India and U.S. both look to contain China

Prime Minister Modi and President Trump talk in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 26, 2017
During a visit to Washington, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) may have urged U.S. President Donald Trump to support his country’s “Act East” policy (source: dpa)

When United States President Donald Trump met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 26, many could not help but notice some similarities between the two political leaders. Indeed, at first glance, there are many. Both are hostile toward the mainstream media and its liberal hypocrisy, both prefer direct contact with their electorates (President Trump has 33 million followers on Twitter; Prime Minister Modi has 31 million) and both have taken a hard line on Islamic extremists. However, their real common denominator is their antagonism toward China.

Chinese territorial revisionism was a major concern for both countries even before either of these “populist” leaders came to power. The priorities are different: New Delhi’s main grievance is its boundary dispute with Beijing (which has recently flared up again where the borders of China, India and Bhutan meet), while the U.S. is focused on China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.

Nonetheless, there are also some shared concerns. Since China has never clearly stated what it believes its maritime sovereign territory encompasses, there is reason to believe its claims include international sea lanes. In this case, China’s promise to guarantee commercial navigation rights are not reassuring. They are certainly not enough for India, which has built a very trade-dependent economy. Washington’s concerns include its security guarantees to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Supporting India’s Act East policy is of greater benefit to the U.S. than remaining passive

Another point of apprehension for New Delhi is Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) which it sees as a ploy by China to create more satellite economies and increase its sphere of influence. The CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), which is part of the BRI, would put Pakistan deep in debt to China and could potentially fuse Islamabad and Beijing into a single geopolitical entity.

India has vocally opposed the project and has continued with its own “Act East” policy. This involves improving its relationship with countries in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and enhancing connectivity with Southeast Asia. It also includes India boosting its maritime role, which is already inherently strong, given its access to the Arabian Sea and the Suez Canal.

Advantages of cooperation

Prime Minister Modi might have made the argument to President Trump that supporting India’s Act East policy is of greater benefit to the U.S. than remaining passive while China increases its dominant position in South and Southeast Asia. It is imperative that India makes this point in terms of direct economic benefit to the U.S., and not in terms of global order, since Mr. Trump has not shown too much interest in that concept yet.

For example, such a policy from the U.S. would have the advantage of helping an economy that has been more open to major American technology firms – such as Amazon, Google and Apple – compared to China.

A worst-case scenario for India would be if President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping broker a deal behind India’s back that would allow China to raise its profile in the region. It is more likely, however, that the Trump administration will try to contain China in two ways. First, it could continue to militarize the region, including India, and directly counter the Chinese military threat by increasing its own military presence. Second, it could support India’s role as a maritime power.

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