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India should forge ties with small countries to keep China at bay, say experts

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-05-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: In a world with an inward looking United States and its policy towards Asia uncertain, India will have to forge alliances with like-minded smaller countries to keep an aggressive China at bay, said analysts.

At an event to mark the completion of three years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three years in office, foreign policy experts said that one of the major challenges that India would have to face is the US and China teaming up as G-2.

These comments were made at a discussion organised by the Indian chapter of Washington-based Brookings think-tank in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Describing India, China and the US as three sides of a triangle, Sreeram Chaulia, professor and dean at Sonepat-based Jindal School of International Affairs, said that the US under President Donald Trump was sending out confusing signals to India and the rest of Asia vis-a-vis China.

“The conflicting signals sent out by (US president) Donald Trump and his administration is actually complicating this matter (of how India deals with China). It was easier under (former US president Barack) Obama,” he said.

Trump, during the run-up to his presidency described China as a currency manipulator and slammed Chinese imposition of value-added taxes on US goods. As president designate, he indicated that he may not adhere to the one China policy as he took a phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. But all these question marks on US-China relationship seem to have disappeared since.

“Since they (Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping) have had this summit in Mar-a-Lago in Florida (on 7-8 April), the Trump administration has reduced patrolling and the tailing of Chinese naval vessels in disputed territories of the South China Sea,” Chaulia said. “And president Trump has come out and said ‘I can work with Xi Jinping and Xi is a very very good person’ and so on. There is a relative lack of strategic coherence in US policy towards the Asia Pacific,” Chaulia said.

“The US and India should be ideally—because of democratic values and other things— should be the two closer sides of an Isosceles triangle and China should be the further one. But after scrapping the Trans Pacific Partnership and now making all these concessions to the Chinese—the unpredictability is so high that there is no grand strategy whatsoever with the United States its clear now... what that means I think is that we have to be on our own and that is the big lesson. During the Obama years we expected that there will be greater coordination and the milestones that Modi and Obama reached was phenomenal. I think now we need to rethink our basic strategy and that is where the smaller players come in,” Chaulia said.

“I think now there is a case clearly for us to be less reliant on the United States to somehow contain Chinese expansion—at least under Trump. So what that means I think is building more and more coalitions of like minded players who are spooked by Chinese aggression and Chinese expansion. In fact in a way that is more welcome... if the US is not willing to take on China and confront or contain it—pivot to Asia seems to be in the cold freeze now the phrase is not being used—what we need to do is play this smarter, have pluri-lateral or small group formations. These are important as we go forward,” he said.

According to Chaulia, one of the major drawbacks of Modi’s foreign policy in the three years he has been in office has been the delay in Modi meeting his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo. Widodo was elected president of Indonesia in 2014 but it was only in 2016 that the Indonesian president visited India for talks with Modi.

“I was disappointed with the fact that we took two years—more than two years—for a summit with Joko Widodo of Indonesia. I always believed that Jokowi and Modi can shape the regional architecture by coming together and coming up with a strategic plan to build up the spine of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in a way that it is not necessarily going to comfort China... but give ASEAN more freedom and space to manoeuvre. And to also be able to withstand some of the struggles that US and China have in the region and to create an endogenous kind of a coalition in the region especially by leading independent minded middle to rising powers like India and Indonesia,” Chaulia said.

Vijay Chauthaiwale, head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) foreign affairs cell, said he viewed the possibility of the India-US relationship under Trump becoming more “transactional” which would present its own set of challenges and opportunities.

Rajiv Kumar, a senior fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think-tank, said one of the challenges before the Modi government was to see that the US and China do not join hands to form a G-2—a throwback to the early years of the Barack Obama administration in 2009 when the proposal was first aired in public by then US president. “The G2 is a possibility. The scrapping of the Trans Pacific Partnership is a pro Chinese move not an anti Chinese move because it was aimed at isolating China,” Kumar said.

He was referring to the partnership of 12 nations bordering the Pacific Rim put together by the Obama administration to a bid to lessen their dependence on China. The partnership was stitched together in 2016 but one of the first things Trump did was pull the US out of it through an executive order, describing it as unfair to American trade and its scrapping necessary to protect US jobs.

“Can we prevent a G2 from happening again? That is a priority for the Modi government in the future,” Kumar added.

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