As US-China Ties Run Into Trouble, India Eyes Bigger Asian Role


New Delhi: As the US-China relationship becomes fraught with tension, Asia is doing what it does best — looking for balancing powers to hedge against both an aggressive China and an uncertain America.

Over the coming weeks and months, India plans to ramp up its already strong engagement with Asia with an eye to building alliances, hedging and projecting itself as a “leading power” in the region.

Vietnam’s foreign minister Pham Binh Minh and vice-president will visit India in the coming weeks. Malaysia’s already embattled PM Najib Razak is also expected to make a trip and India expects to host Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian PM, later this year.

The Bangladeshi PM is likely to visit in April, while foreign secretary S Jaishankar is currently on a tour of Sri Lanka, China and Bangladesh, both as a neighbourhood visit as well as contextualising these relationships within the larger Asian chessboard.

For the countries of the region, the initial days of the Trump administration has been replete with confusing signals. There is a general sense that the US-China relationship will be frosty at best, and the impact of this would be felt in every regional capital. Trump and his top cabinet picks have indicated a more confrontational stance on China’s island-building, definitely more aggressive on trade and tariffs, while walking away from the only Obama “pivot” exercise, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The Trump administration does not believe, as some do, that undoing TPP will open strategic space for China.

It believes that TPP would have had a limited impact in “containing” China and that Asian nations were in any case wary of Beijing’s intent and would look to hedge their bets.

On the other hand, after showing some desire to change the US-China template, Trump reaffirmed the “one-China” policy, secretary of state Rex Tillerson moderated his comments on South China Sea and North Korea’s recent missile test went off with a mild reproof from Washington.

For regional powers, it means two things — they know what to expect from China and are concerned, but they do not know much of what to expect from the new US administration, a cause of equal concern.

Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana told an interviewer last week that China might build on Scarborough Shoal, 300km from Manila, if it felt it would be unchecked.

“If we allow them, they will build,” he was quoted as saying. “That’s very, very disturbing. Very much (more) disturbing than Fiery Cross because this is so close to us.” The Philippines is arguably the closest US ally in the Asean region. Vietnam feels particularly let down with the death of TPP, having banked on its as a political signal.

An unchecked China could revive tensions in South China Sea. While Japan and India remain steady allies, Hanoi is keen to get a better sense of how the US wants to play in that region. This would be one of the top topics of conversation between Vietnamese leaders and their Indian counterparts.

India, thus far, appears to be on the right side of the new Trump administration and this gives it an interesting insight into Washington, these countries feel. Malaysia had fallen into China’s sphere of influence, particularly after Beijing stepped in to rescue the scam-ridden 1MDB company. Malaysian ports are hosting Chinese submarines, like Sri Lanka, and Malaysia has committed to buying submarines from China as well.

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