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Modi-Trump statement shows convergence of views on China

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-07-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: One of the major takeaways from last week’s India-US joint statement issued after talks between US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the alignment of views between the two countries on China.

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The statement opens with a reference to the “Indo-Pacific” region—it’s the wide strategic swathe between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean—and cites India and the US as “responsible stewards” whose “close partnership” is “central to peace and stability in the region.”

References to Pakistan and terrorism follow many paragraphs later—much after it highlights the “importance of respecting freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce throughout the region” or calls on “all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”

There is no specific mention of China or its claims over the South China Sea, but the statement leaves no doubt about the country being referred to.

Another significant point is that the India-US statement mirrors the stance taken by India on China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.

Again, the statement does not refer to China’s ambitious flagship infrastructure project by name. But there is no mistaking the thinly veiled reference to the Chinese venture in the statement, which says the two countries “support bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment; and call on other nations in the region to adhere to these principles.”

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That the joint statement starts off with these references shows how Pakistan and terrorism have been supplanted by China as India’s main strategic challenge and the unmistakable convergence of views between India and the US on China.

According to Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based Kings College, this convergence comes with the recognition that “China poses a structural challenge to the US.”

Former Indian ambassador to the US Lalit Mansingh concurred. “President Trump had harsh words to say about China as candidate Trump when he was campaigning for the president’s office. But after taking office, President Trump seems to have moderated his views on China and even looked at cooperation between the two countries on North Korea,” Mansingh said.

The reference was to the understanding reached between Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping at their meeting in April under which Beijing was to lean on North Korea to persuade it to go slow on its missile programme. But a Reuters news report last week said Trump was growing increasingly frustrated with China over its inability to restrain North Korea’s arms and missile programmes.

“There is a feeling that China is not prepared to deliver (on North Korea),” said Mansingh, adding that against this backdrop, “India seems to emerge as a more reliable partner.”

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To be sure, former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama too had cultivated closer ties with India against the backdrop of an unreliable China. Obama’s “pivot” or “rebalance” towards Asia policy with India as the “lynchpin” of the strategy was seen as part of this move to join hands with India to counter China.

But with Trump assuming office and looking to China to rein in North Korea—besides taking the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal—all seemed directed at increasing China’s strategic say in such spheres.

But in recent days, “there is some rethinking in the US on China,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawahar Lal Nehru University.

“With India, there has been an ongoing defence cooperation. Besides, there is the Indian economic growth story. These factors are behind the Trump-Modi statement,” Kondapalli added.

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