U.S.&China: Looming confrontation

Print edition : August 14, 2020

June 29, 2019: U.S. President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

An F/A-18E Super Hornet lands on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea on July 6. Photo provided by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. has been ratcheting up its naval presence in the Pacific. Photo: NYT

The U.S. and China seem to be moving inexorably towards a serious conflict, and it can be detrimental to India’s national interests in the long run if it gets caught in the middle.

At a time when most of the world remains focussed on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the United States and China are engaged in a quarrel over a host of issues that threatens to get out of control and enmesh the international community. The Donald Trump administration’s inability to contain the uncontrolled spread of the pandemic in the U.S. has prompted the targeting of China. With President Trump facing an uphill task in the 2020 presidential election, his strategists seem to have calculated that his only route to victory is blaming China for the pandemic and the economic ills that have befallen the country in the last four years. In a racist rant in a recent statement, Trump accused the Chinese government “of concealing the virus and unleashing it upon the world”, without, as usual, providing any evidence. Even before the pandemic struck, the U.S. and China were embroiled in trade and tariff disputes.

The introduction of new national security laws by the Chinese government in Hong Kong, after protesters there made the important global financial hub virtually ungovernable, has led to the U.S. and the United Kingdom imposing more sanctions on China. Trump ordered an end to the preferential trade status enjoyed by Hong Kong. The “Hong Kong Autonomy Act”, unanimously passed by the U.S. Congress in early July, has given approval for the sanctioning of senior Hong Kong officials and banks. Many observers have viewed the Trump administration’s moves as self-defeating. The U.S. had a trade surplus of $26.1 billion with Hong Kong last year. More than 1,300 American companies operate from there, and around 85,000 American citizens are resident in Hong Kong.

In recent months, the U.S. has attempted to whip up tensions in the South China Sea by provocatively despatching two of its biggest aircraft carriers along with submarines into the area when the Chinese navy was carrying out a drill. Rarely do drills by competing countries happen at the same time. Rear Admiral George Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the USS Ronald Reagan, said that the American naval exercises were in response to China’s growing military assertiveness in the region.

The Trump administration has been trying to prod the South-East Asian countries that have territorial claims in the area to become more assertive militarily and diplomatically against China. The U.S. is also trying to draw other countries like India in the broader region into the South China Sea dispute. 

Neighbours more circumspect

After India’s recent face-off with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Narendra Modi government seems more inclined to jump into the South China Sea dispute on the side of the U.S. In comparison, many South-East Asian nations involved in the dispute are taking a more cautious stance. The Philippine government, despite a favourable decision from a U.N.-constituted arbitral tribunal in 2016, has put the territorial dispute on the back burner, opting instead for stronger commercial and diplomatic relations with China. In the second week of July, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman emphasised that the maritime dispute “does not sum up our relations with China” and reaffirmed that the government did not want to enforce the 2016 ruling. Benigno Aquino, the Philippine President who went to the international tribunal, had adopted a pronounced anti-China foreign policy and was very close to the U.S. An American legal firm had drafted the legal case for the Philippines.

Vietnam, which has been the most vociferous in staking its territorial claims in the South China Sea, has at the same time been careful to not gang up militarily with the U.S. Vietnam and China fought a brief but bloody border war in 1979. The differences on the land border between the two countries have since been resolved.

The U.S. accuses China of not adhering to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Unlike China, the U.S. is not a signatory to the Convention, and yet it insists that other countries adhere strictly to its clauses. The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman said in the second week of July that the South China Sea was part of the Global Commons and therefore India had an abiding interest “in peace and stability in the region”. The spokesman was reacting to a comment by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea “was completely unlawful”. Pompeo also denounced China’s “bullying” of smaller powers and its alleged flouting of the international rules-based system. The Indian statement was an implicit endorsement of the Trump administration’s hawkish stance on the South China Sea issue.

The U.S. has now formally stated its support for the claims of the South-East Asian countries over the South China Sea. None of the governments concerned has welcomed this unsolicited American support and interference in the affairs of the region. For that matter, Taiwan, America’s close ally, supports China’s historic claim to the entirety of the South China Sea, though it has chosen to remain quiet on the issue. 

