New Delhi: Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential elections has thrown many long established principles into confusion. Now that he has taken over, it is time to see how this may impact on U.S.-China relations which have direct bearing on India's geostrategic interests. After Trump's election and his strong statements on China there are many analysts who believe that it would mean a stronger U.S.-India alliance which may counter growing Chinese influence in the region.
While India was, during the cold war era a firm Soviet ally and had cool relationship with the USA, the breakup of Soviet Union and the end of cold war saw India getting closer to Washington. That this relationship had broad bipartisan support both in the U.S. as well as in India was obvious as the relationship remained firm under both Democratic and Republican administration in US and under UPA as well as NDA regimes in India.
There was growing realisation on both sides that there was a broad convergence of interests between USA and India on strategic issues. Countering Islamic terrorism was an important area of convergence.
China's growing economic and military power affected both the U.S. and India and created other area of convergence. Ideologically the liberal, democratic ideology pursued by US meshed well with the democratic and liberal policies pursued by India both by NDA 1 as well by the UPA governments.
With President Obama's policy of "Pivot to Asia", more congruence seemed to have developed between the two countries. Both countries were concerned as were Australia and Japan on the growing Chinese influence in the region and Obama's Pivot to Asia policy was therefore a well thought out response to balance the growing Chinese influence in the region.
However, the "Pivot to Asia" remained mostly a statement of intent rather than the policy as the U.S. got more and more involved in the Middle East and West Asia. The U.S. foreign policy in Obama's second term was taken over by the wars in Iraq and Syria, rise of ISIS and by the Iranian nuclear deal. Though Asia was supposed to be Obama Adminstration's core area on interest the immediate threat of ISIS, Iranian nuclear capabilities and the aftereffects of the Arab Spring meant there was no interest in pursuing a more robust US policy in Asia.
China took advantage of this US hesitation. With Xi consolidating his position and taking a strong nationalistic position in international relations, this meant a China which became more assertive in the region. This has resulted in more assertive Chinese policies not only in the South China seas but all across the region.
China did this both by projection of military force as well by diplomatic means. Construction of air strips and military structures in reefs of the South China seas and it's aggressive response to developments in Hong Kong showed that where required it will take strong action.
Diplomatically, it managed to woo Cambodia and Laos in it's area of influence by increasing substantially the economic assistance and also quickly took advantage of Duterte's rise in Phillipines by inviting him to Beijing and giving him a five star treatment at the time when US was critical of Duterte's human right records in Phillipines.
An aggressive China does not suit India's interests. While there are many possible areas of cooperation , China's consistent policy at least since Xi's accession has been to try to cut down India to size. It has consistently opposed India's efforts for permanent Security Council seat. It has opposed India's accession to Nuclear Supplier's Group and even on issues on which there should be congruence of interests such as putting Massod Azhar's name on UN list of terrorists, it has taken position which is opposed to India's interests. Apart from propping up Pakistan, it has also been helping those politicians in Nepal and Sri Lanka who take an anti-India position.
Obviously China does consider India as a regional rival who is collaborating with US to contain China's rise and therefore is keen to undercut India. India therefore needs to take cognizance of this fact and fashion its policy accordingly.
Donald Trump's accession to power in US has inevitably resulted in every country in the region assessing it's impact. Many analysts felt that Trump's strong anti- Chinese and anti - terrorism statements means that India will have better relations with USA under Trump and there may be a stronger Indo-US alliance to check growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. This looks like a simplistic analysis.
When Donald Trump was elected President of the U.S., many analysts thought that his campaign rhetoric was just that - campaign rhetoric and Trump will take a Presidential approach and while some cosmetic changes will be announced, in most of the issues he and his administration will realise that change is not as is easy to bring as the campaign promises and they will be practical in their policies. That hope has been belied in the first fortnight of Trump presidency.
Repeal of Obamacare was a relatively easy step as it did not have bipartisan support and was controversial. But his actions on Immigration and relation with Mexico on the issue of wall to be built showed that President Trump will not flinch from taking positions which were hitherto unthinkable. US relationship with China is an area where Trump and his team had also made many controversial statements. These are not confined during election campaign only but some of them have been repeated post elections too.
