China is the 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room When Modi Meets Trump


In 1949, when an Indian prime minister and an American president first met, China was one of the two key items on the agenda. Almost seven decades after that Nehru-Truman meeting, President Donald Trump hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who arrived in Washington late Saturday night. And once again, that issue will be on the agenda — explicitly and implicitly. The trajectory and pace of the U.S.-India relationship over the next few years will be shaped not just by whether or not Trump and Modi get along, but on how their governments perceive and deal with China. Convergence on this issue can pave the way for cooperation in a range of areas, strategic and otherwise. Dissonance will have a deleterious impact on the U.S.-India partnership.

The China Factor

During the 2000 campaign, Condoleezza Rice argued that U.S. foreign policy should conceptually connect India with China, emphasizing “India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too.” This echoed the strategic framework from the first half of the Cold War, when India was in no small part seen through a Chinese prism. The “loss” of China in 1949 had Time label India as the “anchor for Asia.” Similarly, The New York Times outlined the U.S. stake in India, emphasizing it was “potentially a great counterweight to China.” The concept of a “fateful race” between the two Asian giants took hold, laid out most starkly by The Economist’s Barbara Ward in 1953. The Eisenhower administration embraced this view in its 1957 statement of policy on South Asia:

The outcome of the competition between Communist China and India as to which can best satisfy the aspirations of peoples for economic improvement, will have a profound effect throughout Asia and Africa.

Even if India sometimes opposed U.S. positions, this document stressed that a strong India was in the American interest because it “would be a successful example of an alternative to Communism in an Asian context.” Therefore, the United States needed to help India win the race — one of the few things on which presidential contenders Sen. John F. Kennedy Jr. and Vice President Richard Nixon agreed in 1959. This view endured through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and then, in the 1970s, largely vanished with Nixon’s rapprochement with China, only to reappear in the Bush 43 administration.

Today, there are differences in the nature of two countries’ relationships with China. U.S. economic engagement with China is far deeper than with India. There’s also the power asymmetries: The United States remains a bigger power than China, which is a bigger power than India. And India, of course, shares a long border — and a boundary dispute — with China, and they have overlapping peripheries. But there are similarities too. The United States and India have relationships with China that have elements of cooperation, competition, and, potentially, conflict. Each has a blended approach of engaging China, competing with it, deterring it, and preparing for the eventuality of Beijing breaking bad. Each is concerned about China’s regional behavior, its intentions, and the impact of its military and economic rise on the balance of power in Asia. Each sees a role for the other in its China strategy. And each thinks a good relationship with the other sends a signal to China — but neither wants to provoke Beijing or be forced to choose between the other and China.

Like in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, shared concerns about China have been a key driver of the U.S.-India partnership recently. On the U.S. side, there have been three imperatives for a closer relationship with India and for supporting its rise: a strategic imperative, especially in the context of the rise of China; an economic imperative; and shared democratic values. On the Indian side, too, there’s a democracy — and diaspora — related imperative. There’s also an economic one, with the United States seen as a crucial market, and source of capital, technology, resources, education, and jobs. And there’s the strategic driver, with Delhi seeing the Washington as facilitating a greater Indian role on the global stage and, significantly, balancing China. It has envisioned a role for the United States in both internal balancing terms (strengthening Indian military and economic capacity) and in external balancing ones (building a network of partnerships).

Convergence on the China question — and the desire for multi-polarity in the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific more broadly — has seen the United States and India cooperate to a much greater extent in the diplomatic, defense, and security spaces than before. In the Bush administration, as both American and Indian officials have acknowledged, it most significantly provided the context for the nuclear deal — which, in turn, paved the way for a more strategic relationship. During the Obama administration, the two countries started an East Asia dialogue as well as a U.S.-India-Japan trilateral. After Modi came to office, they signed a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Administration officials talked about a “strategic handshake” between the countries’ “rebalance” and “Act East” approaches. The two countries upgraded the trilateral to the ministerial level, began to include Japan on a regular basis in the annual naval MALABAR exercise, and established a maritime security dialogue. Their joint statements started mentioning the South China Sea, including support for freedom of navigation — a departure for India, which, before 2014, did not mention its stance in bilateral documents. These statements also noted U.S. support for India where China was actively blocking India — in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for example, or at the United Nations to designate terrorists.

This convergence has also facilitated a defense trade relationship that has gone from $1 billion in 2008 to over $15 billion. The Indian acquisitions have been visible, with C-17s or C-130Js landing on military airstrips near the India-China border and the P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft deployed in the Indian Ocean. This strategic framework also facilitated the establishment of the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (2012) under which India and the United States are not just talking sales, but co-development and co-production. It also created an enabling environment for the two countries to finally sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and for the United States to designate India as a “major defense partner.”

More broadly, strategic convergence has had an enabling effect in other areas of the relationship, made the partnership a priority, and ensured greater efforts to manage or downplay differences.

Trump and China

The Trump administration’s approach to China has been watched closely — and warily — in India. Trump’s campaign rhetoric against China was more heated than that of previous campaigns, but not necessarily atypical. Indian officials had heard Clinton’s “butchers of Beijing,” Bush’s “China is a competitor, not a strategic partner,” and Obama’s call for the United States to be “tougher negotiators” with China. And they would have liked to have seen those tougher, more competitive approaches but instead saw each of those presidents pivot once they took office. Indian policymakers weren’t displeased that Trump called China out on issues that are concerns for them as well, like trade deficits and limited market access. More concerning was the candidate’s rhetoric on reducing the U.S. role in maintaining the international and regional orders, and verbal attacks on Asian allies like Japan. Given that India has a Goldilocks’ view of the relationship between the United States and China (the United States has the same for the relationship between India and China) — not wanting it to be too warm or too cold — the trade war rhetoric was also worrying. Overall, however, there was uncertainty about what exactly a Trump approach toward Asia would look like.

