Trump is a short-term problem. The China challenge — on the other hand — is a continuing and long-term problem.
By Rajesh Rajagopalan
The contrast could not be greater. In Beijing, dozens of world leaders, strong and weak alike, kowtowed as President Xi Jinping outlined what he characterised as the “project of the century”, the so-called ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ that would expand China’s influence across Asia and the Indian Ocean. In Washington, President Trump, just over a hundred days into his presidency, is careening from one self-inflicted crisis to the next as it becomes clearer by the day that he is far more incompetent and ill-prepared for the office than even his worst critics had imagined.
Still, the contrast should not be overblown, especially its consequences for India’s external strategy. The challenge that China represents will be with us a lot longer than the Trump administration. And the US will remain a necessary partner for India and other states in the region to ensure an Asian balance. In assessing strategic needs, New Delhi should take a somewhat longer view than the Trump administration.
There was some hope that the new Republican administration would reverse what was seen as President Obama’s lackadaisical approach to China’s growing power and influence and to the pressure this put on American partners in the Asia-Pacific region. And some of President Trump’s statements, even when he was a candidate, appeared to suggest that he would take a more active role in countering China. But over the last few weeks, the White House has reversed itself, supposedly because it was seeking China’s help in controlling North Korea. The administration has even stopped its routine FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) in the South China Sea for a period to curry Beijing’s goodwill, though it has conducted one such FONOP since then.
Though the Trump administration’s fickleness is a problem, it is also imperative not to be overwhelmed by the contrast between an assertive, confident, seemingly strategically adept China and a bumbling Washington. Instead, the focus should be on the somewhat longer-term trends in the balance of power in the region and its imperatives.
What such a longer-term perspective would suggest is that China’s challenge to India’s interests is only set to grow further. Though China’s economic growth has slowed somewhat, China is still continuing to pull farther away from India with each passing year. Even if China’s growth rate slows to about five percent, and India’s growth rate increases to about eight percent, what China adds to its economy every year would still be about three times what India adds, ensuring that the gap between the two will continue to widen.
Of course, economic growth is not all. Having more money helps only if one is able to convert that into power resources. Here too, China does a much better job. For example, despite no previous experience with aircraft carriers, it is now building one domestically that is larger than the next Indian carrier, the domestically-built Vikrant. While India is struggling to build infrastructure in the northeast along the China border, China is building a highway and rail network that will connect it all the way to Europe, after completing an excellent communication networks to the Indian border. And while it took India three decades to build a light combat aircraft, China is well on its way to deploying a fifth-generation fighter, the J-20.
There are many reasons and excuses for India’s administrative and other infirmities, of course, but the simple truth is that India is not only relatively poorer but has trouble even converting whatever wealth it has into power resources. In addition, India’s risk-averse, defensive strategic mindset has not changed sufficiently to meet the challenge posed by China.
The growing power disparity with China will impact India in myriad ways, not only as greater military threat on its borders and in the seas around India, but also in terms of China’s political impact on India’s neighborhood as well as in larger global politics, especially in multilateral forums. Unlike India, China does consider military force as a tool to be deployed proactively, as can be seen by the way in which it has effectively taken control of much of the South China Sea. India should also expect continued heavy weather in multilateral settings, with China now even more willing to use these to constrain and contain India. In the neighborhood, China’s assertiveness and willingness to balance India will lead smaller states to play New Delhi and Beijing off against each other, forcing India on the defensive.
These strategic challenges will be with us for a considerable period of time, because the balance of power on which this is based will not change sufficiently in the coming decade or possibly even two.
It is unlikely to last beyond its current four-year term, assuming President Trump is not impeached even before the current term ends. Admittedly, the heated talk in Washington about an impeachment because of collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia is probably exaggerated. There is, as of now at least, little direct evidence of any collusion. What is more likely is that Russian involvement in the US 2016 election was dictated by President Putin’s personal dislike of Hillary Clinton, who he suspected was involved in an attempt to scuttle Putin’s own election in 2011. But a fairly open-ended investigation, which is what is likely now that former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been appointed Special Counsel to look into the allegations of collusion, has ways of going in unpredictable directions, and possibly unearthing serious acts of omission or commission that could at the very least further damage Trump.
But even assuming Trump is not impeached, his chances in the 2020 presidential elections seem poor, considering his current dismal popularity ratings. Some Republicans such as Ohio governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich are already making noises about running against Trump. If Trump continues his poor performance, we should expect more to join the fray. A number of Democrats are already gearing up for a serious challenge in 2020, and it is difficult to see Trump winning a second term (even keeping in mind the record of pollsters in the 2016 campaign). In brief, Trump is likely to be, at best, a one-term president.
But even if Trump wins in 2020, India’s essential strategic requirement will not change. India faces a far stronger China for a considerable period of time and it needs as many strong partners as it can get to increase Indian capacity to meet this challenge. While it would have been better if India had an American partner today that it can depend upon, it will still need an American partner in four or eight years because the China threat will still be with us. This strategic imperative should guide Indian policy.
Trump’s transactionalism and incompetence is a problem, but in strategic terms, it is a short-term problem. The China challenge, on the other hand, is a continuing and longer-term problem. New Delhi should try to limit any damage Trump may cause and seek any opportunities that are available, while waiting out the Trump administration.