On the 27th of April, Indian Premier Narendra Modi will travel to Wuhan for a meeting with President Xi Jinping. As mutual members of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and with India sitting as an observer during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, Xi and Modi see a great deal of each other, in spite of a tense atmosphere between the two nations.
Win-win versus zero-sum
While China has consistently called on India to embrace the spirit of anti-colonial liberation and join with fellow Asian nations by adopting a win-win mindset, when it comes to cooperative connectivity initiatives, border disputes and bilateral trade, the Modi government has consistently favoured hostility over holism and confrontation over cooperation.
For many nations, the hostility India has shown China would have already crossed a red-line, but instead, China retains a policy of keeping all doors open for reconciliation with India. For Modi’s part however, things are not so simple. Not only has Modi’s BJP government gone out of its way to provoke disagreements with China across a variety of fronts, but perhaps more importantly, the BJP has engineered, fostered and kindled a Sinophobic attitude in India that now permeates almost all echelons of society. According to the BJP mindset, China is not just a country with which India has disagreements – according to the BJP narrative, China represents a kind of zero sum threat to the cohesion of India, even when the BJP government itself has done more to destroy social cohesion in India than any prior government and has done more to isolate itself from China than China could have ever hoped to do, even if Beijing were to adopt New Delhi’s hostility.
China embraces the world, India fails to embrace its own multi-cultural society
In China, one sees a model for the future not only for Asia but for the wider world. The Chinese model in both bilateral and multilateral trade is one that places rational cooperation between nations over historical or ideological considerations. This Chinese model allows each side in a bilateral relationship to play to its own economic strengths, while organising investment mechanisms which compensate for areas where any partner nation is lacking.
This win-win mentality continues to secure China new partners while also helping to expand on long time friendships. China’s One Belt–One Road has been enthusiastically embraced by Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, much of the Arab world, most of central Asia, much of ASEAN including Myanmar, Cambodia and the newly multi-polar Philippines of President Duterte, many African nations and many southern European partners.
While South Korea and even Japan seek to improve ties with China and with Vietnam moving towards a policy of dialogue regarding the South China Sea dispute, India is increasingly the odd one out when it comes to a multifaceted policy of hostility towards China.
In order to facilitate its policy of hostility towards the world’s most dynamic economy, India has attempted to form partnerships with countries ranging from Japan to some ASEAN nations and the United States. While Japan can do little other than sell India goods it can barely afford including overpriced bullet trains and while few Asian countries including India’s ‘gateway to ASEAN’ Myanmar have indicated a preference for India vis-a-vis China (the opposite is generally true for Myanmar), the US is the real ‘mover and shaker’ behind Modi’s dream of an ‘Asia without China’.
The Trump card
The United States under Donald Trump has intensified the Obama era policy of attempting to turn India into a “security and trade partner” of the United States which in practical terms means that the US is happy to sell India a plethora of arms based on sales strategy that indulges the Sinophobia of many ruling Indian elites.
While both George W. Bush and Barack Obama helped increase bilateral trade between India and the United States, Trump presents a far more complex picture when it comes to trade with any Asian country. Yet there is also another angle to the Trump-Modi tango.
In the early 2000s, when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was banned from entering the US due to gross human rights violations concerning the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat. While Modi’s shift from Gujarat leader to national leader has seen Modi’s brand of Hindutva extremism lead to a rape epidemic and a general atmosphere of violent hostility towards Muslims, other religious minorities, ethnic minorities and Dalits, he is now not only welcomed but openly embraced by Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka who recently toured India as Modi’s guest.
When it comes to geopolitics, Trump and Modi see eye to eye on many issues. Both are unabashedly pro-“Israel”, both openly harbour anti-Chinese sentiments and perhaps the thing that endears Modi and Trump together more than anything else is an open bigotry towards Muslims.
Because of this, Trump and Modi are in many ways ideological brothers, but then comes the issue of money.
The trade deficit
For Donald Trump, trade deficits appear to be the most overriding concern in bilateral relations with just about every country in the world, weather old friends like those in western Europe and North America or new rivals like China.
While China remains the main target of Trump’s protectionist trade policies, the US under Trump has also threatened and often made good on threats against long time partners including South Korea, Japan, Canada, Mexico and the European Union. There is no indication that somehow India will be spared from the protectionist policies of the Trump White House that appear set to only increase.
If Trump can turn to South Korea and accuse them of dumping goods on the US, threaten Seoul with tariffs and ask them to pay more for US military protection, there is no reason to believe a country that has a much shorter history of friendship with the US like India should be somehow treated in a preferential way, in spite of India having a less advanced economy than South Korea.
Trump’s modus operandi in bilateral relations can be boiled down to “pay us more for our goods and sell us less of yours”. In other words, it is classical protectionism without any nuance. For a country like India with which the US has a trade deficit, there is no telling how many expensive US weapons Modi would have to buy from the US until Trump is satisfied enough to exempt India from the protectionist barriers that Washington is keen to erect against friends and foes alike.
Back to China
This reality clearly leaves Modi with an uncertain task on his hands. If India falls victim to Trump’s protectionist schemes from which it seems no friendly nation is spared, India might have little choice other than to reach some sort of gradual pragmatic understanding with China.
This likely reality plays into China’s hands as China has been consistent in encouraging India to embrace an inclusive, post-colonial pan-Asian identity even while Modi’s BJP kicks and screams about Hindutva exceptionalism in the say way that the US has its own tired exceptional narrative and its own crisis in peacefully managing its own multi-cultural society.
Thus, when Xi and Modi meet, Donald Trump will remain the invisible man in the room. That being said, Trump’s metaphysical presence will only be haunting India, not China, as China has many options to make-up for sales lost to US tariffs where clearly, Modi has not even fully thought through his initial position regarding the US and China.