Even though China is waging an all-out ‘people’s war’ against COVID 19, however, the state media and scholarship paid close attention to President Trump’s India visit.
The kind of flattery Donald Trump indulged in during his two-day state visit to India on 24-25 February is unprecedented. Even though he found it difficult to pronounce names such as Sachin Tendulkar and Swami Vivekananda, nonetheless, he exhibited confidence and managed to force his over 125,000-strong audience in Motera stadium to cheer for him after every single sentence. The situation on the ground may not reflect the optics, however, it would be wrong to conclude that India-US relations have not made headways. India-US strategic partnership has been elevated to the level of “Comprehensive Global Partnership”, which has sprawled into deepening cooperation in defence, energy, counter-terrorism, trade and technology, homeland and regional security including the Indo-Pacific. The very fact that five US Presidents visited India in the last two decades compared to only three between 1959 and 2000, demonstrates that the rise of China and repositioning of the US’ strategic global objectives have brought about this difference. So how has China reacted to President Trump’s India visit?
Even though China is waging an all-out “people’s war” against COVID 19, however, the state media and scholarship paid close attention to President Trump’s India visit. China’s Xinhua News Agency pronounced it as “more rhetoric than reality” and “much ado about nothing”. First and foremost, some Chinese scholars indicated that Trump did not accord India priority even though India extended him an invitation as soon as he entered the White House in 2017; in 2018, India wished to invite him as the guest of honour for its 2019 Republic Day parade, however, Trump kept India on the tenterhooks until as late as November and then chose China, Japan and South Korea instead, forcing India to invite South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on a very short notice. Chinese scholars asserted that this visit took place because of the forthcoming US election in which the 4 million strong Indian origin voters could make some difference.
Secondly, China believes that Trump has been successful in “giving away less and getting more” from India. The analysts argue that the main objective of Trump’s India visit was to sell arms. The $3 billion deal that Trump said would “provide India with some of the best and most feared military equipment” has not gone well with the Chinese. A piece published by Tencent says, “To say that the US-made helicopters are not the best in the world is a bit unfair, but to say they are most feared is totally nonsense, for these are all tactical weapons devoid of any strategic significance in the battlefield. Though the Apache helicopters look beautiful, but the US has discovered from their deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s that they were highly inefficient and extremely vulnerable to local shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles; the 21 anti-submarine helicopters are rather more effective. In contrast, the Obama administration’s approval to sell P-8A anti-submarine aircraft and C-17 strategic transport aircraft to India was the real big deal.” Furthermore, the article ridicules India’s purchase under the circumstances that it confessed to Trump that “90 millions of her people were without electricity!” In contrast, as early as the end of the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000), “China realized the first major electrification of rural areas and transformation of the first large-scale urban and rural power grid thus making electricity accessible to 97% of its population.”
Thirdly, Chinese analysts believe that there are structural contradictions between India and the US as far as trade is concerned. Even if there is so much hype about the friendship, but both failed to sign a limited trade deal. Trump didn’t even spare India as far as trade war was concerned and accused the country of having the “highest tariffs the world”, labelling it as the “tariff king”. If this wasn’t all, the US President also complained that the outsourcing of services by American companies had led India to steal American jobs, argues one Chinese scholar. He says, “there have been several trade related frictions between the US and India since 2018”—in June 2019, the US announced the abolition of India’s Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, forcing India to retaliate by imposing up to 120% duties on 28 US products, further exacerbating bilateral trade tensions. However, the scholar believes that the US remains optimistic about India’s economic development prospects, and the normalization of US-India economic and trade relations is conducive to US companies having a larger pie of the Indian market. Another article in Sohu.com says that even if India and the US talk about cyber security cooperation, however, the market predicts that India is likely to choose Huawei technology and equipment based on cost over other players such as Nokia and Ericsson.
Fourthly, what has worried China the most is the US wooing India in its Indo-Pacific strategy and Blue Dot Initiative, which aims to bring governments, the private sector and civil society together to promote “high quality, trusted standards for global infrastructure development against China’s Belt and Road Initiative”. Chinese scholars have started to pronounce the “US-Japan-India-Australia” Quad as the mainstay of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the main objective of which, they say, is to contain the rise of China. One article says that at this point in time, “India needs the ‘tiger skin’ so as it can have a backup when it plays against a big and much stronger country, even if it has a lot of symbolic significance.” At the same time, there are others who believe that India is reluctant to act as a pawn of the US: Narendra Modi knows that in the hour of crisis such as 2017 Doklam, “the West didn’t come forth with any substantial help”. The Chinese commentators are silent on the US’ support for India’s entry into the NSG and adding the Haqqani Network and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to the terror list, but are quick to tweet that the Indian audience at Motera stadium went from “cheers to chill” when Trump declared that “Our relationship with Pakistan is a very good one”. Some other reported that Trump’s visit was greeted with violent riots between Hindus and Muslims in Delhi and between the Maoists and police in Madhya Pradesh.
In conclusion, there has been sarcasm as well as paranoia about the convergence of Indian and US interests, especially in terms of security ties and interoperability of the defence platforms of the two countries. However, China believes that owing to the asymmetrical relationship between India and the US, the latter will not give in much. As regards India, China believes, it will not mind taking a piggyback ride, but will not compromise its strategic autonomy.