(The Washington Post)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

Political attention here has been focused this summer in two very different directions. There is the Himalayan plateau where Indian and Chinese troops are engaged in the most tense and potentially explosive standoff since a 1962 border war. And there is the din emanating from the Trump administration, which has managed to frighten and confound just about every nation that counts on U.S. global engagement.

The two problems are not directly related: Indians wouldn’t want the United States to get involved in their dispute with Beijing, dangerous though it is, even if a more functional administration were in office. But the confluence is nevertheless unnerving. It has meant that India, a country with which President Trump claims to have established excellent relations, has had to grapple with both a dramatic demonstration of the strategic threat posed by China and an incipient crumbling of confidence in the American partnership it has seen as the antidote.

Let’s start with the border spat, which resembles China’s clashes with Japan over a disputed island chain and its invasive construction of islets and airstrips in the South China Sea. It began in June with a unilateral move by Beijing to construct a road in a disputed piece of mountain territory where India, China and Bhutan come together, overlooking the narrow strip that connects India’s northeast to the rest of the country.

Rather than tolerate the intrusion, the government of Narendra Modi, a populist and nationalist who shares Trump’s autocratic instincts, dispatched troops to block the bulldozers. Now Indian and Chinese soldiers are deployed just hundreds of yards apart, even as Chinese state media outlets blare angry rhetoric. Though Indian analysts say a shooting war is unlikely — China would be hard-pressed to dislodge the Indian forces from the high ground they hold — they expect the standoff to drag on through China’s Communist Party congress in the autumn.


The dust-up has served to accentuate growing Indian anxiety about its emerging- superpower neighbor. Watching China’s initiatives in South Asia, from the construction of ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan to the hugely ambitious “belt and road” projects from Central Asia to Africa, Indians need not be paranoid to feel encircled. Their sense of vulnerability has been compounded by the perception that Russia, a traditional ally, has been driven into the arms of China by its growing conflicts with the West.

India’s strategy for balancing China depends heavily on the United States. Though unwilling to conclude a direct alliance, Modi has followed previous Indian governments in moving steadily closer to Washington, conducting joint naval exercises and buying U.S. military equipment. His was one of the few friendly governments to find some cheer in Trump’s election: The candidate, after all, had promised to improve relations with India’s friend Russia and get tough on China and terrorism by Muslim extremists.

Instead, what Indians have seen from Washington is contradictions and chaos. Though not the aim of the White House, U.S. relations with the regime of Vladimir Putin are considerably worse now than they were six months ago. Trump, meanwhile, has gyrated between embracing China’s Xi Jinping and assailing him on Twitter for failing to rein in North Korea. U.S. “freedom of navigation” patrols challenging Chinese claims in the South China Sea ceased for a while before suddenly starting again.

In Afghanistan, a vital interest for India, the Trump administration at first seemed set to adopt a welcome new policy of beefing up U.S. forces to stop the Pakistan-supported Taliban. Then reports emerged that Trump had rebuffed the plan and was leaning toward abandoning the war.

At a conference on U.S.-Indian relations I attended here last week, one Indian official pressed the Americans representing the administration — including State Department pros serving in lieu of the as-yet-unnamed ambassador and regional assistant secretary — to say whether a White House seemingly sunk in disorder was even capable of focusing on geopolitics.

The vague reassurances they offered convinced few. “At this precise moment, the signaling from the U.S. is very confused” is the diplomatic way a former Indian ambassador to Washington, Arun Singh, put it to me.

Several Indian officials, including one who participated in Modi’s visit to the White House in late June, insisted that they remain bullish on the relationship. The president and his staff, they say, were well-prepared to engage with Modi, and the results were better than anyone in New Delhi had expected.


That drew a smile from a former U.S. official, who pointed out that it only confirmed India’s sinking expectations from its would-be strategic partner. “They set the bar at one inch, and then cheered when they cleared it by a couple of inches,” he said. “The truth is the relationship is on hold.” For countries looking to Washington for help or leadership, that might be as good as it gets.

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