Don’t Rely on the United States

When the US gets more policy flexibility, others are left with less. India should be aware of this factor in its dealings with China in the international arena.

Despite all the rhetoric about the collective rise of emerging powers including India and China, the United States remains the dominant power in the international system. By virtue of this power, it can effectively shape bilateral relations between any other countries. By extension, the US can also afford to alter its foreign policy, before any other country can, as and when the international situation requires it to. Under such circumstances, other countries could be taken by surprise and end up with a policy dilemma. All previous US administrations have displayed such policy flexibility. But the current American administration has abused it to such an extent that even its allies are now becoming victims.

Europe has the largest group of American allies but now it is feeling the cold headwind from the changing policy of US towards Russia, at a time when many European states are in a confrontation with Russia over the recent Salisbury nerve agent attack. In early April, they were astonished to find that American President Trump had proposed that the Russian President Putin visit Washington. In their conversation, Trump, against his advisors’ suggestions, had congratulated Putin’s election win. The timing of the US gesture to ease its relationship with Russia could not be worse, since the European memory is still fresh with a collective expulsion of Russian diplomats led by the US and followed by the European Union countries. US reversal of policy could mean a betrayal of European interest and this is something you will never do to your allies.

Japan, another major ally of the US, is witnessing a similar betrayal. Encouraged and supported by the US, Japan is spearheading a campaign to confront China in the Asia-Pacific region. Its efforts received not a reward but humiliation from the US. Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe had to humbly ask for a temporary exemption from the punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum imports initiated by Trump administration. What’s worse is that Japan might still have to make more concessions in bilateral trade re-arrangement talks despite the exemption. This cannot be explained solely by friendly fire damage: Japan’s legitimate interests have simply been overlooked.

Considering the way President Trump treats America’s traditional allies, other countries have no reason to expect continued cooperation from the US. More often than not, they will be unable to derive decent returns if the US keeps changing its policy stances at a frenzied pace. For instance, China was talked into supporting and implementing the resolutions by the United Nations Security Council to tighten sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The US was benefiting from such moves, at the cost of China’s relations with the Kim Jung-un regime. Soon China found its efforts were not appreciated by President Trump when he made a dramatic announcement in early March about his willingness to meet Kim Jong-un in person. China was left in a policy dilemma by the capricious US administration.

In fact, the American strategy of frequently mobilizing its position of advantages in policy feasibility becomes strategic deception to those countries that are cooperating and intend to cooperate with it. The cost to re-gain policy flexibility is high. China had to take the initiative first to inviting Mr. Kim to visit, and the cost is the damage on its international reputation because its image as a responsible major power is tarnished.

Historically, America has proven itself as an unreliable partner time and again. China is not the first country to be forced into making a U-turn to regain policy flexibility. For instance, in the 1970s, the Nixon administration revealed American eagerness to engage China to counter the Soviet Union, a fiercer rivalry. Its policy change put Japan, which was a major supporter of the U.S. containment policy, into a policy predicament. To avoid being marginalized in future China affairs, Japan was forced to break the ice with China and established bilateral diplomatic relations.

Just like the experience of other countries mentioned above, India now faces a similar situation in its relations vis-à-vis the US. It is true that the structural conflicts between US and China offers India the chance to gain advantages in major power politics. For many strategists in India, this might be the best time for India to practice the role of swing state between superpowers and with a balancing strategy, it can even moderate China-US difference to maintain international strategic stability. But this policy context needs to be explored further.

First of all, India-US relations have indeed improved after the election of Donald Trump. To further please Prime Minister Modi, the White House is driving and defending the use of “Indo-Pacific” phrase instead of “Asia-Pacific” since it has talked India into believing that Indo-Pacific can better highlight the rise of India. The effect is impressive and it might be the first example for rhetoric to be as effective as a policy tool. Despite all the promises and blessings in the phase, there is no concrete foundation to implement it. Prime Minister Modi is happy to invest heavily in their newly found romance. But it seems that India’s booming relations with the US is at the cost of its relations with China, at a time when it decides to take more aggressive stands against China on a handful of bilateral issues.

Since 2016, areas of confrontation between India and China are expanding, with the Doklam standoff becoming one of the most intense conflicts both have witnessed in decades. Unfortunately, the Doklam standoff shows that India-China relations can be damaged to the extent that India would swing to the U.S. side permanently and might not be able to swing back to China again.

The aggressiveness that was on display in the standoff by both countries demonstrates that neither side can afford to back down. As a result, there’s a predilection in decision-makers of both countries towards strong confrontational sentiments. Another consequence remaining unnoticed is the loss of strategic flexibility. That is to say, it reduces the room to seek amicable resolutions on a series of issues through negotiation in future.

With all exchanges of beautiful words between the two leaders, Prime Minister Modi is worried by President Trump’s recent moves in eliminating trade deficit against almost the entire world, since India is among the top 10 countries of American trade deficit. For the Trump administration, Prime Minister Modi’s heavy investment in wooing American support does not form a sufficient excuse for being given an exception. To the Indian government, the Trump administration is forcing India to soften its stands on bilateral trade, but one of the exact favors Mr. Modi expects is to make sure India benefit more from its trade with US. It seems as though the Trump administration first offered a ladder to Prime Minister Modi to climb to the top and confront China and is now taking the ladder away all by itself.

It might not always be correct when we say Trump’s diplomacy is notoriously known for being unpredictable: One thing we can predict is that all his polices lead to the America First doctrine. With a constantly changing Trump administration, India and China may realize that they don’t have to base their relations on America’s foreign policy and thus passively receive its due done by the so-called American foreign policy flexibility. When the US gets more flexibility, others are left with less.

The cost to undo the harm done by the successive confrontations in last year or two might be high but the situation has made the policy change necessary. It is delightful to see that Prime Minister Modi and his government now sees the necessity of course correction. His move of sending positive signals before his trip to China this June (on account of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) is a good start. President Xi has responded positively with a phone call between leaders. Now is the time to start over again and say: “hello, India”, “hello, China”.

About the author

Xie Chao

Xie Chao is an Assistant Research Fellow of the Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University, Beijing.