. policy continues to drive India’s old partner, Russia, closer to China, while Trump periodically heaps praise on “my good friend” Xi and says he is hopeful of clinching a deal with Beijing that would avert the imposition of punitive trade tariffs. By making China the main beneficiary of its fixation on Russia, North Korea and Iran, Washington is compelling New Delhi to hedge its bets.
In keeping with the old saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” Modi has sought to arrest the deterioration in Sino-Indian relations, which constricted India’s foreign policy options, including making it dependent on an unpredictable Trump administration. Indeed, with even Japan seeking to mend fences with China and inviting Xi to pay a visit, India could not afford to be an outlier.
Xi has his own strategic reasons to appreciate Modi’s overture, including the threat of a trade war with America. It is hardly in Chinese interest to push India — a critical swing state — into the anti-China camp. In any event, the semblance of better bilateral relations gives Beijing greater space, including by quieting New Delhi’s concerns, to pursue its engagement-with-containment strategy, which has steadily built greater strategic pressure on India.
Make no mistake: Prospects of a genuine rapprochement look anything but promising. This, after all, is Modi’s second effort at a “reset.” The first effort, which Modi launched soon after coming to office, backfired conspicuously. Xi arrived in India on Modi’s birthday in September 2014 bearing an unusual gift — a deep Chinese military incursion into India’s Ladakh region. Relations progressively worsened after that.
In fact, ever since China became India’s neighbor by occupying Tibet in 1951, high-level bilateral dialogue has been no indicator of better relations. For example, New Delhi’s ongoing negotiations with Beijing to settle territorial disputes first began in 1981, when India’s economy was larger than China’s. Now India’s economy is five times smaller, with China’s military power dwarfing India’s, yet the negotiations have still to produce real progress toward a resolution.
Little good has come from Modi’s own discussions with Xi, although the two have met 14 times since 2014 in different locations around the world. Since assuming office four years ago, Modi has already traveled to China four times and will be going there again soon for the mid-June summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization security bloc.
Modi actually traveled to Wuhan with weakened leverage. After Modi defiantly stood up to China’s Doklam aggression and forced Beijing to accept a mutual pullback from the standoff, Chinese forces in the past eight months have quietly moved in and occupied much of that remote plateau. Also, on Modi’s watch, China has doubled its trade surplus with India to almost $5 billion a month.
To be sure, Modi went to Wuhan just after the Indian Air Force, deploying its entire warfighting machinery and flying 11,000 sorties, conducted its largest ever exercise, which simulated a simultaneous war with China and its ally Pakistan. Nevertheless, with Modi seeking less border trouble and more balanced trade, Xi likely believes that the Indian leader needs him more than he needs Modi — a situation Xi will seek to exploit with the same guile that has effectively made him China’s new emperor.
This suggests that, far from addressing India’s security and economic concerns or reining in its increasing border intrusions, Beijing would like the Wuhan bonhomie to translate into two material gains — a bigger Chinese penetration of the Indian market and greater caution and reluctance on India’s part to challenge, or gang up against, China. In other words, a truly win-win outcome for China from Modi’s Reset 2.0. If this happens, Modi will validate Karl Marx’s statement that “history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.”
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”