The United States released its latest National Security Strategy (NSS) document on December 18. By and large, these releases are more important for the intent they personify than any actual policy decisions and the Trump administration’s first NSS is ripe with symbolism. The NSS comes as no surprise, staying close to the rhetoric and tone Donald Trump used during his election campaign last year and as president these past twelve months. That in itself is a drastic change in the way America sees the world and its role within the international community.
Trump’s NSS boldly announces the return of the United States to the world stage after a long spell of quasi-isolationism following the Cold War. As Washington tried to put together a consensus or a strong majority in its international actions, the perception was that the White House squandered away American dominance. The contours of the conflict in Syria and Libya especially showed an indecisive superpower whose best days, many said, are past. The new NSS intends to remedy this by strengthening the four pillars of American security: the protection of US soil, the promotion of American prosperity, the strengthening of the US military, and the advancement of American global influence. While all administrations promise the first two, it is the road map the Trump administration has for the latter two that make this security document interesting.
Trump wishes to substantially build up the US military again in support of a more aggressive posture against America’s enemies. The NSS differentiates between three kinds of threats requiring different tactics. At one level is the threat of Islamic extremism and international crime syndicates; these will be opposed by military force as well as sanctions that target operations networks. At a second level are the threats posed by rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, directly as well as from clandestine proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to state and non-state actors; the United States wishes to weaken such powers through strict sanctions and erect enhanced missile defence systems to blunt any aggressive designs from Tehran or Pyongyang. The NSS specifically mentions that such measures are “not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.”
The third level of threats, however, includes these same countries. The Trump administration believes that these threats will need to be faced through strengthening American space and cyberspace capabilities, re-establishing America’s lead in nuclear (energy) technology, advanced computing, and green technologies, combatting unfair trade practices and market distortions, and reviewing the visa process to curb industrial espionage.
What is interesting is that despite the chumminess Trump has been accused of having with Moscow, his administration’s NSS clearly calls Russia out for attempting to weaken US influence in the world and drive a wedge between Washington and its allies. “Russia want[s] to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests…seek[ing] to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”
In a stark departure from previous NSS documents, the Trump administration reserves its harshest tone for China. Rumoured to want to get tough with China, the George W Bush administration was distracted by terrorism in the Middle East and ultimately “welcome[d] the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China” in its 2002 NSS and maintained focus on trade relations and development with a gentle nudge towards internal democratic reforms in its 2006 document as well. The succeeding Obama administration was more interested in achieving some progress on human rights and climate change with China while maintaining strong trading ties as its NSS documents from 2010 and 2015 reveal. Taiwan and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula are mentioned too but in a conciliatory tone rather than as a challenge. The Trump administration’s NSS, however, launches into a jeremiad against Beijing:
|China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.
For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying. Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities.
Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.
The important question for Delhi is what this means for India and its relations with the United States, at least for the next two years. Superficially, the NSS is a godsend for India – not only does the document identify India’s main rival as a threat to the United States but it also targets Delhi’s perennial nuisance Islamabad through its counter-terrorism aims. In addition, Washington recognises India as a “Major Defence Partner” and declares its intent to expand defence and security cooperation as well as “support India’s growing relationships” including “its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.”
Indo-US relations have clearly come along way since Bill Clinton’s desire to come down on Delhi “like a tonne of bricks” and “cap, rollback, and eliminate” its nuclear programme after Pokhran II. The credit for transforming Indo-US relations goes to Bush ’43 and his administration’s willingness “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century,” but even such a pro-India White House spoke of the South Asian giant largely in terms of its relations to Pakistan, democracy, development, and economic growth; the Obama administration was even more tepid. This latest NSS makes, in that sense, another great departure from its predecessors.
The Trump administration’s prioritisation of the Indo-Pacific region, the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quad as a key regional institution, and recognising Delhi’s potential as a provider of regional security and stability is certainly a promotion for India. This good news does not come unalloyed: regardless of what this White House – or any administration before it – says, the true measure of relations can only be supporting policies. The United States has for long promised to compel Pakistan to abandon its support of terrorism but next to nothing has been done in that regard. Hafiz Saeed, one of the most wanted men in America, walks free and even participates in Pakistan’s politics. US aid is yet to come with stringent preconditions and sanctions against Islamabad have not been mentioned even as a joke.
Similarly, Trump was hawkish on China during his election campaign and even began his presidency with a call to the Taiwanese president. However, he has since mellowed and not followed through on some of the economic punishments that had been under consideration to persuade Beijing to stop market distortions and intellectual property theft. It would be foolhardy for India to fully bank on the United States and assert itself on the Himalayan border and in the Indian Ocean against a stronger foe just yet.
Delhi bears some of blame for the United States’ ambivalence in the Indo-Pacific – its ideological compulsions have historically prevented it from becoming a useful ally to Washington and thereby increase its influence with the superpower. As a result, the United States has looked elsewhere to meet its needs and contributed to the spiral of mistrust between the two estranged democracies. This was particularly evident between 2004 and 2008 when India dragged its feet in response to the Bush White House’s enthusiasm for strategic relations. This is slowly changing now but the pace may not be enough to satisfy India’s strategic regional interests.
If Delhi can stop tripping over its hollow phrases like non-alignment, strategic autonomy, and partnership of equals, the Trump administration’s NSS presents a real opportunity for India to forge greater economic and military ties with the United States. The ripple effect will open doors to better ties with other US allies as well. A demonstration by India that it is willing to play like the big boys could set a higher trajectory for India-US relations.