It’s not easy being a foreign office mandarin or geostrategic affairs policy wonk in New Delhi, nowadays. For, looking at the emerging Indo-US relationship from the Indian perspective, this breed is as cagey as those in power whom they advise on issues of such pith and moment about what precisely the Donald Trump Administration is up to. And the statements of intent and policy pronouncements by Washington over the first week of 2019 have only ratcheted up the uncertainty.
First, President Trump iterated that the US will no longer be the world’s policeman and cop abuse for it in the bargain. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria… a substantial US withdrawal from these engagements is now a fait accompli. While that can be explained away as an articulation of the Trump Administration’s utilitarian approach to geopolitics, and the US President’s sarcastic pot-shot at India showcasing its non-military nation-building efforts in Afghanistan — “Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps telling me the Indians have built a library (actually the national parliament building) in Kabul” – is par for the coarse, as it were. There is, counter-intuitively, a simultaneous initiative by Washington to engage more deeply with the Asia-Pacific region by headlining India’s role while seeking to rein in China.
Late on 31 December, President Trump signed an Act designed to counter the encroaching influence and growing threat allegedly emanating from Beijing which seemed to underline an Indo-US leadership for the region. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act or ARIA, allocates a five-year budget of $1.5 billion to enhance cooperation with the US’ strategic regional allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Calling for strengthening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties with India, the new legislation cites “China’s illegal construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea and coercive economic practices”, and authorises appropriate action to “counter China’s influence to undermine the international system”.
The Act notes “the increased presence throughout Southeast Asia of the Islamic State and other international terrorist organizations that threaten the United States”. The law states that the US “recognizes the vital role of the strategic partnership between the United States and India in promoting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region” and “calls for strengthening and broadening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties between the United States and India”. It also reiterates US commitment to all “bilateral and security agreements and arrangements” between the two countries, including the New Framework for the United States-India Defense Relationship, and the United States-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative. Emphasising the “designation of India as a major defense partner, which is unique to India,” the new law also refers to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Australia, India, and Japan, calling it “vital to address pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region in order to promote a rules-based order; respect for international law; and a free and open Indo-Pacific.” It, however, clarifies that such a dialogue is intended to augment, rather than to replace, current mechanisms.
The ARIA Act, in light of the details above, ought to have sent the Indian strategic establishment into raptures as it attempts to build an effective security-economic architecture within which to fully unleash the country’s potential as a regional powerhouse. Additionally, struggling as New Delhi is with working out a viable stand vis-à-vis its more powerful northern neighbour, especially given its concerns over China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which India believes has the potential to chip away at its sovereignty, Trump singing the ARIA would have in any other context been excellent leverage. Yet, the mood in New Delhi is far from sanguine.
While the argument has been made that the Trump Administration’s shift in strategic emphasis and security-foreign policy aims away from Russia, West Asia and Europe and to the Asia-Pacific is a natural corollary to the rise of China, there is no unanimity on whether this represents a corresponding shift in the priorities of the American deep state as well. What is giving the US’ interlocuters such as India sleepless nights is whether to buy into the narrative of the largely Democrat-leaning, liberal think-tanks and institutions that portray the Trump Administration as a rogue element in the continuum of American policies on the global stage. Showing too much enthusiasm for what could possibly be an aberration in the US’ strategic thinking would naturally be construed as a disaster when normal service resumes.
The flip side, though, is that while Donald Trump’s abrasive style and shoot-from-the-lip articulation of Washington’s priorities may not have endeared him to most Republicans, the influential conservative establishment and institutional America, they are in the main simpatico to the geostrategic paradigm shift his administration has undertaken and are working behind-the-scenes to soften the transactional edge that comes through in the US President’s policy pronouncements. If this assessment is correct, then New Delhi would be loath to have missed out on the first-mover advantage on offer if it responds more keenly to Washington’s very clear signals that India is the key player in its strategic scheme of things not only in South Asia but also the larger Asia-Pacific region.
Indian foreign policy over the past decade has essentially been a tightrope walk, balancing its way between the changing priorities of the only superpower in the world, staying engaged with a Russia that harbours ambitions of restoring itself to its former glory and dealing with the exponential growth in economic and military heft of the dominant regional power which is China; all of it premised on its own security concerns and economic interests, naturally.
Now, the advent of Trump singing the ARIA means that its diplomats’ safety-first approach could well be subject to the law of diminishing returns. But to take a call on which way to go in too decisive a manner is fraught with dangers in foreign policy terms. Before doing so, therefore, a deeper understanding of the motivations and seriousness of Washington’s definition of a rules-based Asia-Pacific order is vital. Donald J Trump’s presidency, unfortunately, is hindering rather than aiding that process in global capitals including New Delhi.
(The writer is a senior independent journalist based in New Delhi.)