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Trump’s interest in India sends China a strong message

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2017/08/28/trumps-interest-in-india-sends-china-a-strong-message.html


While Trump may have been vague about how the U.S. is going to win the war in Afghanistan, he did send China an unmistakable message: the U.S. is going to attend to its interests in Asia, and China cannot expect special — or gentle — treatment.

In this July 8, 2017, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping arrive for a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.  (SAUL LOEB / AP)  

By SIMON PALAMAR

Mon., Aug. 28, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump gave a speech on Aug. 21 that laid out his strategy to continue, and ultimately “win,” the war in Afghanistan. But buried underneath that lead, was a clear message, intended for neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan — but for China. Despite being less overt than previous speeches, the message was simple: the U.S. plans to remain a political, economic, and perhaps even military force not just along Asia’s Pacific coast, but in Asia as a whole.

While his language was not nearly as blunt as the statements he made about China during last year’s election campaign, Trump delivered a bold policy message. Put simply, the message was that the U.S. will “further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.”

The president also made it clear that a new partnership with India would not simply be about ending the war in Afghanistan, but would involve the pursuit of “shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.”

While India lags China — economically, diplomatically, and militarily — if any county in Asia is ever going to have the ability to challenge China’s geopolitical dominance of the continent, it is India. While the two countries typically have a quiet rivalry, it has not always been that way. In 1962, China and India fought a brief war over a disputed border in the Himalaya mountains (the two countries came to blows again over the border issue in 1967, and Chinese and Indian soldiers are currently in a standoff over a Chinese claim on Bhutan’s northern border).

In 1964, China’s first nuclear bomb test alarmed India, and helped solidify support in the Indian bureaucracy for their own nuclear weapon program. Today, India warily eyes China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” policy that envisions building a modern-day Silk Road linking central China to markets in Europe.

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While Beijing argues that OBOR will benefit the whole of central and southern Asia, the Indian government has raised concerns about the how the project will be managed and whether the project will skew the regional balance of power.

While China’s history with India may not be as bloody and bitter as its history with Japan, the stakes in some ways are much higher. Together, the two nuclear-armed countries have a population of more than 2.5 billion, and account for some 18 per cent of the global economy.

The governments of both countries will be — rightly or wrongly — rewarded or held accountable for meeting or failing the economic expectations of their growing middle classes, and neither can afford to cede political dominance (and the economic benefits, such as market access, that come with it) of Asia to the other.

Of course, the U.S. and India have been drifting closer together for years (see, for example, President George W. Bush’s decision to allow the U.S. to sell nuclear material and technology to India). But announcing that American security relies in part on decisions made in New Delhi — while India is in the midst of a border dispute with China — verges on making political alignment with India official U.S. policy.

The decision is ultimately not that surprising. On many issues China and the U.S. simply do not see eye-to-eye. These range from the potentially incendiary (China’s military bases in the disputed South China Sea), to the serious-but-manageable (American accusations that China dumps manufactured goods in the U.S. market). Both India and the U.S. want to see China stop doing certain things. A partnership between the two countries may be unruly, but the basic logic is there.

When taken in conjunction with last week’s new sanctions on Chinese firms that the U.S. accuses of bypassing sanctions on North Korea, President Trump’s endorsement of India is a strong signal that America’s China policy is getting more hawkish.

While President Xi and President Trump had a cordial and productive meeting this April, the tone of the Sino-American relationship has changed. While Trump may have been vague about how the U.S. is going to win the war in Afghanistan, he did send China an unmistakable message: the United States is going to attend to its interests in Asia, and China cannot expect special — or gentle — treatment.

Simon Palamar is a research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy, African conflict management and emerging global security issues

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