India, US and China: A Tale of an Alliance in Conflict

In 1962, when the first Indo-China conflict broke out in The North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), India and the United States had a cooperative partnership. Today, while India is embroiled in another conflict with China, many people reminisce about the said US partnership with India against China. We have not seen any substantial evidence of American involvement in the issue. Trump, who has been a harsh critic of Chinese policy, may be the answer, but the recent book released by his former National Security Advisor John Bolton, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” reveals that Trump might not be a reliable President to bolster bilateral ties with.    

Winston Churchill’s description of Russia during World War II may hold true today for long-standing British Ally ,The United States of America. Churchill said “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” 

India also faces trouble, with a country that is neither America or Russia. A neighbour to the east, the dragon in the room requires no introduction. China has been a tough cookie to crack for various governments. A growing economic power that is trying to get a piece out of everyone’s pie. Now, to the dissatisfaction of many countries, China has become more vocal about its territorial claims than ever before.  When COVID-19 struck, the world unanimously pointed its fingers towards China, most notably Donald Trump. The current White House has taken other similar controversial actions such as the withdrawal from Paris Agreement, abandonment of Kurdish forces in Syria, and the withdrawal from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (also known as Iranian Nuclear Deal). All these steps were taken without much discussion with the parties involved. For its allies, today’s White House is an enigma worth decoding for good.

Chinese Power in the Trump Era

America, for much of the end of the 20th century and during the initial decade of the 21st, dominated the stage in a unipolar world, leading global diplomacy and trade. Today, China emerges as a threat to the status quo of that global power structure.

Donald Trump, who has taken an aggressive stance against China in his tweets, political rallies and foreign policy measures, does not appear to be so fond of the Communist Oligarchy. His stance is clearly visible through the US trade war against China, the restrictions imposed on Huawei and through various other protectionist measures taken by the White House. However, towards the end of his first term,  John R. Bolton – in a memoir released by him after a legal battle with the White House – revealed that President Trump has a good rapport with strongmen and dictators

Bolton, National Security Advisor to President Trump from March 2018 to September 2019, stayed long enough to witness key interactions between Trump and Chinese President, Xi Jinping. An excerpt from Bolton’s memoir alleges that Trump was willing to trade quid-pro-quo with China a month after trade deal negotiations halted. In a G-20 summit in Japan, Trump tried to make a plea for electoral gains through the purchase of agricultural products by China, that would help his standing with American farmers. Of the conversation between the two world leaders, Bolton wrote “Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.” He added that the President “stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.” The memoir also shockingly suggests that the United States was willing turn a blind eye to the large scale persecution of Turkic Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s western region of Xinjiang. 

If these claims are taken to be true, the United States, who is ready to give up diplomatic relations with its traditional allies in these grave times, could be a blessing in disguise for China. In China, President Trump is even mocked for his misrule and policies that helped bolster China’s global reach, with locals calling him Chuan Jianguo (Build-the-Country Trump). The phrase is quite similar to Trump’s “Make-America-Great-Again” slogan, outlining the paradox that Trump’s misrule is benefiting China.

India’s Part in John Bolton’s Memoir

India has not been a major subject of concern in the book. Infact, it is mentioned in only ten pages of a 550 plus page memoir. India was briefly discussed on issues related to the Trump administration’s campaign against the Iranian government. Bolton points out that while sanctions were imposed on the sale of Iranian crude oil, India – who was buying their oil from Iran at a comprehensively low price – was granted a waiver for its purchase along with seven other countries.

Bolton refers to India along with Pakistan and North Korea as an argument for America’s controversial decision to withdraw from the Cold-War era’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), as the treaty limits the range of American missile program. As India, Pakistan and North Korea are not signatories to this treaty, they are allowed to develop intermediate (1,000 to 5,500 km) and short range (500 to 1,000 km) nuclear warheads, while countries who abide by the INF’s treaty cannot.  Another notable mention was the purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. 

The attack on Indian troops in Pulwama in February 2019 and the subsequent crisis that erupted between India and Pakistan, where both the countries contested in each other’s airspace, was not seen as much of a crisis according to Bolton.

Kennedy: A Friend to India

Democratic India is seen as an antithesis to authoritarian China, in Asia. For long, India has been in a silent coalition with the west – a beneficiary of American logistic and technological support. In the era of John F. Kennedy, India was seen as a counterweight to communist China.

During the 1962 Indo-China war, the United States came to India’s rescue, with plans to send a US Kitty Hawk supercarrier to the Bay of Bengal. The US also provided air support for many Indian soldiers on the ground, by dropping arms, ammunition, supplies, clothing via its military transport aircraft C – 130 Hercules. After the end of the 1962 war, the US, who were already keen to snoop on China around the partially recognised state of Taiwan (Republic of China) and the Korean Peninsula, supplied intelligence reports to India about Chinese troop movements along Indian borders. 

