Despite the eventful first couple of weeks in White House where Donald Trump largely lived up to his image as the ‘disruptor-in-chief’, signs are visible that the new US administration won’t bring down the edifice of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. If anything, Trump may actually fortify the structures erected by his predecessor. Notwithstanding the Trans-Pacific Partnership withdrawal (which was also Hillary Clinton’s campaign promise) and some noise over Nato, Trump has so far shown remarkable adherence to staid US geopolitical positions instead of engineering any radical departures.
American media (and by extension, global) have been busy peddling conspiracy theories about Trump and Vladimir Putin. Yet since assuming power, the new administration has vowed not to ease sanctions against Russia till it leaves Crimea and ends mischief-mongering in Ukraine, threatened Iran over testing of ballistic missiles, advised Israel against expanding settlements in West Bank and called up Beijing to re-impose faith in One-China policy. Trump’s fidelity to these well-defined stances should settle the nerves of US allies and global partners.
Continuity is a double-edged sword, however. Despite the temptation to look back in fondness at the Obama regime and cast it in soft, glorious light there is no reason to think that his foreign policy had no rough edges.
Obama was sucked in the vortex of a self-defeating Af-Pak policy and created a mess in Iraq and Syria. He also became obsessed with Russia at the end of his tenure. Trump has been more candid about Chinese revisionism and rising trade imbalance but let’s not forget that Obama too grappled with and failed to answer many questions that an aggressive, ambitious China threw at him. So while Trump inherited some of the stability of US exceptionalism, he also became heir to some of the intriguing problems that Obama had no solution for before remitting office.
From an Indian and even global perspective, chief among these is China.
Media and pundits have rushed to blame Trump for disturbing the fragile equilibrium between a dominant and a rising power but even a cursory look at the recent machinations between these two nations gives us an idea of the troubled curve of their ties.
China paid little attention to US position on the South China Sea dispute and brazenly intercepted in May 2016 a US spy plane flying over the disputed area in a manner which Pentagon perceived as “unsafe”.
This incident was followed by another in December when Chinese navy seized an underwater US drone collecting bathymetric data from the South China Sea forcing Pentagon to demand it back from Beijing. This occurred roughly at the same time when a US-based think tank used satellite imagery to report that China was rapidly militarizing the seven reclaimed islands on the disputed trade channel despite solemn declarations to the contrary.
The latest in this series of ‘coincidental’ incidents happened last Wednesday (8 February) when according to CNN, another “unsafe” encounter happened between a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft and a KJ-200 Chinese spy plane. Quoting the US Pacific Command, CNN reported that both planes flew within 1,000 feet of each other in the general vicinity of the contested Scarborough Shoal on the South China Sea.
Given this background of suspicion, Trump should be complimented for reaching out to Beijing and assuring Xi Jinping that US will adhere to ‘One China’ policy though the subsequent US statement was rather peculiar in its wording and also made no mention of the ‘1992 consensus’ — the Chinese belief arising out of a meeting between China and Taiwan that there is only ‘one China’.
“President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy,” the stark White House statement read, giving perhaps an indication of the simmering distrust despite a show of solidarity.
Now contrast the atmospherics of this relationship with the one between Washington and New Delhi.
On Wednesday, India and the US further strengthened their strategic partnership through a high-level telephonic conversation between Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and his American counterpart General James Norman Mattis. The outcome of the first formal contact between both defence departments since Trump’s inauguration was a rousing affirmation of the “expansive bilateral cooperation” and a decision to “sustain” and build on the “tremendous progress”.
There was remarkable synergy between the statements emanating from both establishments. According to the Ministry of Defence: “Defence Minister and Secretary Mattis expressed satisfaction at the progress in defence cooperation between India and the US, especially in recent years, and noted its significance in the regional and global context”, while Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis said: “Secretary Mattis committed to build upon the tremendous progress in bilateral defence cooperation made in recent years, underscoring the strategic importance of the US-India relationship and India’s role in advancing global peace and security.”
Sustaining “momentum” also included affirmation of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) commitment that seeks to legalise the defence partnership in a rapidly changing global order. As the Indian Express report points out, DTTI was the fructification of Ashton Carter’s (Mattis’s predecessor) effort to which the Obama administration later gave legal muscle. The fact that it was discussed by Parrikar and Mattis indicates that Trump administration is ready to take forward the Asia Pivot that Obama had authored but later let it stew in neglect.
For India, it is vital that it shakes off all ‘hesitations of history’. Foreign policies are stitched on the bedrock of mutual interest, not idealism. This is precisely why China finds no merit in allowing the UN to designate Masood Azhar as a terrorist and jeopardize its relationship with Pakistan.
Well may India issue demarches after demarches to China on Masood and appear indignant about Chinese obtuseness, Beijing will keep on blocking India’s effort till the cost of doing so outweighs the benefit of such a stance. Till that time, China will keep on inventing novel excuses.
The Times of India reports that a day after it blocked a US-led proposal on Masood, an editorial in Chinese state-run media (which Beijing uses to deliver messages it cannot through official channels) came out with an absurd logic that if Masood is designated a “terrorist”, India might “increase its military pressure on Pakistan, thus risking escalating tensions between the two countries.”
Therefore, instead of falling into the trap of interpreting Trump’s actions through the prism of American exceptionalism, India must take advantage of the fact that there are more strategic synergies than differences between New Delhi and Washington. Apart from a shared mistrust of China, Trump’s focus on domestic economic resurgence dovetails perfectly with the fact that India is the second-biggest arms buyer in the world, making US the direct beneficiary.
If the new US president is looking to implement structural changes in domestic policy and adhering broadly to the key components of Obama’s foreign policy, this presents a unique opportunity to India. New Delhi must build on the goodwill it enjoys in Washington to hedge against Chinese aggression. This is not a time to stay non-committal.