Xi Jinping’s “Neighborhood Diplomacy” since 2018 is a response to Donald Trump and a recalibration of how to move toward Sinocentrism in light of difficulties with BRI and past policies toward regional great and middle powers. Varied approaches have been taken to US allies and members of the aspirational Quad. To Japan, an about-face has been attempted of personal summitry and cooperation on BRI and other economic matters. To South Korea, there has been some relaxation of the harsh response to THAAD deployment mixed with increased pressure, especially on security matters. To Australia, strong discontent has been aired with no immediate prospects of a breakthrough for China. Finally, there is India, to which China has shifted course most abruptly, as it appears to have some hope, but this is mixed with warnings. As China grows emboldened with its ability to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and India is rocked by the accelerating devastation, China’s strategy toward India may grow more assertive.
Emerging even more confident after its speedy bounce back from the pandemic first seen in Wuhan, China has the option of wooing India in pursuit of soft power and as a champion of public goods or of pressuring when it appears more vulnerable. In 2019 China was taking a more congenial line toward Japan even as it turned the screws on South Korea—demonstrating that it viewed both options as useful for its state interests. In late March 2020 Modi announced a three-week shutdown, exposing the vulnerability India is facing. China could be expected to seize the opportunity, but how would it do so? Articles over the winter months reflected on India’s role as a new member of the SCO, its decision not to join RCEP, the visit of Donald Trump to India, and the impact of the pandemic on Sino-Indian relations. All coverage had as a focus or a subtext the image of Narendra Modi at a crossroads in his economic strategy, use of religious nationalism, and wavering between a Eurasian (SCO) agenda or a US-led agenda to contain China militarily.
India’s foreign policy in mid-2019 was well analyzed by Constantino Xavier, who wrote “While a Sino-Indian “modus vivendi” through coexistence remains a possibility, Modi’s foreign policy suggests that the probability is unlikely.”1 Modi’s delicate balancing act to rework non-alignment is becoming complicated by Xi Jinping’s assertive moves for a new order.
The Chennai summit in October 2019 between Modi and Xi was far from successful. Xi was apparently pursuing an ambitious agenda, as reflected in earlier Chinese articles on the relationship, eager for connectedness through Nepal, and to get India to follow through on its entry into the SCO and a finishing round of RCEP talks. Yet Modi limited his interest to bilateral economic ties (reducing a huge trade deficit through balancing) and failed to cap the meeting with any symbol of an improving relationship. Given recent friction, holding the summit seemed uncertain, as forces dividing the two sides complicated going beyond a newly stable relationship. Just one month before meeting with Xi, Modi had met with Putin in Vladivostok, which some saw as an effort to cool the warming Sino-Russian ties and Russia’s new attention to Pakistan,2 and the dynamics of the new SCO foursome were not giving any comfort to China in late 2019.3
2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations during a time when hopes ran high that a newly liberated India and a China proclaiming liberation by its people would work closely together. Relations have been troubled over most of the ensuing years, but
leaders were preparing a series of special events to celebrate this milestone, proceeding in the spirit of the “Wuhan Consensus,” based on Modi’s summit with Xi in that city in April 2018. Yet the anniversary year began with Wuhan acquiring different significance, as India’s evacuation of citizens and embargo drew criticism in China,4 following warnings that relations are at a juncture: India has joined the SCO but China fears it could be a disruptive influence; India is rejecting RCEP and is critical of BRI; and India’s strategic ties to the US are an issue. Certain Indian behavior in the Southern Tier of Asia is also arousing concern in Chinese sources.
India’s entry into the SCO and Modi’s vision of a “New India”
Li Xiaotian wrote about India and the SCO at the end of 2019,5 raising two possibilities: India would opt for a network of Eurasian strategic regionalism or it would become a negative influence aiming to balance China and Pakistan. At present its positive influence exceeds its negative influence, but it could become a negative factor in the development of the SCO since it regards the organization as a China-led mechanism designed to expand China’s influence. The SCO is at a crossroads, Sino-US relations are poised to become more antagonistic. India could be a disruptive factor, one reads. The situation was seen as still in flux before the pandemic’s impact.
At the end of 2019 Chinese articles were weighing Modi’s vision of a “New India” for its effect on bilateral relations.6 It is viewed as having two key parts: economics has priority and India seeks to assert its great power status. Yet economic growth is slowing, and religious nationalism is spreading, while policies in support of opening up clash with others favoring protectionism. The only choice should be for the “dragon and elephant to dance together” (longxiang gongwu), readers are told. Since 2018, in the intensifying Sino-US trade clash, India has been preparing for capitalizing on it to secure more investment, but China is also seeking a strategic dialogue along with economic arrangements that would lead to a “win-win outcome.” A rise in protectionism, clashing views of economic regionalism, and a security split were all feared as 2020 began. The improved atmosphere in 2018-19 was already showing signs of fraying by the start of 2020.
