Not on the same page: The Tribune India – Community News
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Not on the same page: The Tribune India

Manoj Joshi

Distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation

There has been an easy assumption in India that the Western Quad, made up of India, UAE, Israel and the US formed last month, also targets China. Two of its external actors – the US and India – may see it that way, but the other two – the UAE and Israel – do not share the zero-sum assessment of relations with China increasingly maintained by New Delhi, and to some extent the US Incidentally, both ‘Abrahamic’ countries are closer military allies to the US than India.

China is not invulnerable. It faces demographic decline, massive debt and a population that has ever-higher expectations of the economy.

A recent conversation with some Israeli scholars brought out their nuanced views on ties to China and Tel Aviv’s concerns about the deeper US-China divide. ‘We must understand China,’ said one scholar, ‘it must be curbed,’ but only if there is a better understanding of the drivers of its behavior. This view would surprise many Indians who are likely to believe that, given our close ties to Israel and the US, Tel Aviv would strongly support New Delhi against Beijing.

The point may have been overlooked in India, but China and Israel have had close strategic military ties since the 1980s, when Tel Aviv used its military technology prowess to get close to Beijing. The US finally blocked it in 2004 and India was able to get the Phalcon early warning system up and running originally created for China. Since then, the economic rather than the military relationship has become more important. Israel’s technological innovation power and China’s industrial capacity ensure a thriving partnership. A major focus of the China-Israel relationship is Chinese investment in Israeli companies and startups. Their focus is on life sciences, software and IT, internet, communications, semiconductors and clean technology. More than 1,000 Israeli companies operate in China, mainly in the Pearl River Delta area. The Chinese have also started operations at a port terminal in Haifa leased to them. Israelis believe that ties to China represent a huge strategic opportunity for them, even as they fight against US pressure to curb technological ties.

Then take the UAE, India’s best friend in the Arab world. Dubai serves as a hub for Indian overseas workers, businessmen and as a warehouse for Indian trade. The two countries have had close cooperation on counter-terrorism in recent years.

But the UAE’s relations with China are also excellent. There is of course the economic relationship, but there is also an important political one, as evidenced by the fact that the UAE has signed a letter written by several Gulf States to the UNHRC defending China’s treatment of Uighurs and the Hong National Kong security law in the UN. The UAE has also resisted US pressure and installed the Huawei 5G network in the country. Unlike India, the UAE welcomes the Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing sees the UAE as a hub from which to develop its commercial ties with the region, as well as with Europe and Africa.

The UAE hosts the US air base outside Abu Dhabi and has close military ties to the US, and was also the lead country in signing the Abraham Accords to formalize relations with Israel. But of late, tensions have arisen that have led to a reconsideration in the US over a sale of F-35 fighters to the emirate. The US now wants terms on the sale, including one stating that China cannot open a base in the country. In the wake of the US fiasco in Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi appears to be hedging its bets by teaming up both Washington and Beijing.

The US, like India, is struggling for a sound China policy. The Biden administration’s promised overhaul of China’s ties has yet to be revealed, even as hostility to China is fueled by deeply divided US domestic politics.

Biden had formulated a strategy of “extreme competition,” making sure not to get caught up in unintended conflict.

But the US’s ability to compete rests on a major overhaul of the US system that is mired in deep political divisions, wage stagnation and a ‘red in tooth and claw’ approach to the poor. Biden’s ambitious ‘build back better’ plan stalls.

As for India, the widening gap in comprehensive national power with China, New Delhi has become uncomfortably dependent on US support. The events in Ladakh, where Modi’s government dropped the ball in 2020, have further exacerbated the unease in New Delhi.

Despite the loud talk about China, trade with the US and India is booming. For India, it grew a spectacular 49 percent in the first nine months of this. There must be benefits for everyone here, otherwise this wouldn’t have happened. And that is what the dilemma over relations with China is all about. Beijing has tremendous destructive power and its behavior crosses red lines in many areas. But it also has enormous assets that can benefit individual countries as well as the global community.

The Biden strategy of coalition building to counter Chinese misbehavior is the way to go. But this is a strategy that must be worked out carefully, one that requires the US and its partners to be prepared to quickly impose costs on Beijing for unacceptable actions, but at the same time keep open channels of diplomacy, trade and commerce.

China is not invulnerable, it faces demographic decline, massive debt and a population that has ever-higher expectations of the economy. Well-designed incentives and impediments can be made to work, with a degree of clear thinking and leadership.