This post is part of a series from Asia Unbound. The post is authored by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, distinguished fellow and head of the nuclear and space policy initiative at India’s Observer Research Foundation. She is the author, most recently, of “Toward a Quad-Plus Arrangement?”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S.-India relations have shown signs of continued cooperation. Officials of the two countries are in frequent contact, including President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his counterpart, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Concerns about China’s growing aggressiveness may be driving New Delhi and Washington closer together. But there are signs of turbulence ahead, and the outcome of the U.S. presidential election and the uncertain path of the pandemic itself make any prognosis tentative at best.
The United States has taken the lead in extending assistance to other countries, including India. According to a Department of State Fact Sheet issued on April 16, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) together have earmarked about $500 million dollars in emergency health, humanitarian, and economic assistance. This is in addition to State Department funding to multilateral and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) actively providing assistance during the pandemic. Washington and New Delhi have great potential for further collaboration. This crisis drives home the importance of ensuring that multilateral agencies remain effective and unbeholden to any one power. India and the United States can work together with their allies to promote neutrality, transparency and accountability in such agencies.
Both countries have a stake in ensuring that they do not cede influence to China in the provision of pandemic relief, especially to smaller countries in the region. The pursuit of influence continues unabated despite the pandemic. China’s missteps such as allowing the pandemic to spread, focusing more on shifting blame than investigating the origins of the virus, using pandemic aid for publicity, and engaging in assertive military behavior toward its smaller neighbors have helped but they only provide an opportunity, not a guarantee, for regional leadership. The United States has stepped up diplomatic consultations for cooperation with a geographically diverse group of countries, which has now been dubbed the Quad-plus because it includes South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand in addition to the original Quad (United States, India, Australia and Japan). The crisis could help generate subsequent strategic cooperation—the original Quad grew out of multilateral cooperation after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
China’s behavior is also making this cooperation easier. Despite the crisis, China appears to be stepping up its military presence in the region. Since early February, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been probing Taiwan’s air and maritime borders. The PLA Eastern Theatre Command has been particularly active, deploying fighter jets and bombers around Taiwan. According to reports, Chinese fighter planes momentarily traversed into Taiwanese airspace. China has claimed that it was only conducting military exercises though the United States has said that this was completely inappropriate. PLA air exercises have continued into April. In addition, China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and five other warships sailed close to Taiwan’s waters in mid-April.
Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, the PLA has been particularly aggressive toward Indonesia and Vietnam. Chinese fishing vessels accompanied by coast guard ships have been intruding in Indonesian waters off the Natuna Islands. Last week, China also established two districts on disputed territories in the South China Sea. China this week also targeted a Philippine Navy vessel that was conducting territorial defense operations and sovereignty patrol. And in a more serious incident in early April, Chinese ships hit and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracel Islands, leading Vietnam to issue a formal diplomatic protest. The U.S. State Department also put out a strongly worded statement, expressing serious concern at “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”
If COVID-19 cooperation and China’s behavior are helping to keep the momentum in U.S.-India relations, there are also some uncertainties. New Delhi is unlikely to be happy at the latest changes in U.S. immigration rules which could pose a challenge to the Indian expatriate community in the United States. New pressure on India’s budget means that India is unlikely to have enough money to buy foreign military equipment, including from the United States. Trump has been a keen promoter of U.S. arms sales and could retaliate if deals with India fall through.
But the most serious uncertainty concerns the U.S. elections in fall 2020. On one side, there appears to be a growing political consensus in the United States that China is a problem, leading to efforts by both U.S. presidential candidates to frame the other as “soft on China." This is music to India’s ears. But New Delhi has concerns about both candidates. The Democrats are perceived to have been traditionally soft on China. But Trump’s unsteady hands at the tiller is also a problem for New Delhi. His early praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis, in particular, is seen in India as an example of his undependability. New Delhi should be most concerned about the growing chorus from both sides of aisle in the United States to draw down its global commitments. As China flexes its muscle, India is looking for more U.S. involvement, not less.
This could take several forms. At the declaratory level, Washington could emphasize that ensuring a non-hegemonic Asia is a core American interest. But the US also needs to act consistently to promote this value including by supporting countries that are threatened by coercive trade practices and by leading regional response against using force to resolve territorial disputes. Finally, the United States should also take the lead to coordinate the various minilaterals in the region in order to promote the values enshrined in the idea of the free and open Indo-Pacific.