There’s a lot of talk on why India agreed to the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, at a time when the US Election Day is just a week away. True, the visit is part of the now regular ‘2+2’ talks, which has the Indian Foreign and Defence Secretary playing host in its third iteration.
In more stable times, New Delhi would have opted to wait for new appointees in another administration, though it would have meant further delay in the dialogue taking place at all.
Clearly there is a sense of urgency, and also fears in some quarters that a Biden Administration may not have quite the same focus on China as earlier.
The truth however is, that while the language may be different and definitely less noisy, China is far too central a threat to the US, for any administration to brush it aside. The threat in fact, has worked itself into US policy in diverse ways, ensuring a continuance of policy and its most important features.
On 27 October, Mike Pompeo in fact said:
“Our leaders and citizens see with increasing clarity that the Chinese Communist Party is no friend to democracy, rule of law, transparency... I’m glad to say India and US are taking all steps to strengthen cooperation against all threats and not just those posed by CCP.”Mike Pompeo at India-US 2+2 Dialogue 2020
What The’ China Threat’ Is All About
First, the fundamental principle under which any US President functions is the attainment and retention of a US-centred world, an objective which is readily apparent in National Security documents over the years. That’s not going to be easy at a time when according to the World Bank’s ‘International Comparison Program’, China’s total real income was slightly larger than the US. Its GDP standing calculated on Purchasing Parity Index was almost the same as the US at USD 19.617 and USD 19.519 trillion respectively in 2017.
That’s really not the total picture, as experts point out, when it comes to comparing geopolitical clout, or when using Per Capital Income as a standard, when China falls rapidly in standing. But nonetheless, it certainly shows which way the trade winds are blowing, and that no good for a power that has so far managed to dominate among other things, the financial systems, how the ‘global commons’ works, and how the Internet works.
China is now challenging all of this, including with a proposal for a new Internet Protocol to replace the present system. This trend of Beijing – challenging the global order – is what characterises the ‘Xi era’ . So, be it Biden or Trump, that challenge remains.
Second, the ‘China threat’ is not just the stuff of open declamations. It is also the stuff of legislative measures. This includes sanctions on companies involved in Xinjiang, penalising banks doing business with Chinese officials implementing Hong Kong’s draconian national security law, another which plans for the audit of Chinese companies participating in the US bourses.
At another level are recent measures aimed at ensuring US superiority through a National Strategy for Critical Technologies. This document also refers to China’s own push towards military applications in this area through ‘Civil-Military Fusion’, and ways to energise US civil nuclear technology in terms of exports of reactors and so on.
This is not just an election flash in the pan; it’s deadly serious in a realisation that the US could lose out quickly unless it does a course correction.
Effect of China’s Rise In The Very Alliance Relationships That Underpin US-Led Global Order
Third, is the overflow of this concern into the area of military leadership and budgeting. The Trump Administration has progressively increased the military budget, aimed at reversing the erosion of the US military advantage , and politically a strong selling point. This also raised pay for troops, the first ever paid family leave, and a Space Force, the first such new raising in 78 years. Along with this was the Annual Report on the capabilities of the PRC, which included the startling finding that the Chinese navy was now the largest globally.
No Pentagon official is going to walk back from that finding, which feeds into better budgets for the services.
Another less noticed one was the Irregular Warfare Annexe to the National Defence Strategy, which also tick-boxed China, as a state practitioner of such methods. All of this feeds into training, procurement, logistical and deployment decisions, all which in any case bolsters the earlier Obama era decision to ‘pivot to the East’. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ nomenclature after all, wasn’t pulled out of a hat, and is part of the strategy that also recently led to a US Defense Agreement with Maldives, that incidentally was also shown to India.
Fourth, is the effect of China’s rise in the very alliance relationships that underpin the US-led global order.
The UK for instance, which has positioned itself as a kind of US extension counter in Europe, is likely to find it difficult to give up some USD 50 bn in Chinese investments critical to job-creation. A Chinese steelmaker recently stepped in with a USD 1.2bn deal to save British Steel earlier in 2020, just as Jaguar was (similarly) rescued. Brexit is also likely to dent US investment (now at some USD 758 bn), but the Chinese push is expected to rise.
US-China Spat: Europe-Centric NATO’s ‘Conflict Of Interest’
Germany, already one of the largest destinations of Chinese investors, is showing a desire to keep China close in a COVID-hit business environment. France, Italy, Spain are all major destinations of Chinese investment in Europe, which, while dropping sharply in 2019, is now at twice the level of the US. Apart from all this are several R&D collaborations, with greater potential for close-knit ties.
With all this activity among prime NATO partners, the US has begun to apply the brakes, with a US-EU dialogue on China on the cards.
Europe-centric NATO therefore has a conflict of interest regarding the US-China spat, influenced obviously by the fact that it has no common border with the ‘threat’ as it once did with the Soviets.
Certainly, European reliance on freedom of the seas for its trade ensures some commitment to the US ‘Indo-Pacific’ project, but not much more.
The same applies to the second tier of US Treaty partners Japan, Australia and South Korea. China has invested more than USD 100 bn in Australia over the last decade, even as it achieved a record trade surplus on the back of surging exports. Chinese inbound investment has dropped sharply, as ties sour between the two. But there is no doubt of an economic interdependence that is as complex as it is influential.
What The World Order Is Now About – And US-India Convergence
Japan, under a new government, is likely to look for better relations with China; even Pompeo observed that Tokyo was to sign a new Host Nation support agreement – which, in simple language, means that Japan has to pay more for its defence – while South Korea has also been part of Trump-badgering for better ‘burden-sharing’ and trade. The 12th largest economy in the world is heavily reliant on China for its economic position, while it depends on Washington for its defence. Beijing takes full advantage of this sustained pushing of its allies by the US.
In sum, India doesn’t have to worry about a shift in focus away from China. Certainly, the two will also ‘cooperate’ when it suits one or the other.
As our very own EAM Jaishankar says, the world order is now about “issue-based convergence” rather than being based on static agreements.
That’s good, because unlike closer Alliance partners, India-US convergence in this area couldn’t be better. That convergence will hold, for reasons that include – on the one side – the very basis of what America is all about; and on the other, Beijing’s unhealthy appetite for other people’s territories.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)