While Trump had made many statements dubbing China as trade and currency manipulator and promised to take corrective actions, what has riled Chinese even more is Trump's acceptance of congratulatory telephone call from the Taiwanese President and his subsequent statement which seems to call into question US commitment to One China policy. The new White House spokesperson has also mentioned that US would prevent China from accessing South China sea islands over which China has claimed sovereignty and has already made some constructions. Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during Senate confirmation hearings also espoused similar view. This is an issue where China has repeatedly held that their sovereignty over the area was not negotiable.
There are however areas where China will welcome the new Trump doctrine. Trump has been emphasing a policy of scaling down of US support to its allies.
During campaign he had repeatedly mentioned that Japan and South Korea should pay for their defence implying that US should cut down its commitment to the defence of these countries. If Trump does cut support to US allies significantly as seems likely this will give China an opportunity to fill the void and extend its area of influence. US withdrawal from Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) means certain death of the Treaty in its present form, an outcome which China would welcome immensely as TPP was designed to undercut Chinese influence in the region. So the new Trump approach is in many respects favourable to China.
So how is China reacting to the new administration?
So far it has been cautiously watching as to how far Trump administration will go. It is fair to assume that issue of trade is much more amenable to solution than the Trump campaign rhetoric makes it seem.
After all trade and business means give and take and whether it is Trump or US Secretary of State Tillerson or U.S. Commerce Sectretary nominee Wibur Ross, they all know it well , having been astute businessmen. The Chinese also would not be averse to giving some concessions as it would be in their interests too to maintain cordial trade relations. There are no issues here that cannot be resolved by skilful negotiations.
However, where the Issue of Taiwan and South China Seas are concerned, there is very little room to manoeuvre for Xi. Taiwan has been a non negotiable issue for the Chinese since 1949 when Communist took over the mainland.
It is now known that when Deng decided to resume relations with U.S. one issue on which he was not prepared to offer any compromise was on One China policy. This has also been bedrock of China's foreign policy since then and there is complete unanimity within China on this issue. Neither Xi nor any other Chinese leader will be able to give even an inch on this issue.
The issue of South China sea islands, while not being so central to China is nevertheless a very difficult nut to crack at this point of time. The timing is just not right for Xi to negotiate on this issue. With China facing a cooling economy and with the next CCP shake up due in 2017, it is politically important for Xi to be seen as a strong leader capable of standing up to US. On the issues of Taiwan or even on the South China issue there is therefore not much leeway for Xi.
So what does it all mean? In the two weeks since Trump has taken over we have so far not seen any initiative on the China related issues. This is in sharp contrast to Trump's actions on immigration and on Mexico as well as on Obamacare. It may indicate that despite all his bluster Trump knows that he does not have much maneuvering space vis-a-vis China.
It may be recalled that when after receiving a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President, Trump gave his controversial statement on One China issue, he did not say that he was against One China principle but that this could be used as a leverage while negotiating a better trade and commercial deal with China.
In the uproar in the aftermath of the statement, perhaps this distinction did not get the attention it deserved. It is likely that Trump , the businessman knows what is doable and what is not and he would use the Taiwan and South China issues more as a bargaining chip on the issue of trade which seems to him as the core issue. This is against the conventional US establishment views which puts US strategic interests on equal if not as more important objective in the US- China relationship.
But Trump being Trump it is likely that he will be more than willing to give in to China on strategic issues to gain leverage on economic issues. If this indeed is the case, it will suit Xi also. But where does that leave India?
If this is how the events are going to unfold, India needs to understand that US will no longer be as important a player in the region as it has been since Second World War. This of course does not mean that US will be irrelevant but given Trump's isolationist views it is likely that China will have much more influence in the region than it has so far.
India therefore needs to fashion its strategy accordingly. There are many important players in the region such as Japan and many smaller ASEAN countries which are watching China's growing assertive nationalism with concern.
There would be opportunities to work along with these countries and even countries such as Russia and Iran to work on a mutually beneficial relationship.Given Trump's unusual style of functioning it is too early to predict how the events will unfold. However Indian policy makers would be well advised not to put too much emphasis on Trump's anti-Chinese statements so farand be prepared to re-evaluate India's policy options.