world politics

A broad Asia-Pacific alliance, with India as a key member, may be America’s key to countering China

The United States, Japan, India, Australia may emerge as guarantors of free trade and defense cooperation to check China.

The juxtaposition of two speeches could not have been starker. Even as Chinese President Xi Jinping was laying down his vision of a rising China in a marathon address to the 19th Communist Party Congress, the US secretary of state underlined a still evolving American response to the changing global balance of power.

Xi offers an ambitious roadmap for China to become a leading global power by 2050. “Chinese people will enjoy greater happiness and well-being, and the Chinese nation will stand taller and firmer in the world,” Xi promised, suggesting that the time has come for China to transform itself into “a mighty force” to lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues.

Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Xi has projected himself as a responsible global statesman committed to maintaining global norms and leading on tackling challenges such as climate change and trade. Though he maintains that China does “not pose a threat to any other country,” the speech’s undertone asserts China’s global might, a trend accentuated since he came to China’s helm in 2013.

He did not flinch from citing Beijing’s controversial island-building campaign as among his first term accomplishments, reporting that “construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea has seen steady progress.” For China’s detractors, the message was unambiguous: while China is not interested in seeking global hegemony, “no one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.” The emphasis on transforming the People’s Liberation Army into one the world’s top militaries by 2050 was for China’s global audience. Lest anyone miss the point, Xi noted, “A military is built to fight.”

Washington’s growing frustration

Barack Obama had described US-Chinese ties as the most important bilateral relationship of our time, but the Trump administration lays down its own markers. Ahead of his visit to South Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced American intentions for Asia with India firmly at the center. His comments followed those of US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during a September trip to New Delhi, suggesting that security among the “key strategic pillars” of the US-India partnership.

Tillerson gave this a wider canvas, pointedly critiquing China’s rise and comparing it with India’s: “China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order – even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty.”

Tillerson underscored China’s actions in the South China Sea as a direct challenge to “the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for,” suggesting provocatively that the United States will “never have the same relationship with China, a nondemocratic society, that we can have with India.” While the US “seeks constructive relations with China,” Tillerson pointed out that Washington “won’t shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order or where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the US and our friends.”

Much like its predecessor, the Trump administration had come to office seeking an accommodation with Beijing, but Washington expresses growing frustration about China’s unwillingness to put pressure on North Korea despite its considerable influence over the Kim regime. In contrast, the Trump administration has been bold in its overtures to India, building upon the Obama administration’s strong legacy.

Indo-US ties

The Narendra Modi government has invested significant diplomatic capital in building ties with Washington, with Modi visiting the United States five times during the last three years. Many Indians had expressed consternation that Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy might be to India’s disadvantage. But those concerns have been put to rest with the success of Modi’s September visit to Washington and the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy.

If Modi could argue that India and the United States have overcome “the hesitations of history” under the Obama administration, he effortlessly wooed the Trump administration during his July visit when he suggested that “the convergence of my vision for ‘New India’ and President Trump’s vision for making America great again will add new dimensions to our cooperation.”

He managed to steer Trump towards the larger structural realities that have driven the India-US relationship since George W Bush declared that America would help India emerge as a global power. Regional balance of power in Asia was the focus when Modi and Trump declared their two nations “as responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region,” agreeing that a close partnership between the United States and India is central to the region’s peace and stability.

Modi has time and again noted that he recognises the importance of the United States in meeting India’s developmental and strategic interests. This time too, he underlined that India “considers the US its primary partner for [its] social and economic transformation.” While critics in India may see this as a repudiation of India’s traditional nonaligned foreign policy posture, Modi has had no hesitation in proclaiming the obvious without the diffidence of past governments.

The Trump administration’s new South Asia policy announced in August gives India centre-stage in South Asia. A “critical part” of this policy, while being tough on Pakistan, is to further develop the strategic US-Indian partnership. “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the US, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Trump said. New Delhi has welcomed the approach that gives India greater space to expand its profile in Afghanistan. Trump’s policy is a remarkable turnaround for Washington, which had wanted to keep India out of its “Af-Pak” policy for fear of offending Islamabad. India went from being viewed as part of the problem to being part of a solution to the Afghan imbroglio.

Indo-Pacific friendships

Acknowledging India’s growing regional profile in the wider Indo-Pacific region, Washington suggests that the starting point should be greater engagement and cooperation with Indo-Pacific democracies. As Tillerson suggested, “We are already capturing the benefits of our important trilateral engagement between the US, India and Japan. As we look ahead, there is room to invite others, including Australia, to build on the shared objectives and initiatives.”

The October landslide victory of Shinzō Abe in Japan accentuates this trend towards an Indo-Pacific democratic quad – the United States, Japan, India and Australia. The United States is keen on expanding India-Japan-US Malabar naval exercises to include Australia, and a meeting of the India-Japan-US-Australia quadrilateral is expected to in Manila on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. These four regional democracies would ideally like to emerge as guarantors of free trade and defense cooperation across a stretch of ocean from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean to Africa.

This new chessboard in the Indo-Pacific is being organised as the US president visits the region. While the wider region expresses concern about the Trump administration’s security commitments, even as China’s rise seems to go unchallenged, there are signs that new strategic equations are fast emerging in a theatre now the center of gravity of global politics and economics. Trump started his Asia tour by declaring that “No one, no dictator, no regime... should underestimate American resolve.” But regional states will watch what happens after the US president departs the continent. Washington is finding that working with Xi’s China to manage regional problems while standing up to Beijing to reassure allies is a tough balancing act indeed.

This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.

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Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

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Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.


SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.