The Indian engagement with the US, whether in the form of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy or the four-nation Quad also implies that the regional nations pay not only for their supposed strategic upkeep viz. China, but also take care of all-American strategic interests in these parts. There is no denying that President Trump’s actions are mostly in conformity with the script, his own poll manifesto and public utterances and irresistible tweets, from time to time.
By N Sathiya Moorthy
Independent of Iraq’s political reaction to US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull-out of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and its impact on security of the region as a whole, India may soon be called upon to re-assess the reliability of Washington’s Indo-Pacific geo-strategic and military initiative. It is no more about the re-christening of the original ‘Asia-Pacific’ US military out-reach to friends in the region. Instead, it is a discomforting thought for friends of the US in Asia-Pacific if the military ties with the US is in Trump’s line of vision next — and if so, to what end?
Americans have fancy terms like ‘drawdown’ for troop-withdrawals, ‘lockdown’ for treasury shutdown and ‘landfall’ for cyclones crossing the shores. As much as ‘third world’ nations accepted American geo-strategic partnership and military purchases, they have adopted the terms as well in everyday usage, especially by sections of the local media. But ‘troop-withdrawal’ is still troop-withdrawal. Despite packaging it well for his domestic constituency and unsure international peaceniks, Trump’s declaration that the US will not be the ‘global policeman’ again has consequences for India, now, more than any time in the post-Cold War past.
It took a lot of American effort in the aftermath of India’s Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 2018 to woo India into its orbit of influence. It may have as much to do with India gate-crashing into the exclusive and at a time exclusivist club of nuclear weapon states. In a way, Pokhran-II alone called the all-American bluff on Pakistani nuclear capability. Otherwise, Pakistan should go down in history as the only nation-state to have developed nuclear capabilities first, and nuclear weapons later on — in less than three weeks. (Pakistan’s Chagai-I and Chagai-II nuclear tests occurred on 28 and 30 May 1998.)
The then defence minister George Fernandes, in a leaked missive, was quoted as declaring that Pokhran-II was not to counter Pakistan, but China — the other nuclear neighbour — with intent and potential to grow as an up and coming nuclear power. Pokhran-II called the Chinese bluff as well, because Pakistan’s Chagai tests also brought out to fore Beijing’s assistance for Islamabad on the nuclear front, as with conventional weapons supplies.
India needed new global friends after the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago, to counter the emerging threats along the long and adversarial land borders, and the possibilities of the same extending this time to cover the neighbouring seas. China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, as an American academic called it, aimed at the same it ended in the same too. The earlier post-Cold War Russian refusal to supply the committed cryogenic engine for India’s space programme, under American threat to Moscow, possibly meant that New Delhi should be doing direct business with Washington rather than looking for aliases and alternatives
It was an US idea to create the Indo-Pacific quadrilateral, including India, Japan and Australia to counter an emerging Chinese geo-strategic outreach. It was also an American decision to re-calibrate and re-christen Washington’s ‘Asia-Pacific’ strategy into ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy. The idea was to pep-up the Indian strategic morale and send out a message to all other stakeholders involved with the US in Asia, about the shift. Earlier, to most Americans and most American military strategists, Asia had meant Southeast Asia with Japan as a possible add-on. Not any more.
All work on wooing India and re-calibrating America’s geo-strategic policy to Indo-Pacific was done by Trump’s predecessors. The question is if the Trump-talk to pull out of South Korea, or make Seoul pay for the upkeep of American forces on its territory was only a part of that strategy. The question goes on: if the hard-and-loose talk of an unpredictable president like was required for the US policy-makers to shift and sift the decided strategy. If not, they may still have to explain as to what they had really meant by re-calibrating and re-christening their Asia-Pacific policy.
The question then moves to the present, where the American decision to pull out of Iraq first, and possibly Afghanistan later, has consequences for India, the non-Pacific component in the American Indo-Pacific strategy. Granting that the term ‘Indo’ referred to all of the Indian Ocean, and not just India, then still the question remains if the US, by its unthinking and untimely pullout, was leaving it all to India to decide on the future course of New Delhi’s presence and prominence in its immediate neighbourhood.
Maybe, at least a section of the American strategic community may have the Vietnam example, where after America’s disastrous military expedition and disquieting pullout — the two nations and two people became friends. The message for India could also be that after the American pullout, Washington could manage India’s borders and the immediate neighbourhood better through political and economic incentives in ways where their military expedition had failed miserably. If that were the case, then it could well mean that India had nothing to worry from those parts.
Hit where it hurts
If the possible American thinking did not work out, at least for India, then it could well mean a further weakening of land borders. Here, not only two major State actors in China and Pakistan, but also non-State actors of the IS and Al Qaeda kinds could well join other ISI-backed anti-India terrorists from across the border and inside, too. An American pullout from the region after playing havoc with Pakistan and Pakistani psyche, in the process, could cause greater problems from India than with the US forces in Afghanistan, and also keeping an eye on Pakistan without India having to be worried too much, too far.
The Indian engagement with the US, whether in the form of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy or the four-nation Quad also implies that the regional nations pay not only for their supposed strategic upkeep viz. China, but also take care of all-American strategic interests in these parts. There is no denying that President Trump’s actions are mostly in conformity with the script, his own poll manifesto and public utterances and irresistible tweets, from time to time. Trump thus cannot be blamed, but then like the one-off cryogenic disaster viz. Russia, under then president Boris Yeltsin, the current American drawdown initiatives may have lessons for India. If nothing else, India, which has just begun warming up to Washington as it was to Moscow during the Cold War years, may end up going back to the stop-listen-proceed mode all over again.
Successive American administrations have unilaterally taken international political and geo-strategic decisions, and threatened non-compliers with economic sanctions. India faced it after Pokhran-I and II. More recently, Trump’s America threatened India with sanctions, for wanting to proceed with the fighter deal with Russia and oil purchases from Iran. While the American sanctions against these two nations are America’s business, it is easy for American Congressmen — and at times the Administration — to cite the Congress, to slap sanctions on other nations doing business with those that the US brand as ‘evil’ one day — and lift them when Washington considers as not-so-evil, the day after.
Earning every Dollar
Both Russia and Iran have been in and out of America’s sanctions lists from time to time. If nations like India with long-term deals with such other nations were to get caught in the cross-fire, they cannot be blamed for non-compliance. At the end of the day, at least in the case of the Russia sanctions — sought to be forced down India’s throats as well — there is a lesson for the US.
As a businessman, Donald Trump, more than any other American President before him would have understood that with sanctions against selling American weapons and fighters to a nation like India, if the latter were to thumb its nose at Washington, it could well increase that much more military business in Moscow. In turn, it could increase the Russian political clout viz. India, as it was during the Soviet era.
The US should also be aware of the new India-UAE deal for trade that does not require the American dollar. Already, India did business on oil with Iran in a near-similar basis before Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, lifted the sanctions against Tehran. Earlier, India’s Sri Lankan neighbour too wanted to do business with Iran on oil through India — and in Indian Rupee. Even without it, the then Maldivian government of president Mohammed Nasheed had repeated urged India to start off a bilateral direct-currency transaction without involving the American Dollar as the exchange mechanism.
As pointed out often, individuals and businesses, as much as governments, have been losing heavily in doing international transactions through the Dollar. To them, the US has to only print them, but they all have to earn them, Dollar by another Dollar — and also pay the US transactional costs. This again, the US didn’t have to earn.