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#5346, 25 August 2017

Eagle Eye

Testing the Trump-Modi Partnership
Chintamani Mahapatra
Rector and Professor, JNU

The Doklam standoff between India and China is a serious test case for the maturing India-US strategic partnership, which has endured leadership changes in recent years in New Delhi and Washington.

China has recently emerged as a nuisance for the US, its allies, and partners in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. The Chinese position, not just statements, on the North Korean missile threats, along with its role in Latin America, activities in the South China Sea, and  trade practices pose a big challenge to US President Donald Trump’s administration. China using its financial power to make smaller South Asian countries fall into debt-traps, and its grabbing of territories or maritime assets claimed by relatively smaller countries, such as Bhutan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines, are issues that need to be examined more closely by the Trump administration, and require multilateral solutions.   

While Trump abandoned his predecessor’s economic and strategic rebalancing policies towards the Asia Pacific for political reasons, growing Chinese misbehaviour and ambitions detrimental to regional peace and stability may compel a rethink on his part.

Chinese media and commentators clamouring for war against Indian troops in the disputed Doklam region, and even Chinese government spokespersons making offensive statements repeatedly are wake-up calls. Indian troops at Doklam and the Modi government in New Delhi have shown remarkable restraint. However given the China's island-grabbing activities in the South China Sea and frequent incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), simply exercising restraint and calling for the peaceful resolution of differences through dialogue are highly inadequate.

As Beijing has recurrently reminded India about the outcome of the 1962 war, India should go beyond responding that war cannot be repeated. Drawing optimism from defeating Chinese soldiers during a 1967 incident is also not sufficient. While taking all precautions to protect India’s security and preserve Bhutan’s interests, New Delhi must strategise with Washington against possible bravado from Beijing.

In 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru emphasised 'non-alignment' more than seeking timely help from the US; and only when the situation became worse did Nehru write to the then US President John F Kennedy for direct intervention. Likewise, there are many in India who harp on about 'strategic autonomy' as a mantra and wrongly consider strategic coordination with the US as a loss of that autonomy.

It is worth emphasising that the US sought help from numerous countries, including Iran and Oman, before taking military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan post-9/11.

Following the joint statements announced during Modi’s meetings with former US President Barack Obama and, more recently, Trump, one expects that the India-US strategic partnership would be invoked before it is too late. Japan’s apparent declaration of support for India on the Doklam issue augurs well for Indian national interest. Similar support may soon come from Australia and Vietnam as well.

What is needed is the Trump administration’s unequivocal support to the Indian position on this issue. On political, ethical or moral grounds, it would not be arduous for Washington to back the Indian position.

First, China says Indian troops are in Chinese territory. It is actually a disputed region and not Chinese territory. Are there no Chinese troops in disputed regions within Pakistan, such as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK)? Are there are no Chinese troops in disputed islands in South China Sea?

Second, it is also a question of the security of smaller countries. China has been threatening its smaller neighbours; in this case, Bhutan.

Third, Indian security would come under tremendous pressure if China succeeds in occupying Doklam. Thus the issue is not just moral, it is also of national security concern.

It is a common understanding that India needs to protect its own interests rather than depend on external forces to do so. Having said that, dependence must be distinguished from cooperation.

India and the US should be on the same page to prevent Chinese territory-grabbing exercises. The current situation is a test case to judge the relevance, scope and benefits of the India-US strategic partnership. The recent conversation between Modi and Trump on working together for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific is a good beginning, but concrete and timely steps are imperative.

If the Chinese succeed in territorial aggrandisement, the so-called Asian century will finally amount to nothing but the rise of China's malevolent hegemony. The Indo-US strategic partnership is crucial to maintain a liberal, cooperative, prosperous and peaceful order in the Indo-Pacific. It would energise Japan, Vietnam, Australia, South Korea and ASEAN to join such efforts.     

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