C3S Article no: 0032/2017
India and other China wary capitals in the Indo-Pacific will be less disappointed if they can moderate their expectations from the upcoming summit meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping, as Trump can be expected to focus more on jobs and trade deficit reduction and not as much on other strategic issues that has implications for the region. While it is a bit early to conclude that Trump is stripping the essence of international relations by reducing it to its transactional core as some of the criticism against him implies, nonetheless it has to be expected that Trump will prioritize the immediate as opposed to the important.
However, what adds to the uncertainty of the summit outcome are the drastic and, at times, contradictory turns both Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have taken in the recent past. Trump, who unsettled the Chinese by questioning the relevance of US’ One China policy made an equally drastic but contradictory turn weeks later by promising to stick to the One China policy during his phone call with Xi. Tillerson, who was stern on China’s aggressive policies during his confirmation hearings has sidestepped this issue during his recent visit to China and instead, as media reports suggest, appears to be favoring China’s proposition – “A New Model of Great Power Relations”, which, ironically received a cold shoulder by the previous Barack Obama administration, likely due to lack of specifics and also due the concern that it would force the US to turn a blind eye towards China’s aggressive and destabilizing activities.
Though it is not unusual for countries to change their positions in pursuit of their self-interests, what is unusual is the rate at which the US under the current administration is making turnabouts and this makes Trump’s approach less reassuring and thus less dependable. And in the light of such drastic and contradictory turns, whether Defense Secretary James Mattis’ reassurance sounds convincing is an open question.
Even though media reports indicate that North Korea and Beijing’s military activities in the South China Sea are part of the discussions between Trump and Xi, considering that Trump’s priorities are jobs and trade, while Xi’s priorities are to show that China can stand up to the US in protecting its strategic ambitions, there is a possibility that these issues of strategic import may get relegated to mere footnotes by Trump. But one will have to wait for the outcome of the summit. The risk for countries like India, Japan, Vietnam and others, however, lies in Trump conceding more on strategic issues than what’s palatable in return for Chinese investments and trade concessions. What can exacerbate such a risk is the possibility that US Big Businesses lobbying the Trump administration to be accommodative of China’s strategic interests (i.e. ambitions) in return for promises of fair trade, favorable Chinese investments and job creation – all the under belief that heavy economic interdependence provides the US with levers to influence China’s actions. Such beliefs are not only misguided but also self-defeating as they aren’t borne out of facts. This is not to suggest that the US should ignore its economic interests but to highlight that China’s actions in the past few years indicate it is more interested in undermining the existing international system on which US supremacy (including economic supremacy) rests. Over the past decades, US’ economic engagement with China has only deepened but there’s been no palpable change in China’s conduct. This means US doesn’t have economic levers or they are ineffective. Hence, the assumption that the US has economic levers or that they can influence China’s conduct is misguided.
It is reasoned that the Trump administration hasn’t yet conducted any brainstorming sessions with the defense, state, commerce and intelligence departments to decide upon a China policy and that any action that has been taken so far is only a stopgap measure. While this reasoning may have some relationship to truth, it is still not reassuring. By the time the US settles in on a China policy, it might a bit late to recover the lost strategic ground – not just for the US but also others in the Indo-Pacific region.
In this context, India needs to be pragmatic in its expectations and cautious on what it promises and commits to the US – not only keeping in mind US’ current priorities and China’s activities in IOR and SCS but also its presence in its immediate neighbourhood, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And, as for Pakistan, India will have to play its cards on the assumption that the Defense Secretary James Mattis, who came up the ranks during cold war, will likely be a traditionalist with reservations about Trump’s open embracing of Putin and Russia and a soft corner for Pakistan. This means that India’s ability to counter Pakistan will not be a cake walk. Any anti-Pakistan sentiment in Trump administration will be tempered by Mattis’ soft assessment on Pakistan or its utility.
(The views expressed are the author’s own.)