Developments over the last six months have created concerns that Trump, too, is pivoting and taking an accommodative approach to China — which could have implications for Indian interests and the U.S.-India partnership. Among these were Trump’s apparent bonhomie with President Xi during and after the Mar-a-Lago summit and his subsequent praise for the Chinese president. Chinese outreach to the president’s family and Beijing’s ability to strike economic deals and give the president “wins” have raised questions as well. Also worrying was Trump’s willingness to give China the benefit of the doubt on North Korea, and the way that problem made Trump more accommodating of Beijing. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks in China, the presence of an American delegation at the Belt and Road Forum (which India declined to attend), and the recognition of the “importance” of One Belt, One Road did nothing to alleviate those concerns. Policymakers and analysts on the strategic side also point to the signal sent to the Asia-Pacific by the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (on the economic side, there was mostly relief since India was a non-signatory).

To some extent, the concern about Washington accommodating Beijing — and questions of American reliability — are ever present in Delhi because of the scale of the U.S.-China economic relationship and China’s relevance to certain crises, global issues, or presidential priorities. In this case, Delhi would be particularly concerned about such an approach because of (a) linkage: That to get a deal with China (North Korea, trade), Trump will give them a free pass on other issues like the South China Sea; or (b) Trump’s desire for disengagement: That to reduce U.S. involvement and commitments, he will buy into — or take the world into — a spheres-of-influence order, which in Asia would mean ceding ground to China to the detriment of others in the region.

And for India, the uncertainty over the American approach comes when its relations with China have been tense. China’s deepening relations with Pakistan, not least through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has been a cause of concern, as has its increasing presence in India’s territorial and maritime neighborhood (partly via the Belt and Road Initiative). These developments are seen as having the intent or effect of constraining India’s space — and blocking its rise. To hedge against uncertainty on the Trump administration’s approach, India has been doubling down on diversification, deepening relations with countries like Australia, France, Japan, and Russia, as well as some in Southeast Asia. It’s also continuing to engage like-minded allies in the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill.

The signs from the Trump administration haven’t been entirely pessimistic from India’s perspective. Trump’s cooperative approach to China is seen as conditional, caveated — i.e. If you help me on North Korea, then we will be friends. And there’s a sense that Xi won’t deliver what he’s promising — at least in this area. Trump’s tweet that China’s effort “has not worked out” was one sign the president was realizing the limits of Chinese cooperation and effectiveness. To some extent, Indian policymakers have seen this movie before. They’ve seen presidents like Bush and Obama give China space or a free pass when they were distracted by other issues (Iraq war) or wanted to buy Beijing’s goodwill on global issues (climate change) or cooperation on specific ones (Iran, North Korea). But they’ve also seen structural factors eventually re-assert themselves, and/or presidents learn from their initial experiences with China. They point, for example, to Obama’s evolution on the subject after what Mike Green has called “the hope and change of the first year” (Modi went through a somewhat similar phase in his first year). Policymakers also recognize such a phase won’t necessarily preclude cooperation with India. The Bush administration, for example, moved ahead with the nuclear deal and initiatives like the “quadrilateral security dialogue” (also including Australia and Japan).

Indeed, there have been some reassuring signs for India from the Trump administration in this regard. Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Tillerson have visited Asian allies. The United States has undertaken a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea. The approach toward Australia and Japan has recovered from shaky beginnings. More parochially, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has traveled to India (albeit as part of a broader trip including Afghanistan and Pakistan as well). Indian officials, including the national security advisor and the foreign secretary, have gotten high-level access when they have visited the United States. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Mattis quoted Modi on freedom of navigation, acknowledged India’s role in the Indian Ocean region, and recognized its designation as a major defense partner. India and the United States also went ahead with the second edition of their maritime security dialogue in May. With Japan, they are scheduled to conduct the MALABAR exercise in the Bay of Bengal in July. The administration also seems to have rhetorically embraced the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” (in the previous administration, the White House used “Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions;” the Defense Department used the unwieldy “Indo-Asia-Pacific”).

Questions remain about how long Trump will give Xi the benefit of the doubt, and the implications that might have for the region. And even if China doesn’t deliver on North Korea, Indian officials understand that China, which is seen to be more comfortable with transactionalism, has other cards to play. There’s also uncertainty about if and how somewhat unique factors — like the Trump Organization’s business interests in China — might play a role in the president’s view of and approach to China.

China is not the only factor shaping the U.S.-Indian relationship, but it’s one that can’t be ignored. Indian policymakers remember that one of the reasons the United States and India drifted apart in the second half of the Cold War was that the convergence on China unraveled. Thus, when they meet, Modi will try to get some clarity on the strategic direction the United States might take. At the very least, he’ll hope to get a better sense of Trump’s perception of China, India, and the situation in the Indo-Pacific more broadly. He’ll seek to shape views of the American president and U.S. officials on these subjects — and also highlight how India is contributing to security and burden sharing in the region. Finally, whether during the visit or after it, Indian officials will convey the message that reassurance on key strategic questions can lead to greater cooperation — and deals — on a range of fronts. If it’s lacking, however, it will have the opposite impact.


Tanvi Madan is director of The India Project and a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.