Donald Trump singlehandedly upended ties with strategic partner India in paying fealty to Xi Jinping

Donald Trump has landed in Vietnam for the APEC Summit after completing the China leg of his 12-day tour of Asia. The signs that have emerged from the US president's maiden visit to China should leave India worried. The unpredictable Trump, as had been feared, has single-handedly upended US foreign policy trajectory.

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping participate in a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, on 9 November, 2017 in Beijing. AP/ PTI

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping participate in a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, on 9 November, 2017 in Beijing. AP/ PTI

Leading to and during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's recent visit to India, the policy direction pointed towards a greater role for India as the fulcrum of a 'free and open Indo-Pacific region'. It also envisaged a security grouping (quad) of 'like-minded democracies' with India at the centre to push back against a China-centric regional order. The foundation of these verticals has been shaken.

In his CSIS speech during Diwali, Tillerson castigated China for its predatory economics, scant regard towards the rules-based order and failure to take into account sovereignty concerns in mega connectivity projects. He upheld India as the beacon of democratic values with whom the US is interested in stitching up a strategic partnership for "the next 100 years".

As professor Manpreet S Anand, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia in the Barack Obama administration wrote in Foreign Policy, "By recognising India’s role in a larger strategy to promote 'rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade,' Tillerson put forward what the Trump administration has struggled to build until now — a coherent view on the values that underpin its foreign policy."

The term 'Indo-Pacific' — that the Trump administration has been using abundantly as opposed to the Obama-era 'Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region' — in itself spoke of the recognition of India's importance in ensuring a maritime free commons. A senior White House official told PTI during Trump's Japan visit that it is an acknowledgment of the "strong and growing ties with India. We talk about 'Indo-Pacific' in part because that phrase captures the importance of India's rise."

The Trump administration seemed to be showing strategic continuity and even taking forward the notion of previous administrations that democratic India is a natural counterweight to an autocratic China. Among the Indian policymaking and strategic circles, skeptical voices did warn against a visible swing but those were fading in the background in favour of an emerging consensus that a greater strategic and security partnership with the US is needed to balance China's assertive rise.

In one fell Trumpian swoop, the entire superstructure of an emerging affiliation and Indo-Pacific tilt that the US State Department and the national security establishment has been at pains to promote has been replaced, at least ostensibly, with a 'new type of power relation' with China. This was straight out of Xi Jinping's playbook.

Trump seemed to have walked into the trap laid by Xi who wants nothing more than the US to recognise China as an equal partner in a bipolar global order, and had made fanning of the Trumpian ego through a show of pomp and grandeur an obvious means to achieve that end.

This may not only further skewer the already precarious power imbalance in Asia, it may also have a deleterious effect on US-India bilateral ties. That is, of course, unless Trump's pivots swing wilder than a yo-yo.

Before Trump had landed in Beijing, some US analysts had predicted that while the US president may not take a confrontationist attitude in China, the US strategic ship is sailing firmly away from a 'G2 direction' and in the coming months, a decidedly hawkish approach will emerge. The expectation was that the US will eventually take an increasingly competitive stance towards China but Trump won't make it apparent while enjoying Xi's hospitality.

Ely Ratner, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on US-China relations, told Chinafile that "Trump’s time in Asia will only amplify his Janus-faced approach to China. The China visit will be all smiles, bookended by pronouncements about a new strategy that implies a harder line toward Beijing. My bet is the tougher policy will clearly emerge and ultimately win out in the coming months, but we’ll see little evidence of that while Trump is on the ground in China."

Quoting officials, Josh Rogin wrote in Washington Post that "Trump doesn’t want any friction with Xi during his Beijing stop, so don’t expect him to challenge Xi directly on human rights or North Korea. But in speeches in other countries, Trump will call out China’s aggression in the South China Sea, its predatory trade practices, and America’s commitment to an open and free, rules-based order in the region."

It was expected that Trump may display friendliness towards Xi, but nobody foresaw a show of fealty instead. Trump's extraordinary 'pivot' started well before he had landed in Beijing. While getting ready to address the South Korean National Assembly, Trump indicated a willingness to meet Xi and congratulated the Chinese autocrat for his "great political victory".

This, as some analysts have pointed out, was the biggest negation of the values of liberalism and democracy that the US has historically stood for and promoted because Trump's congratulatory tone will be taken as an endorsement of Xi's blatant power grab in an authoritarian political system. Trump has repeatedly revealed himself to be an admirer of autocrats and this approach was consistent with his behavior. While commenting on this aspect of Trump's character, The Economist scathingly observed: "Not only does he (Trump) admire dictators; he explicitly praises thuggishness, such as the mass murder of criminal suspects in the Philippines. He does so not out of diplomatic tact, but apparently out of conviction. This is new. Previous American presidents supported despots for reasons of cold-war realpolitik. (“He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” as Harry Truman is reputed to have said of an anti-communist tyrant in Nicaragua.) Mr Trump’s attitude seems more like: “He’s a bastard. Great!” What we saw during the tour cemented the impression further. Trump was blown away at the feigned deference showed by Xi, who made few behavioral concessions even as Trump piled on the rhetoric. He praised Xi as a "special man" and even refused to blame China for the yawning trade deficit. He blamed predecessors instead for "allowing" China the space to open up such a deficit, and gave China "great credit" for exploiting the US. It apparently took Xi one serving of Chinese hospitality to turn Trump into a fawning fan from a withering critic. Even as Xi remained affable yet politely formal, Trump changed his Twitter header picture into one featuring the Chinese president and his wife and posted one sugary message after another.

It is debatable whether Trump, despite his so-called deal-making abilities, managed to achieve much, given the fact that much of the $250 billion "deals" that were signed were memoranda of understanding (MoU) sans binding agreements. Xi didn't concede anything beyond promising to open up China's market and vowing to implement UN sanctions against North Korea. On both counts, China has spoken with forked tongues before.

On touching down in Vietnam, Trump against stressed on 'America First' trade policy at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. He told a roomful of APEC leaders in Da'Nang, Vietnam, "We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore… I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”

This seems more of an attempt to bully smaller nations on trade ties with the US instead of a pushback against China but even if it is a case of the latter, it does little to refute the impression that US president has conceded much more than he has gained in China. It also speaks of fatal inconsistencies in US foreign policy that will be confusing for allies and partners alike.

Updated Date: Nov 10, 2017 18:24 PM

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