Donald Trump's National Security Strategy a boost for India, but South Block should tread with caution
The emphasis on India as a major defence partner and the much-criticised focus on terrorism in the NSS signal good news for South Block.
The release of United States' National Security Strategy (NSS) has led to a spate of criticism in the US media, which is hardly unexpected during the tenure of a president who is so prone to controversy. Most of the accusations certainly hold water. Analysts argue that the strategy hardly reflects the actions of the president himself – for instance, in its defence of free speech and a free press – or for that matter promoting the rule of law.
Donald Trump has clearly not shone in any of these areas. However, such criticism approaches the issue from a skewed angle. The reality is that while a president certainly gives his imprimatur to a policy document, its contents are not the sole preserve of the president. The NSS is crafted by a whole team of officials with strong inputs from other departments, particularly the Pentagon, and usually the state department.
Certainly, many of these officials are presidential appointees, but they would be hard put to ignore the opinion of vital parts of the government, particularly those dealing with the defence of the country. In addition, certain vital aspects of each national security document that deals with security, economic prosperity and the like, are hardly likely to change significantly from earlier administrations – another accusation that is levelled against the present NSS team.
In short, the basic elements that make such a document remain largely consistent, barring times when severe upheavals have taken place requiring a significant change in the policy direction of the administration – a good example of that being the shift that that emerged following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent 'war on terror'.
However, what is evident here is a considerable difference in the language of what is, after all, a vital document supposedly setting out the priorities of an administration. Such documents are usually cautious in using adjectives or even the number of references to any particular issue.
For instance, the Barrack Obama Administration, while warning of increased Chinese modernisation, also hailed the huge cooperation with China in various other areas including climate change. The present NSS is blunt in its condemnation of the repressive policies of both China and Russia. The document mentions China 33 times, a long way ahead of the 12 times it was mentioned in the 2015 document. Russia is mentioned alongside almost all references to China, almost as if the US is endorsing an alliance between the two that presently doesn’t quite exist.
Both have reacted strongly to this language. China's foreign ministry spokesperson called it an example of "Cold war mentality" while the Kremlin spokesman noted its imperialist character, adding rather peaceably, that Russia did not see itself as an enemy of the United States.
For India, this drawing of new red lines is hardly a propitious development. A Russia-China axis is, in fact, the worst possible development for New Delhi, not just because Russia is now bolstering its relations with Pakistan, but because both are a lot closer to us than the US. Distance doesn't always make the heart grow fonder.
The much-criticised emphasis on terrorism in the NSS is however good news for India. Prominent commentators have criticised the fact that the document has 58 references to terrorists, even while virtually ignoring human rights. The NSS naturally makes a triumphalist statement on having "crushed" the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, at a time when the group is on the run.
Fortunately, it also commits itself to continue operations against the group. Al-Qaeda is mentioned several times, and the document makes repeated references to pursuing threats to their source, including the use of direct action to degrade such organisations. It also warns of states that shelter and support such terrorists, and since everyone in South Asia knows just who does that, it raises hopes of strong action by the US, in economic, military and diplomatic terms against such errant states.
That hope is belied somewhat by the remarks on Pakistan. While stating baldly that the US continues to face threats from transnational terrorists and "militants" based in Pakistan, it also links this immediately thereafter to a possible nuclear conflict between the two neighbours that apparently requires "consistent diplomatic attention". This is a tricky one, and in earlier times would have caused consternation in South Block, given its non-proliferation overtones.
At present, however, the emphasis on India as a major defence partner and a power in the India-Pacific ensures that such language can be reasonably safely dealt with.
However, such statements give Pakistan the space that it needs for its usual sabre-rattling. Hardly surprising then that the Pakistan National Security Advisor reportedly warned of nuclear war and a conventional war in his most recent speech at a function organised by an army-led thinktank.
Pakistan gets further warnings. The document states uncompromisingly that no 'partnership' can survive support terrorists who target the partners' own service members and officials. One would have thought such a country should not be a partner at all, particularly given the US' extreme sensitivity to body bags, but such is apparently the lay of the land when it comes to US national security.
Another negative for Islamabad is the 'encouragement' to ensure that Pakistan continues to show responsible stewardship of its nuclear weapons, even as it is asked to take decisive action against terrorist groups on its soil. The promise is held out of the future trade and investment ties should Pakistan stabilise, is a judicious bait for a country that is getting increasingly alarmed at an overwhelming Chinese presence.
As far as the envisaged role for India is concerned, there is much to please foreign policy mandarins, even if some of the ones with wiser heads on their shoulders are likely to exercise due caution. The references to an increased Indian role in Afghanistan have been made earlier and is primarily aimed at opening Indian purse strings for aid.
The references to India-Pacific and a leadership role in Indian Ocean security are all pleasing in terms of the diplomatic pecking order in the region, but hardly the stuff which the Indian policy establishment is likely to take to unconditionally. The key question is whom the Indian Ocean is supposed to be secured against with Indian help. Any doubts on that score are settled by the very next paragraph, which references China.
The whole strategy is encapsulated in the bold statement in the document, that sustaining a favourable balance of power will require close cooperation with allies and partners, which will, in turn, magnify US power and influence.
The questions for India are therefore primarily two-fold. The first is whether greater US presence in the Indian Ocean adds or detracts to our own national security. With China continuing to show an aggressive face, it seems that such a larger presence will have to be borne with. Ideally, however, New Delhi would benefit the most from a complete absence of big power presence.
A second question is an issue of what favourable power equations the US expects from its other 'partner' in the east. That Pakistan remains a partner is made clear, though its actual utility to the United States remains unclear. Certainly, it provides a source for valuable intelligence on Chinese plans for the region.
New Delhi will inevitably ponder over what is likely to happen when the interests of the two partners are at variance, particularly when one has the unequivocal and weaponised support from China. Future policy documents from the defence department and actual deployment of forces need careful monitoring by the policy makers before reaching any definitive guesstimate.
The central issue is actually far more simple. At a time of huge economic interdependence between the US and China, the question that arises is whether the US will choose the iPhone over India. iPhone addicts in India would provide the answer in an instant tweet.
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