United States president Donald Trump has blamed Chinese “aggression” for the stand-off at the India-China border and suggested this fits in with a broader “pattern” of Chinese aggression in other parts of the world, unequivocally spelling out Washington’s position on the tensions in the region.
Quoting Trump from her notes at briefing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany late on Wednesday said: “China’s aggressive stance along the India-China border fits with a larger a pattern of Chinese aggression in other parts of the world and these actions only confirm the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The remarks went much further than the studied neutral tone the White House had maintained thus far on the dispute, according to close observers of India-US relations, who added that they reflected a growing strategic convergence between the countries.
Trump’s remarks come in the backdrop of both an escalation in US-China tensions, as well as Chinese actions both internally as well as across the Asian geopolitical theatre in the past few months. The US in general, and Trump in particular, was engaged in a trade war with China before the coronavirus pandemic. Since the pandemic, even as trade tensions have deepened, the US president has categorically blamed the “Chinese virus” and omissions by China’s regime for its spread.
For its part, in the past two months, China has passed what is widely considered a repressive national security legislation regarding Hong Kong, eroding its autonomy; it has stepped up its offensive in the South China Sea against countries such as Vietnam, while projecting power against islands in the East China Sea which Japan considers its own. And China has attempted to change the status quo at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, which resulted in a brutal clash on June 15 in the Galwan Valley, leaving 20 Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese troops dead.
On Wednesday, the Trump White House said the President is “closely monitoring” the situation and expressed hopes of a peaceful resolution. “Both India and China have expressed a desire to de-escalate, and we support a peaceful resolution of the current situation,” McEnany said before rolling out the new and more aggressive White House line.
The White House statement reflected a shaper position that had been evolving in the administration, especially by secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo offered full-throated support for the Indian ban on Chinese apps, which, he said, “can serve as appendages of the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) surveillance state”. He added, “India’s Clean App approach will boost India’s sovereignty.”
There is also bipartisan purchase in the US Congress of China’s responsibility in triggering the border clashes. Tom Cotton, a Republican senator and close ally of the president, has said that “China has essentially invaded India, an ally of ours”. Marco Rubio, another Republican senator, has called Chinese actions at the border “unwarranted and lawless armed aggression”. Brad Sherman, a senior Democratic member of the House of Representatives, has slammed “Chinese aggression” for the June 15 clashes. Sherman is also the co-chair of House India caucus.
Commenting on the White House statement, Arun Singh, former Indian ambassador to the US, said that the Trump administration, more than any administration since 1990, has been far more upfront in being critical of practices of the CCP “for both its own domestic political purposes and to meet the economic, technological and military challenge from China”.
“Of late, administration officials — including national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Pompeo — have repeatedly criticised China’s strategies in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and now, its action across the LAC. The US strategy certainly coincides with India’s position,” he added.
Singh said that the US had been careful in showing support to the extent that India found helpful and was comfortable with, except for Trump’s offer of mediation (which was rejected by India).
But offering a note of caution, he said, “One must keep in mind that the US will determine its China policy based on its own interests. One can’t rule out the possibility that Trump may still try to strike a trade deal with China before the November elections because it may help him domestically.” The underlying tensions in the relationship, however, he said, will continue, giving India “enhanced space”.
Vipin Narang, associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that one of the Trump administration’s foreign policy “bright spots” have been its relationship with India, and his personal bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“That does not mean that the relationship is all roses, but there is a lot of sympathy and friendship toward India, across both parties and especially the Trump administration which has remained silent on domestic issues that some members of the Democratic Party have expressed concern about. Paired with a lot of anger toward China, particularly for its handling of the pandemic and on trade, it is unsurprising to hear secretary Pompeo and the White House express sympathy toward India for what is perceived as China’s aggression — not just West, but also East in Hong Kong and the South China Seas.”
On how this will get reflected in tangible ways, Narang said, “Beyond expressions of sympathy, it is possible that the US is providing India with intelligence and imagery on the border, though that is publicly unknown. Beyond that, however, in an election year and with the pandemic, I would not expect much more overt from the US — there may be a lot going on behind the scenes, but publicly Washington is happy to let Delhi set the pace of the relationship.”
But Narang added that if Delhi wanted something, it will, in all likelihood, have a “willing administration” in Washington right now.