In early May 2020, ominous fissures and dangerous face-offs erupted across multiple points along the 2100-mile-long Sino-India border and the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Contested boundaries that separate the two nuclear-powered nations got punctured with raw jousting and brutal fistfights (neither side used firearms), and yet many lives were lost.
Each side then invested heavily in the militarised ‘build-up’ and showed no signs of backing down. Escalation to unimaginably violent and disastrous levels was only a matter of one misstep that could have spiralled completely out of control.
The world watched with bated breath.
Tensions Between India and America's 'Enemy Number One'
The backdrop to the tense Sino-Indian flare-up was tarmacked over the years by Washington DC nailing Beijing as its ‘enemy number one’. There had been furious barbs exchanged by the Americans, prior to this Sino-Indian tensions, over bitter trade wars, Hong Kong, belligerence in the South China Seas et al.
On 30 May 2020, then-President Donald Trump remarked at the White House, “China’s pattern of misconduct is well known” and the petty politician in him couldn’t resist blaming the past administrations of the United States itself, “They were able to get away with a theft like no one was able to get away with before because of past politicians and, frankly, past presidents.
But unlike those who came before, my administration negotiated and fought for what was right.” The speech got increasingly angsty and specific with details like Wuhan laboratory, Hongkong, freedom of navigation, etc., - however, strangely there was no mention of the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation playing out on unforgiving heights of the Himalayas.
It was a surprising omission from the script as months earlier a surreal ‘Howdy, Modi’ had been staged to the squealing delight of Donald Trump and he had grandiloquently said, “India would have a true and great friend in the White House. And I can tell you, you have never had a better friend as President than President Donald Trump, that I can tell you.”
Trump then alluded to the specifics of the joint security commitments when he shared to thundering applause, “In November, the United States and India will demonstrate dramatic progress in our defense relationship, holding the first-ever tri-service military exercise between our nations. It’s called “Tiger Triumph.”
Trump's Mild Response to India’s Challenging Moment
So why then, did President Donald Trump seem to suffer selective amnesia during the 30th May speech when the tensions besetting two nuclear-powered nations representing well over a third of humankind, were explosively poised?
Why didn’t the patent Trump machismo seen earlier in name-calling of COVID-19 virus as the ‘Chinese virus', or bravado seen in imposing tariffs on Chinese wares, extrapolate to some serious castigating of Chinese expansionism and support for India in a moment of its dire need? Why was India’s supposed best friend in the White House, so reticent and guarded? Had a cat caught Trump’s tongue, effectively?
Indeed, the US did heed India’s urgent call for expediting certain military hardware (as was initiated with some other friendly countries) but the procurement, technology transfer, and information exchange arrangement was already in place – there was nothing pathbreaking about the same, at that time.
Frankly, there was an element of commercial attraction for the US defense industry to supply the wherewithal for the Indian Armed Forces, and it additionally afforded bragging rights to the voluble Trump to tom-tom his commitment to the US defense industry.
Secondly, the quintessential businessman who is supposed to have authored ‘The Art of the Deal’ rather vainly offered, “We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute”.
Months earlier he had similarly offered “help” on Kashmir to India and Pakistan, which raised hackles as Delhi always alluded to the Indo-Pak issues as ‘bilateral’ and a third-party intervention could only be an affront to Indian sensibilities.
For a man given to railing inelegance, ‘muscular’ posturing, and name-calling, Trump had been rather mild, mealy-mouthed with platitudinous statements during India’s challenging moment.
Hamas Is Not a Bigger Threat Than China. So What Explains US' Behaviour?
Contrast this, to the sharp reaction by the US Administration to the recent Hamas terror attack on Israel. From an outpouring of reassuring clarifications (“I come to Israel with a single message - You’re not alone”), name-calling Hamas, and financial-military support to even an unplanned dash by the POTUS to Israel. The US is bending backward to buttress Israel’s position, with no holds barred.
Even though President Joe Biden is no Donald Trump in terms of immoderation in expression and speech, Joe Biden has left no stone unturned in taking a clear, unequivocal, and biased side in favour of Israel, even at the cost of surrendering nuance and complexity that besets Israel-Palestine history. Making a far deeper suggestion, he reiterated, “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist”.
If somebody as politically correct as Joe Biden could go to the extent of saying, “At this moment, we must be crystal clear: we stand with Israel” – what had caught Donald Trump’s tongue in the Summer of 2020 when Delhi was fighting America’s ‘number one enemy’? Is a Gaza Strip-restricted organisation like Hamas to be considered, a far bigger threat than China?
Undoubtedly, irrespective of the dispensation in power, the US has been the most powerful supporter of Israel, financially, militarily, and diplomatically by offering invaluable ‘cover-fire’ of vetoing resolutions in favour of the most sanctioned country in the world i.e., Israel. Conspiracy theorists have often conjectured on how ‘Jews control everything’ – while some of it might be rooted in antisemitic rhetoric, false flourishes, or prejudiced positions, there is certainly a disproportionate draw and commitment that the US harbours towards Israel.
Numerically, while the Pew Research Center recorded the Jewish population in the US to be 5.8 million in 2021 – the Indian diaspora in the US is also about 5 million. Yet their ability to elicit contrasting reactions persists. Presumably, the Jews imagine a far more emotive and personalised resonance towards the State of Israel owing to the deep wounds of history and therefore rally around the US politics to ensure a clear voice in favour of Israel, at all times – it is perhaps not so, for Indians and India, as yet.
This is not to begrudge the US support towards Israel but only to recognise a starkly different reaction from Washington DC when the US' ostensible ‘number one enemy’ attacked its strategic ally in the Summer of 2020, as opposed to when a sanctioned terror organisation attacked yet another US ally, in the Autumn of 2023.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)