In response to Pompeo’s comments, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Beijing was strongly committed to peacefully resolving disputes with other nations. China warned the nations of the region to “beware of sabotage” by the U.S. Most ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries do not want outside powers meddling in their maritime dispute with China any more than China does. 

The ASEAN grouping had agreed to formalise a “code of conduct” agreement with China to regulate actions in the South China Sea by 2021. It is based on the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was signed by China and the 10 ASEAN states. ASEAN members have territorial disputes among themselves too. Indonesia and Vietnam, for instance, have a maritime boundary dispute. 

Until the end of the last century, the South China Sea was treated as an American lake. Things have begun to change in the 21st century, with an assertive China determined to protect its interests and keep the U.S. military at a distance from the mainland. As it is, many U.S. military bases are in close proximity to the Chinese mainland. Japan, China’s main regional rival, hosts large U.S. military bases. The U.S. also has big military bases in nearby Guam, South Korea and South-East Asian countries such as the Philippines and Singapore. 

The Strait of Malacca, through which much of China’s sea trade is routed, is particularly amenable to a blockade by its strategic enemies. China has countered this threat by converting many natural and man-made islands into military bases in the South China Sea. The Malacca Strait forms the shortest waterway linking the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. It is shallow and narrow, only 2 km wide at its narrowest.

In fact, many strategic experts predict that the heavy military build-up by the Americans, coupled with the Trump administration’s high-decibel rhetoric demonising the Chinese government, could spark a full-blown war between the two countries. The Chinese side is prepared for a worst-case scenario, as recent statements by senior Chinese military and Communist Party officials have indicated. 

U.S.-India naval partnership

After the recent clashes between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the LAC, the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, said that he had conveyed to the government the country’s naval options to relieve pressure on the northern borders. In December 2019, Admiral Singh described China as an “un-resident naval power” in the Indian Ocean. Since then, the Indian Navy has increased its surveillance missions and operations in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Navy has been more than happy to partner with the Americans in doing so. In fact, the Indian Navy chief boasted that India was the U.S.’ “first responder” and “preferred security partner”. The relationship between the two navies is so close that there is now an Indian officer posted in the U.S. Navy’s Central Command (NAVCOM) in Bahrain.

The annual “Malabar” exercises and the establishment of a quadrilateral military alliance with the U.S., Japan and Australia are targeted against China. With the inclusion of Australia in the Malabar exercises, India hopes to expand its military reach into the broader Indo-Pacific region. With the Strait of Malacca in focus, the Indian Navy has upgraded its naval base in the Andamans, located just 80 nautical miles from the Malacca Strait. India has purchased U.S.-made Sea Hawk helicopters worth $2.6 billion, boosting the Navy’s anti-submarine capabilities. Both the U.S. and India have expressed concern about the increase in Chinese submarine activity in the Indian Ocean region.

The Indian Navy in July participated in exercises with the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and other American ships in the Indian Ocean which were part of a U.S. naval strike force that the Trump administration had sent to the South China Sea region. A statement by the U.S. Navy said that the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force was currently deployed in the Indian Ocean in support of “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. The aim of the joint exercises is “to improve interoperability” of the two navies, the U.S. spokesman said. 

Galwan fallout

After the recent incidents along the LAC, the Modi government seems eager to deepen the military partnership with the U.S. and its close allies like Japan and Australia. The U.S. and India have already signed military agreements similar to the ones North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries have with the U.S. In 2015, the two sides signed a document called “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region”. Recent India-U.S. defence agreements include the Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement, which gives basing facilities to American soldiers; the renewed Defence Framework Agreement; and the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement. In 2016, the Trump administration granted “major defence partner” status to India. 

Nirmala Sitharaman, when she was Defence Minister, had said that defence cooperation had become “the most significant dimension” of the strategic partnership between the two countries and “the key driver of our overall strategic relationship”. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), U.S. arms exports to India have risen dramatically since the Modi government took over. The U.S. has sold arms worth over $20 billion to India in the last six years. 

Pompeo said that the U.S. had “never been more supportive of India’s security” and that India was “an important partner and key pillar” of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. 

