As Chinese economic and military power grows rapidly, countries across Asia are debating how they are going to deal with growing Chinese arrogance and use of its power. American unpredictability in the era of the mercurial President Donald Trump has rendered policy-making difficult. Trump has led his country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, bringing together countries from the US and Canada, to Australia and Vietnam, in an inter-continental free trade agreement, which was initiated by his predecessors.
Moreover, American allies such as Japan and rivals such as China have faced Trump’s wrath, with his imposition of stiff tariffs on trade. American unpredictability has rocked the Asia-Pacific. This has been accompanied by Trump’s desire to boost military ties across the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, with India playing an important role in balancing Chinese power, across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Prime Minister Modi has responded skillfully to this challenge. It is not in India’s interests to exacerbate tensions with a powerful China, merely to please an unpredictable American President. It is, however, imperative for India to work with other powers in the region, to see that China cannot use force, to fulfil its territorial ambitions and claims. The Doklam military standoff last year demonstrated that India would challenge China, if Beijing sought to cross into India’s territory. The Modi-Xi Jinping Summit meeting in Wuhan has laid the basis for closer cooperation between the militaries of India and China to defuse tensions, which could result from Chinese intrusions into territory claimed by India.
China is now determined to use its vast economic power, to win over India’s neighbours, ranging from Maldives and Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Expanding Chinese military cooperation, primarily with Pakistan, is reinforcing this. China is also ready to reinforce its massive economic aid in infrastructure projects, by contributing financially, to back leaders it believes would be less than friendly to India. Beijing is reported to have a cosy relationship with Begum Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, Khadga Prasad Oli in Nepal, Mahenda Rajapakse in Sri Lanka and Mohammed Solih in Maldives.
China evidently has a flawed understanding of democratic processes. It often goes wrong in its political assessment of the dynamics of development in democracies. It has also wrongly read the adverse long-term implications of its mercantilist aid policies, even in countries like its ‘all-weather friend’ Pakistan, where its motivations are being questioned, on the much-touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. India cannot match China in providing resources for projects/aid abroad.
Japan is, however, increasing cooperation with India to fund projects separately and jointly, across the Indian Ocean region. The US and its European allies are also evidently becoming increasingly aware of the need for cooperation and coordination with Japan and India, for financing projects in the Indian Ocean Region. India has to work with other like-minded countries, to balance Chinese power, even as it builds its military strength and expands security cooperation across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood.