The back-to-back engagements in the weekend by the US president Donald Trump with America’s two major players in the Asia-Pacific region – China and Japan – can only deepen the angst in the Indian mind regarding the trajectory of its own ties with the new administration in Washington. This has been a traumatic weekend.
The «defining partnership» with the US has been the anchor sheet of India’s foreign policies through the past decade. During the 3-year period under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, India identified audaciously with Washington’s «rebalance» in Asia. Unsurprisingly, Modi government forged close ties with Japan, too. The leitmotif was the «containment» of China.
However, the unexpected election of Trump shakes up this foreign-policy architecture. Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership gave the early foreboding that the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia might unravel. But Trump’s tampering with the «One-China policy» and the abrasive references to South China Sea by his state secretary-designate Rex Tillerson created momentarily an impression that the may take a «tough» line toward China.
On the other hand, Trump’s subsequent abject capitulation on the «One-China policy» and Defence Secretary James Mattis’ categorical statement just before that the US did not see the need of «any dramatic military moves at all» in the South China Sea mean that the US prefers constructive engagement of China.
Beijing has offered wholesome participation in Trump’s growth strategy for the American economy and full-throttle cooperation to tackle regional and international security issues.
The pendulum is swinging wildly. From the Indian perspective, what probably matters most is that Trump prefers robust «bilateralism» in dealings with China and has no need of «counterweights» or «proxies» or «balancers» to create traction in that engagement.
India is left with no viable option but to fall back on its moribund bilateral engagement of China. The notions of strategic hedging vis-à-vis China look delusional.
China remains a fundamental factor in India’s strategic calculations. But the quest for «equal relationship» may now prove more elusive than ever.
China warmed up to the Modi government initially, but the attitude hardened once it dawned on Beijing that India’s preferred strategy was to bandwagon with the Obama administration’s rebalance.
India has since been tilting at the $54 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which for Beijing is the flag-carrier of its One Belt One Road Initiative. Pakistan’s surge exasperates India. Meanwhile, all across South Asian region, India is contesting for influence with China.
Trump, who claims to be a «geopolitical fixer», may seek China’s help to influence Pakistan to bring about a settlement in Afghanistan. Any Sino-American joint enterprise with regard to regional security in South Asia would have repercussions on India-Pakistan relations and the Kashmir problem.
Against this backdrop, the outcome of the weekend visit by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the US can only deepen the sense of disquiet in the Indian mind.
A comparison of the declarative US-Japan joint statement issued in April 2014 (following Obama’s visit to Japan), and the pared down Trump-Abe document issued in Washington in the weekend present a study in contrast.
Of course, there is a common thread running through the two documents in regard of unequivocal US commitment to the security alliance with Japan – especially in its application to Senkaku Islands. But what stands out is also that Trump does not envisage Japan as a partner for taking «coordinated action to uphold regional and global rules and norms» (2014).
Nor is Trump visualizing the US-Japan Alliance as «a platform for global cooperation… committed to promoting peace, stability, and economic growth throughout the world» (2014).
Indeed, the weekend statement makes absolutely no reference to the «pivot» strategy. It also ignores the US-Japan Alliance’s commitment to «making progress towards realizing a geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable US force posture in the Asia-Pacific, including the development of Guam as a strategic hub» (2014).
From the Indian perspective, perhaps, the unkindest cut of all is that the weekend document completely omits the formulation in the 2014 document underscoring the imperative of the US-Japan Alliance strengthening of «trilateral cooperation with like-minded partners» such as South Korea, Australia and India.
Simply put, the US remains fully committed to Japan’s security (while Tokyo makes downright payment of $1.7 billion or 86 percent of the total cost of hosting American bases). But Trump intends to be a lone ranger to pursue his «America First» priorities vis-à-vis China.
For countries such as Japan, India or Australia, American foreign policies will be less predictable in future and Trump will be more inclined to take unilateral decisions.
In essence, Trump «de-hyphenates» the US’ relationships with Japan and China. In a highly revealing remark at the joint press conference with Abe at the White House on Friday, Trump said:
«I had a very, very good conversation, as most of you know, yesterday with the President of China. It was a very, very warm conversation. I think we are on the process of getting along very well. And I think that will also be very much of a benefit to Japan. So we had a very, very good talk last night and discussed a lot of subjects. It was a long talk. And we are working on that as we speak. We have conversations with various representatives of China, I believe, that that will all work out very well for everybody - China, Japan, the United States, and everybody in the region».
It was an unwarranted remark, deliberately inserted to signal to Beijing that the US also plays the role of «balancer», and that Trump has his own view of China.
With extraordinary bluntness, Trump demanded at the press conference a «free, fair and reciprocal» trading relationship between the US and Japan that is «benefitting both of our countries». Indeed, the forthcoming trade negotiations within the proposed «bilateral trade framework» may cost Abe political capital at home.
Abe has bought some time to make crucial decisions affecting major Japanese exporters who fuel his growth strategy or the Japanese farmers who count on protective tariffs on rice and other key farm products. Meanwhile, count on Trump to keep hammering at trade deficit, nontariff barriers to US auto exports, and the interests of the beef and pork farmers’ lobbies.
There is similar apprehension in the Indian mind about the adverse economic costs of Trump’s immigration and industrial policies, especially in the IT and pharmaceutical sectors. Trump will be indifferent toward Modi’s «Make in India».
Abe reportedly took with him to the golf diplomacy at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida a proposal titled US–Japan Growth and Employment Initiative, offering investment to generate 700,000 jobs in the US and create new markets worth US$450 billion over the next decade. (Earlier, China’s business magnate Jack Ma who owns Alibaba Group also had met Trump and offered to create a million jobs in America). But India has no matching capacity on these lines.
The economic environment has become complicated both externally (oil price) and internally («demonetization»). The economy is shrinking. Demonetisation has disrupted the India growth story. This is not the time to undertake bold reforms to give market access to American exporters, which might catch Trump’s eye.
Delhi will be hard-pressed to inject dynamism into the India-US partnership. Its only leverage is, perhaps, its «attraction» as the world’s number one buyer of weapons, but here too Trump may not allow co-production or joint designing of weapons.
All in all, the spectre haunting the Modi government is that Trump may simply not attribute the importance that Obama had attached to the US-Indian «defining partnership». Clawing its way up the ladder of Trump’s «America First» priorities poses a tough challenge for the Modi government.