A senior SIPRI researcher told The New York Times in December last year: “India is now at a level where it’s basically like a NATO partner even if there is no alliance.”

India’s military embrace of the U.S. and the sacrifice of the country’s strategic autonomy have not gone unnoticed in the region and the world. One of the reasons attributed to the Chinese army’s recent exertions along the LAC is a growing belief in China that India is actively assisting the U.S. in the build-up to a military confrontation. China feels that some of India’s recent actions do not adhere to the “Wuhan spirit”.

China’s allies in the region

All countries in the region, barring India and Bhutan, have good relations with China. Nepal has shifted away from India dramatically in the last decade and is now noticeably closer to China. Some short-sighted moves by the Modi government have backfired. After the Doklam fiasco on the border between Bhutan and China, Bhutan too seems eager to chart its own foreign policy course. Bhutan is the only country that does not have full diplomatic relations with China. Freely spending Chinese tourists had started visiting the country in large numbers and were a source of valuable foreign exchange. The Bhutanese would like to settle their border dispute with China. Beijing has once again made an offer for an exchange of territory: a “package solution” involving a territorial swap with China handing over territory to the north of Bhutan in exchange for territory on the west. Doklam falls in this area. China had earlier made a similar proposal, which the Bhutanese were tempted to accept because the country would make a gain in territory. But the Indian government dissuaded the Bhutanese from accepting it.

The Chinese have built deep sea ports in Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan and are in the process of building one in Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. The ports are part of the infrastructure-building work undertaken under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The port in Myanmar will help China avoid the Malacca Strait while accessing goods and energy from the West Asian market. But policymakers in Washington and New Delhi believe that these ports could potentially be used as military bases by the expanding Chinese Navy. 

India, with great fanfare, had signed an agreement to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar, which lies adjacent to Gwadar. The project has been hanging fire for a long time as the Indian government has failed to start serious work on the upgradation of the port because of American pressure and a resource crunch. The Iranian government, labouring under draconian American sanctions, has finally lost patience.

In the third week of July, Iran announced that an important rail project that India was to undertake, connecting the Chabahar port to Zahedan, would now be completed without Indian participation. The line is to be extended to Zaranj, across the border in Afghanistan. The railway was a trilateral agreement between Iran, India and Afghanistan to build an alternative trade route to Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. India signed the rail agreement four years ago but then apparently lost interest after the Trump administration re-instituted sanctions on Iran. From available indications, China will step into the project. 

The Iranian government said that the $400 million project would be completed in two years. The announcement followed the news that Iran was on the verge of signing a 25-year, $400-billion strategic partnership deal with China, involving investments in infrastructure, manufacturing and upgrading of energy and transport facilities, ports, refineries and other installations. Iran had proposed a tie-up between the Chabahar and Gwadar ports. The Gwadar port is an important component of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Iran has already offered parts of the Gwadar port to China for development. If India dilly-dallies any further, the entire Chabahar project will fall into China’s lap.

In the same week, India also lost its stake in the Farzad-B gas field in the Persian Gulf, estimated to possess 21.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation had discovered the field, and India was expected to invest $6 billion to develop it. After the Indian government kowtowed to the Trump administration’s ultimatum to cease all economic dealings with Iran, it was clear to the Iranians that the promised Indian investments would not be forthcoming any time soon. It will not come as a surprise if the contract for developing the gas field now goes to a Chinese company. 

In a nutshell, India’s siding with the U.S. in the Asia Pacific region can be detrimental to its national interests in the long run. Preserving “strategic autonomy” still remains a laudable goal, notwithstanding External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s claim that times have changed and groupings like the Non-Aligned Movement have lost their relevance. Pompeo, meanwhile, urged India to “move supply chains away from China and reduce its reliance on Chinese companies in areas like telecommunications, medical supplies and others”.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has admitted that relations between Beijing and Washington are at a historic low and are facing the biggest challenges since diplomatic relations were established in 1979. Wang, however, emphasised that China “never intends to challenge or replace the U.S.”. But most American policymakers, cutting across party lines, view China as a clear and imminent danger. A few years ago, Henry Kissinger predicted that from a “historical point of view, China and the U.S. are almost destined for a conflict”. India should not be caught in between.

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