As China struggles with the coronavirus, US President Donald Trump wants to bring India on side as a military and economic counterweight to Beijing. But it's not as easy as it seems, says Frank Sieren.
Ahead of his India visit, Donald Trump claimed Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised millions of cheering fans would attend his address at the world's biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad. In the end, some 100,000 people turned up to hear him speak.
President Trump thanked Modi for the attention on his first state visit to India — which included posters celebrating "two strong nations, one great friendship" — and praised India as a "miracle of democracy", saying its rise as a "prosperous, independent nation" was "inspiring."
The two leaders, who have described each other as "friends," have met five times over the past eight months. Not only because they are both showmen, populists and protectionists in their own way, but because they share a desire to stem the rise of China. Both countries recognize the geopolitical challenge posed by Beijing. India is threatened by Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, and feels surrounded by China's alliances with its neighbors Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka and archrival Pakistan.
Delhi playing both sides
Though it's simply a coincidence the meeting took place just as China is struggling to contain the COVID-19 disease, the situation has not made it easier for Trump. In mid-February, Chinese President Xi Jinping thanked Modi for India's solidarity and support during the crisis.
After all, India and China are neighbors, and despite everything have been cooperating more closely — and not only when it comes to fighting disease. They are currently working together with 14 other Asia-Pacific nations to complete the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would end up creating the world's biggest free trade zone.
But Delhi is refusing to put all its eggs in one basket. This is where Trump comes into play. During his trip, the president said he looked forward to providing India "with some of the best and most feared military equipment on the planet." Delhi and Washington have already signed deals for helicopters and defense systems worth billions.
A free trade deal is proving more difficult to negotiate, however. Trump has criticized the $24-billion (€22-billion) trade deficit with India, which might not be as much as the $43 billion trade deficit with China, but still gives Trump a similar means of pressure. For its part, Delhi refuses to be blackmailed by US tariffs and last year imposed retaliatory tariffs of its own on 28 US products. Only a common Asian free trade agreement would defy Trump's capriciousness, but Delhi does not want this at any price.
One thing is clear: US-Indian relations have been shaped by the relationship with China since the 1950s. When the Sino-Indian war broke out over their disputed border in 1962, US President John F. Kennedy said: "We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India if she were attacked." The US sent an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal in a clear sign to China, which soon declared a cease-fire.
The big difference between then and now is that China's current rise not only challenges US hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region, but US hegemony in the entire world. "Together we will defend our sovereignty, security and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region for our children and for many, many generations to come," Trump said on his visit to India.
But Delhi does not want to be recruited as a "bastion of freedom." During the Cold War, India refused to be part of an ideological bloc and still practices a policy of non-alignment. Today, Modi is wary of Trump's "America First" motives. The US has not supported Delhi's hard line toward Pakistan in the Kashmir conflict. On the contrary, it seems to be letting China have free rein in the region.
And India is not altogether displeased that China is challenging the Anglo-Saxon-dominated world order. As the country with the second-largest population in the world, India's role will increase in a multipolar world.
India, which has been a nuclear power since 1974, also has ambitions of hegemony in Asia. With 6 to 7% economic growth and a young population — with an average age of 25 — it could become the third-largest economy in the world by 2050. For now, its economy remains much smaller than China's.
Not looking for conflict
Delhi is in a tough position. China and the US are India's most important trade partners, so it cannot afford to take sides. The three countries are linked by conflict, competition and cooperation. The US-China trade dispute has strengthened Sino-Indian relations and created new opportunities for Indian companies on the Chinese market. But Delhi is worried Chinese products could flood the Indian market and harm local suppliers, which is why it wants to renegotiate the RCEP — much to the annoyance of Beijing.
Despite the fact that their shared Himalayan border remains a bone of contention, and that China has never forgiven India for granting political exile to the Dalai Lama, it would be in neither side's interest to let their differences escalate into open conflict.
Both countries have enough domestic problems to resolve. Dozens have died in recent sectarian clashes in Modi's India, while China's Xi is facing the biggest crisis of his time in office with the coronavirus epidemic.
And if there is a major outbreak in India, the country's medical infrastructure would not be nearly as well prepared for an outbreak as China. Delhi will surely need a lot of help from Beijing, and Beijing will surelpakistany give it.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years.