Trump’s visit to India
In anticipation of Trump’s visit to India, Zhang Quan wrote that Trump has been rough on Modi despite their early embrace, citing tariffs on Indian steel and aluminum and the drop in interest compared to Obama. Whether there will be recovery in the strategic partnership, in national defense cooperation, and with a mini trade deal is uncertain. Modi attended a grand rally with Trump in Houston in 2019 with ample mutual praise, and the welcome this time is planned to be lavish as well, said Zhang. Yet, the article notes that Trump waited to his fourth year in office to visit and has reduced India’s place in US global strategy. There is a disconnect, the Indian side stressing economics, and the US side a strategy based on China as an enemy. Given the reaction of India to date, the US is said to be disappointed, but it keeps trying. Trump had refused to go to the 2019 Republic Day parade, embarrassing India. Yet Modi’s decisive reelection, Trump’s desire to show success, and his quest for support from Indian-American voters led Trump to visit now. In 2018 India joined Japan and South Korea as a privileged defense industry partner. The 2019 agreement to jointly produce the F-21 will lead to large military orders. Yet progress on trade is doubted, in light of Trump calling India the “king of tariffs” and being obsessed with trade deficits. US trade demands weaken strategic cooperation despite the US quest for a partner versus China.7 Expectations for the summit were thus generally constrained.
Long Xingchun asked about the impact that Trump’s visit at the end of February, after he had failed to respond to prior invitations, would have.8 Trump waits for real benefits before traveling, and now India has agreed to a large arms deal, although a fighter jet order is not settled. Since Obama was in office, the US sees “armed India” as part of rebalancing, relaxing exports of the most advanced military technology and agreeing to joint production. This breaks the balance in South Asia, readers are told, worsening the confrontation between India and Pakistan and pulling on India to contain China. Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy is actually Asia-Pacific plus India, but India insists on diversifying to boost its bargaining power. Pakistan’s relations with Russia keep improving, sending a warning signal to India. Without mentioning China’s role, this says that Pakistan will find a response to Indian arms not favorable to the US through its nuclear program.
Chinese were distracted by the epidemic of COVID-19, but some were watching Trump’s trip to India closely in late February. The doubtful economic results could not have been disappointing. Despite Trump’s indifference to human rights, US media outrage at Narendra Modi’s treatment of Muslims—punctuated by a Delhi pogrom not far from Trump’s presence—put India in a light similar to that shone on China’s Muslim outrages. Concerns before the visit were apparently assuaged, but there was enough momentum in Indo-US security ties for Chinese to feel aroused even if Chinese articles feigned a mood of indifference to what had occurred. If Chinese earlier had been known to frown on Russian sales of advanced arms to India, India’s further drift to US arms sales, reaffirmed in this summit, must have made Chinese wish that Russia was the seller.
Lin Minwang argued that the China factor does not suffice to bring the US and India together.9 Writing that there were not many substantial results from the Trump-Modi summit and a gap remains in their strategic thinking, Lin insisted that India wants a regional structure centered on ASEAN inclusive in focusing on economic ties and infrastructure, while the US seeks a strategic quad narrowly oriented to security. If Washington and Delhi are both eager to counter BRI with talk of a “Blue Dot Network,” the US interest comes and goes and is not seen as dependable. Also, India calls for a “multiple alliance” with partners selected for specific issues. Thus, Trump cannot count on India to check China, even if military ties have been strengthened. The article concludes by calling for carefully watching whether the security environment for China will be affected and responding if it is. It ends with some uncertainty, raising doubt about the insistence that not much is happening in Indo-US security cooperation.
Yang Xiyu wrote about the US Indo-Pacific strategy, one of the purposes of which is to bring India onto the US geostrategic track. Yet in Trump’s visit to India the strategy was left out of the talks, the public speeches, and the joint statement, Yang remarks, discerning that this highlights the embarrassing situation of the US effort over two years to implement the strategy. This is not from lack of US military and diplomatic effort, such as setting up Quad talks and renaming its Pacific Headquarters the Indo-Pacific Command. However, India’s “Indo-Pacific” concept and dreams are completely different from those of the US.10 While its “eastward strategy” has led to joining organizations, including the EAS and SCO, and to actively integrating the Indian Ocean and Pacific regions, the focus has been the long-term development interests of India and independent pursuit of its own national interests, not to fit into the US Indo-Pacific strategy. This makes dialogue with the US difficult.
