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US National Defence Strategy 2018 a great opportunity for India to turn bilateral cooperation with Washington into strategic alliance

The Donald Trump administration unveiled the 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS) for the United States. This is the first new NDS in almost a decade; the previous one was brought out in 2008. The new NDS reflects the US military's interpretation of how it will follow through on the Trump administration's National Security Strategy (NSS), that had outlined the major threats facing the US and how the executive branch of the government plans to counter them.

The NDS has put countering China and Russia at the core of America's new priorities, just like the NSS had done last month. By listing China and Russia as paramount security threats to the US, the document signals a hardening of resolve by Washington. Releasing an unclassified summary of the NDS document, the Pentagon criticised the two countries for trying to "shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic and security decisions".

For Elbridge Colby, deputy assistant secretary of defence for strategy and force development, the new strategy "really represents a fundamental shift to say, look, we have to get back, in a sense, to the basics of the potential for war, and this strategy says the focus will be on prioritising preparedness for war, in particular, major power war".

In a clear sign of shifting US priorities, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said in a speech, presenting the strategy document, that the US will "continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security".

This assertion echoes what the NDS has argued: "We are facing increased global disorder, characterised by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order — creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory. Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security."

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US president Donald Trump. AP

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US president Donald Trump. AP

China, identified in the document as a "strategic competitor", has been accused of leveraging military modernisation, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce neighbouring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to China's advantage. In order to push back against that narrative, the Chinese defence ministry has asked the US to abandon the "Cold War" and "zero-sum" mindset.

Last week, Beijing said that China will take "necessary measures" to safeguard its sovereignty in the South China Sea after a US missile destroyer entered the disputed Huangyan Island, also known as Scarborough Shoal, and claimed by the Philippines as well as China. The US often criticises China for militarising South China Sea by constructing artificial islands and military installations, saying they could be used for restricting "freedom of navigation".

Russia too has been singled out for shattering the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO) while altering "European and Middle East security and economic structures" to its advantage and making "use of emerging technologies to discredit and subvert democratic processes in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine".

Predictably, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov lambasted the US for using an unnecessarily confrontational approach, saying, "It is regrettable that instead of having a normal dialogue, instead of using the basis of international law, the US is striving to prove its leadership through such confrontational strategies and concepts."

The heavy emphasis on China and Russia does not mean the US would take its eyes off other threats such as Iran, North Korea, Islamic State or terrorism. The new NDS has listed North Korea among the priority areas, emphasising the need to focus American missile defences against the threat from Pyongyang. Iran is also identified as the most significant challenge to Middle East stability."

Though the State actors would need to be countered, non-State actors such as Islamist militants would also pose threats.

This is an era of great strategic uncertainties and complex global challenges; the Trump administration is seen withdrawing from US' global commitments as reflected in its decisions to demand renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accord, to question US' commitment to NATO, to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to criticise the United Nations as being irrelevant, to name just a few. The administration's 'America First' rhetoric seems to suggest that Washington might turn its back on America's indispensable role in sustaining the global economic and security order created after the Second World War.

Notwithstanding the infamously inconsistent president, there are notable policy continuities as well in the defence document. In particular, secretary Jim Mattis has been a sobering influence on setting the administration's long-term strategic priorities for the US. Mattis usually keeps a low public profile and tenaciously circumvents issues where his approach might be seen as at cross purposes with that of Trump's. Thus, Mattis' ownership of the NDS makes it a worthy document, where he has sought to balance competing priorities.

Mattis reportedly did not agree with Trump's unexpected decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel capital and eventually move the US embassy there. Not surprisingly, the decision triggered intense backlash from US' allies. Mattis has publicly stated that the Pentagon must prepare for climate change, while Trump has repeatedly expressed scepticism about it. The new NDS also does not mention climate change as a threat, an obvious concession to Trump. But one of the principal rhetorical departures of Mattis from Trump is his firm focus on reassuring allies how much the US relies on them. If Trump has termed the NATO as "obsolete", Mattis firmly believes that the US would strengthen its traditional alliances while building new partnerships.

The new documents lamented "the erosion of US military advantage vis-a-vis China and Russia, which, if unaddressed, could ultimately undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion and imperil the free and open order that we seek to underwrite with our alliance constellation".

This makes two things amply clear. First, international alliances are critical for the US military, even though there is a need for burden-sharing, an apparent reference to Trump's public criticism of allies who are seen as unfairly taking advantage of US security guarantees. Second, the US military is going to refocus on fighting other nations, implying manufacturing new weapons and equipments and embracing innovations so it reaches the battlefield faster. As Mattis said, "We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow's conflicts with yesterday's weapons or equipment."

This must be seen as a great opportunity for India's defense establishment which will have to think out-of-the-box on how to make a pitch for joint manufacturing of new age weapons.

The new strategy touches upon a range of other issues, including ongoing military operations in Afghanistan. For the Trump administration, the major challenge in South Asia is to stabilise conflict-ridden Afghanistan, and India is considered as a valuable partner in this herculean effort. In his famous speech for Afghanistan in August last year, Trump had said that the "critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India — the world's largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the US".

The increased India-US cooperation should be viewed in the context of increasingly complex challenges being faced by Washington in the evolving Afghan scenario.

Although there is no mention of India in the new NDS, however, the very mention of Indo-Pacific puts unmistakable emphasis on India's growing importance in America's strategic calculations. For New Delhi, the Indo-Pacific construct validates India's self-image as a great power deserving respect. The Indo-Pacific is now listed among three key regions including Europe, and Middle East, which demand focussed attention "in order to deter aggression".

Evidently, the new strategy marks a shift from the Pentagon’s two-war doctrine — the idea that the US military must be prepared to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. Now the areas to be defended are three.

The document commits the US military to "strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains".

Without mentioning India, it maintains that "with key countries in the region, we will bring together bilateral and multilateral security relationships to preserve the free and open international system". The transformational prospects for India-US ties are in the Indo-Pacific region where the US perceives a growing threat from China. This approach is in alignment with the Modi government's strategy towards China. It is no secret that India-China relations have seen considerable deterioration with Beijing tightening its grip in the South Asian region, which India considers its natural sphere of influence. With both India and China jostling with each other for greater strategic space, the bilateral relationship is set for a bumpy road ahead.

At a time when Beijing is attempting to expand its military and political influence under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the efforts to prevent the emergence of a Sino-centric Asian order, antithetical to the rules-based international order, assume far greater significance. Thus, in the midst of a visible decline in Western-led global institutions and an assertive China, the deepening of Indo-US strategic partnership is likely to help New Delhi expand its influence and presence not only in India's extended neighbourhood but also in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Trump administration has taken significant steps to make India a crucial partner in its plans for Indo-Pacific region, where the US has always been a principal architect and the traditional guarantor of a liberal economic and maritime order.

We can expect the Trump administration to continue to empower India, designated by the US as a "major defence partner", to fulfil its "indispensable role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region". The prospects seem bright for enhanced cooperation between the US, India, Japan and Australia, on matters of regional security.

The author is an assistant professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. He is also the coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur.


Updated Date: Jan 23, 2018 12:56 PM

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