There are reports of at least four of CIA’s U2 spy planes taking off from the WWII abandoned Charbatia air base in Odisha, India. This covert operation included a transfer of technology on the condition that it would not be used to spy on Pakistan. The permissions were signed by President S.Radhakrishnan and his American counterpart John F .Kennedy. Even though the missions were soon abandoned and the US shifted to Thailand from Charbatia, Prime Minister Nehru’s sudden demise played a role in this change of relationship. These missions provided crucial aerial surveillance reports to both the parties involved.

American President John F.Kennedy was beloved by the Indian population back then. Many Kirana paan shops featured posters of Kennedy alongside the Founding Father, Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Nehru.  Due to the help he provided and the strong stand he took in 1963, Kennedy was considered to be very pro-India.

A declassified recording suggests that Kennedy and his advisors were very worried regarding the increasing popularity of Communism in India. They feared that if India fell to communism, it might trigger a domino effect on the whole of South East Asia. In the recording, Kennedy and his Secretary of Defence, McNamara, can be heard discussing the option of using nuclear power on China.

The recording reveals a discussion between Kennedy and his advisors: “Any large Chinese Communist attack on any part of that area (India) would require the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S., and this is to be preferred over the introduction of large numbers of U.S. soldiers.” Minutes later, after hearing from McNamara and two other advisers, Kennedy says, “We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India if she were attacked.”

However, the India-US honeymoon did not last long. According to John Kenneth Galbraith, the United States Ambassador to India between 1961-63, Churchill’s son-in-law Edwin Duncan Sandys and Louis Mountbatten played a major role in India’s drift away from the west.  

Can the India-China Dilemma Bolster India-US Cooperation? 

Today’s India faces the need to revive a relationship of the past. In the past, India let the boat sail when it came to Indo-US diplomatic relations and focused more on non-alignment. Now, ironically when they need the support, the country faces the circumstance of an unreliable White House, in which there is no clarity on where the true interests of President Trump lie. 

India’s most recent clash with China, where 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives, is the worst clash between the two countries in 45 years. Many experts see this as a time for India to strengthen its strategic partnership with America. Following the clashes, India has signed a major defence agreement with Australia, allowing both the countries to use each other’s military bases. It is also expected that Australia will join naval training exercises along with Japan, the United States and India.

The recent unopposed selection of India to the seat of a non-permanent member in the UN Security Council and its call to support the investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus in the WHO are taken as positive signs.  

India faces China, whose military strength, number, budget and modernized equipment make it an uneven match for them. The Indian government also faces the problem of a large trade deficit with China. Chinese trade accounts for more than 65 Billion Dollars, as compared to India’s 16.6 Billion Dollars.

Experts suggest that India might soon follow suit of the US in case of 5G technology by imposing restrictions on Chinese technology giant Huawei into investing in India’s 5G sector. The pandemic presented an opportunity for India’s booming pharmaceutical industry, where smooth diplomatic relations were established with western diplomats, to offer help with medicines.

The growing Chinese influence in the South Asian region is a worrisome situation, especially for India. Nepal’s recent aggression against India, in the middle of a dispute with Chinese, where the Nepalese Government passed a bill which claims a sliver of Indian territory, has made matters more complicated. The Indian defence minister himself suggested the possibility of the Chinese Government’s involvement in Nepal’s unexpected decision. The Chinese lease over the Sri Lankan Hambantota port has been an issue of worry for many on the Indian side, as the fear of militarisation of the port is a possibility. Bhutan, a state-protected by India, has been a victim of this tussle as well, with China recently claiming the largest Bhutanese district in one of its maps. These moves are seen as a Chinese effort to keep India in check, over its ambitions.

Even though China’s actions have nonplussed the entire world, it is not the enigma that needs decoding. Rather, quite surprisingly, it’s the world’s largest economy and a bastion of democracy around the world – The United States of America. Since Donald Trump took the whip at the Oval Office, nobody would have thought about the outcomes that we see today: be it deteriorating American ties with its traditional allies or its unpredictability when it comes to international relations. Many took him for someone who would dissolve into the old and rugged system in which American leaders took a libretarian view in international affairs, while letting its military and government agencies covertly take care of its ground assets. But that did not happen.

Recent US election polls predict that democratic candidate Joe Biden will replace Trump in the White House in 2020. Can Biden be the missing piece in the fight against China? Only time will tell.