As India’s status and strength improve, it is increasingly reluctant to tie itself to the geostrategic plans of another great power. If it were to subordinate itself to the US, it would miss the chance to be part of the new structure of Asia. While progress may have been made on the sale of advanced US weapons systems, bilateral trade issues, and US support for India to become a permanent member of the Security Council, Trump returned empty-handed on drawing India into the US Indo-Pacific strategy, says Yang, adding that even Japan and Australia have been extremely cautious here. If Japan was the first to introduce the concept, its vision is different, eschewing the word “strategy” and downplaying the military aspects. China welcomes the economic integration of the two oceans, but Yang considers the military aspirations of the US geopolitical strategy impossible. Yang feigns success in thwarting US intentions, when Chinese concerns for India’s future moves are still palpable. Indeed, the joint statement has wording suggestive of some “strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific,” although explicit wording to this effect was eschewed—due to Modi’s caution.11
Chinese warnings raise security matters. One example is the Global Times article of March 8 insisting on countering India’s February provocation by detaining the Dai Cui Yun.12 India had claimed that intelligence revealed the ship was carrying equipment to make nuclear weapons, searched it, and seized machinery to manufacture long-range missiles (what the Indians call an industrial dryer) while apparently preparing to charge China with violating UN Security Council restrictions on nuclear proliferation. Yet the article charged that neither the Chinese nor the Pakistani company had anything to do with the military, and that the charges are fabricated, an insult to blackmail China, a move to get Western countries to pressure China to allow India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group without signing the NPT in accord with US double standards. While China is working to forge a new relationship of “dragon and elephant dancing together,” the arrogant Indian government and the governing Hindu nationalists are trying to act as a “police officer” in the Indian Ocean, and China must counter such provocative actions, one reads.
The pandemic brought out more mistrust between India and China. Masks and other products needed to combat China’s health crisis were withheld—some earlier ordered by China—and even stopped at the New Delhi airport. One article in Huanqiuwang referred to India’s moves as only “looking after one’s own interests” (xiaosuanpan). Statements by officials were not seen as inflammatory, as in the US, but India’s actions drew complaints. China appeared weakened in the first stages of the epidemic, not a time for adjusting its strategy to an emboldened Modi.
How much things changed in March! As China looms resurgent, India is shutting down. That may give China leverage to use its economic clout as India struggles to regain its footing and its health assets to offer support at a difficult time. With the United States on its knees, crippled by the pandemic as its image for good governance lies in shambles, China faces the challenge of pressing its advantage. At the end of March, its strategic choice was not readily discernable.
Recent speculation has turned to the possible shift in the balance of power from the pandemic, assuming that China will gain an advantage in 2020 and use it for pressing states to tilt their foreign policy in its favor. India could become a prime target. Of course, Pakistan awaits a large bailout, which could work against a Sino-Indian breakthrough. With Chinese treating India as at a crossroads, any Indian moves deemed adverse to China’s interests could result in more assertive responses after a lull in bilateral tensions following the Wuhan summit and Xi’s shift to “Neighborhood Diplomacy” in response Trump’s trade war and growing pressure.
In the intensifying struggle between the United States and China across the Indo-Pacific region India is, arguably, the biggest prize. Japan may have appeared briefly to be hedging plans for Xi Jinping to come for a “cherry blossom” state visit, and the signing of a “fifth communique,” but they were shelved not only because of COVID-19, but also amid Japanese media warnings that Xi had not done enough to improve the atmosphere for bilateral normalization. Russia has at times been touted as a power seeking an autonomous role in the region, especially with its policy toward India, but it has stuck closely with China and put more pressure on India with improving ties to Pakistan. Some suggested that Donald Trump aspired to shake North Korea loose and even turn it into a US partner, but that was a pipedream. South Korea has faced new pressure from China to distance itself from the US camp, so far to little avail. Chinese sources do not have high expectations for any imminent movement in the foreign policy of these countries, but some suggest that India could be in play for reasons of economics, national identity, and even recent diplomatic developments with China and the US. A hopeful mood toward India was still evident in late 2019 and early 2020, but it was mixed with warnings about various negative factors.
Th COVID-19 pandemic introduces a major force capable of challenging presumptions about the international and regional order. China appears to be emboldened, and India could be one of the countries most at risk and in need of external support. This bilateral relationship is worth close attention through the rest of 2020 as few expect serious follow-up to the Trump-Modi summit.