The China factor behind Trump’s India visit

U.S. President Donald Trump visits India


The growing global crisis over the spread of a deadly coronavirus from China — which, instead of quickly instituting public health warnings and containment measures, suppressed all information until faced with a raging epidemic — has helped obscure U.S. President Donald Trump’s significant visit to India last week. The United States and India agreed during the visit to step up strategic collaboration, including with Japan.

Trump’s standalone trip underscored how the expanding U.S.-India strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. Trump’s visit, like that of his predecessor Barack Obama five years ago, may not have yielded any major agreement, but it has set the direction toward greater Indo-American collaboration in the face of China’s muscular rise and a strengthening Sino-Russian strategic nexus.

Trump summed up his trip as “unforgettable, extraordinary and productive.” The visit will be remembered for his famous words at a mega-rally in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.” Modi, for his part, called the U.S.-India relationship “the most important partnership of the 21st century.”

Since returning home, Trump has been gushing over his visit, calling India an “incredible country” and Modi “a great gentleman, great leader” and saying, “Our relationship with India is extraordinary right now.”

The U.S. partnership with India meshes well with the fundamental shift in America’s China policy that Trump has initiated. The far-reaching shift will likely outlast Trump’s presidency because it reflects a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the failed U.S. policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing since the 1970s ought to be replaced with concrete counteraction. The shift indeed promises to reshape global geopolitics and trade.

Even before Trump set foot on Indian soil, sections of the American media, however, lampooned him — from claiming he was going to India for big crowds because he “relishes spectacle” to wondering how the steak-loving president, who supposedly had never been seen to “eat a vegetable,” would survive in India with its beef-free menu.

Sectarian clashes in an outlying, working-class neighborhood that is located in Delhi state but not in New Delhi also came in handy to those seeking to obscure the Trump visit’s significance. “New Delhi Streets Turn Into Battleground As Trump Visits,” ran the hyperbolic headline in The New York Times, whose relentless attacks on Trump surpass its perennial bashing of India and Japan. However, it is more cautious on China.

Trump’s “worthwhile trip” to India, as he put it after returning home, was packed with color and pageantry, including a visit with his wife, daughter and son-in-law to the monument to love, the Taj Mahal. Trump, in fact, kicked off his whirlwind tour with the largest rally any U.S. president has ever addressed in recent memory.

The huge campaign-style rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad was attended by at least 125,000 people, with countless thousands more lining Trump’s motorcade route from the airport to the newly constructed stadium. In crowd size, the mega-rally almost equaled Trump’s 10 “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) rallies at home, all held at once. This explains why Trump, after returning home, told a MAGA rally, “I may never be excited again about a crowd after going to India.”

During the visit, the two sides announced that they have finalized a limited trade agreement, which is to be signed after legal vetting. It will serve as “phase one” of a comprehensive trade pact.

The trip yielded a $3.4 billion military helicopter contract, the latest in a string of major U.S. arms sales to India in recent years. The U.S. has become India’s largest weapons supplier, with the two countries also holding more frequent joint military exercises.

According to the U.S. national security strategy report, America welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner.” And as Trump put it before leaving India, “I believe the U.S. should be India’s premier defense partner and that’s the way it’s working out.”

Under Trump, the U.S. has become an increasingly important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. Modi has agreed to further ramp up imports of American oil and gas to help cut India’s large trade surplus with the U.S.

India is important for the U.S. because of its massive market and strategic location. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific region that can countervail China’s military and economic moves. India is thus pivotal to the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept originally authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

For New Delhi, a robust relationship with the U.S. is pivotal to advancing long-term interests. Under Modi, India has been gravitating closer to the U.S. without undermining its cherished strategic autonomy.

Trump’s personal diplomacy with Modi has helped accelerate bilateral cooperation. Both Trump and Modi are nationalists who, critics claim, have chosen populism over constitutionalism while pursuing divisive policies. Each has become an increasingly polarizing figure at home.

Trump and Modi were both outsiders whose rapid rise to the highest office surprised their national establishment. In fact, like the Washington establishment’s inveterate antipathy to Trump, the privileged New Delhi elite has never accepted Modi, despite his landslide re-election win more than nine months ago. And, like Trump, Modi has been savaged in the Western media, with the criticisms lapped up by his domestic critics, whose own accusations, in turn, are picked up by the same press, ensuring a self-sustaining cycle.

Against this background, Trump and Modi consciously eschewed saying anything during the visit that could give a handle to each other’s domestic critics. For example, asked about a recent amendment to India’s citizenship law that has rancorously pitted Modi’s supporters against his critics, the U.S. president dismissed the issue as India’s internal matter.

The U.S. and India may both be bitterly polarized and ideologically divided at home, but there is strong bipartisan support in each country for a closer partnership with the other. The forward momentum in the U.S.-India relationship, in fact, has been sustained in this century by successive governments in both countries.

One factor driving the U.S. and India toward each other is the natural affinity between two large democracies whose values contrast with creeping illiberalism elsewhere. Another factor, given China’s hegemonic ambitions and territorial revisionism, is the strategic logic of building a stable power balance in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. As the joint statement at the end of Trump’s visit emphasized, “A close partnership between India and the U.S. is central to a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”

The China factor, including the imperative for Chinese transparency, was apparent from the joint statement’s references to the South China Sea and to the commitment to strengthen consultation through U.S.-India-Japan trilateral summits and the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. quadrilateral meetings.

In recent weeks, the global coronavirus crisis, which has wiped trillions of dollars off world stocks, has also underscored the need for Chinese transparency. Had China responded with preventive measures and health warnings as soon as the coronavirus outbreak occurred, instead of suppressing all information about it for weeks, the world would have been spared the huge financial and public health costs and supply chain and social life disruptions. And many of those who have died would still be alive.

The U.S. and India may disagree on multiple issues, including the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges. But, as they work together, they form an unbeatable partnership.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2020.