By Rajesh Rajagopalan
A month after his victory and a month away from actually taking the oath of office, President-elect Donald Trump is clearly overturning Washington’s established foreign policy consensus. The implications of the strategic changes Trump is introducing are quite profound, if they actually become policy. It could indicate that the US will now play a much more central role in maintaining a strategic balance in Asia and possibly drive a wedge between China and Russia. This should be welcome in New Delhi, where most strategic analysts have been puzzled by the US reluctance to take on China, a stronger adversary, while haranguing Russia, which is too weak to pose much threat to the US. But Trump’s foreign policy and style have dangers also that New Delhi must consider as it tries to figure out how to deal with a radically new Washington.
On the campaign trail, Trump was lambasted for what the Washington Post characterised as an “incoherent, inconsistent, incomprehensible foreign policy.” After he won the election, opinions on his foreign policy did not improve much. But nevertheless, there is a core consistency in Trump’s strategic approach: it is defined by a hardline approach to China and a softer view of Russia. This upends decades of US strategic policy, which took a harder line on Russia and a softer approach to China.
There was a logic to such an approach during the Cold War, when Russia represented a more serious threat. But the Russian collapse at the end the Cold War, and China’s resurgence over the last two decades, did not lead to the necessary strategic reappraisal in Washington. Instead the US continued to mollycoddle a rising China, and worry and irritate a weakened Russia, driving Moscow into Beijing’s arms. Despite rhetorical recognition of US’s growing relative weakness, there was little attempt in Washington to reassess the consequences of the changing balance of power between the US, China and Russia, let alone adjust US policy to this change.
Trump’s approach dramatically shifts America’s strategic weight against China, while at the same time potentially splitting the emerging Sino-Russian axis. Both elements of his approach — countering China as well as partnering Russia — are very visible. His most dramatic intervention so far has been in setting up a congratulatory phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, a break from a tradition of several decades of the US President not talking to Taiwanese leaders. After some initial surprise, China’s response has gotten angrier, but Trump has pushed back too. This is another change: until now, all it took for a US administration to scamper for cover was a raised Chinese eyebrow. Trump is signaling that China cannot unilaterally set such red lines.
This needed to be done. The US has for too long stepped back rather than confront China, even though the US has gained little by way of Chinese cooperation. Such confrontation carries risks for both sides, but these are risks that both sides should cooperate in avoiding, and it is not US’s sole responsibility. US reluctance to challenge China so far has only appeared to embolden China, not lead to China’s cooperation. Righting this balance was long overdue. For example, on Taiwan specifically, China has succeeded in creating the impression that the US accepts China’s “one-China” policy, though the US position itself is somewhat more complicated, as John Tkacik points out. An additional, unintended benefit, has been that Trump’s hardline on China has garnered Trump greater support within the Republican strategic community.
Trump’s tough approach to China should generally be welcome in the region. If the Trump administration is truly willing to use America’s weight to right the increasingly skewed balance of power in the region, that can only benefit the region, and India.
The other side of the equation, of warmer feelings towards Russian and President Vladimir Putin, has also been highly visible and indeed much more controversial. It has generally been met by with puzzlement or else with ridicule, as an indication of Trump’s strongman tendencies which reveal itself in his love for other strongmen. Even Republicans have opposed Trump’s views on Russia, with several former Republican officials signing an open letter disapproving it, though the base of the GOP and even some leaders have supported Trump. Trump has refused to criticise Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria, or even Russian hacking of the Democratic party and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
Strategically, closer ties with Russia makes sense for the US. Russia, save for its nuclear weapons, is a much weaker power today, but one that is valuable to China for a variety of reasons including its diplomatic clout, its military technology and its natural resources. Preventing a Russia-China axis should have been a major US strategic objective, which should not have been too difficult considering these are neighbours that have had a history of political and territorial conflict. Instead, American and European behaviour forced Moscow to seek alignment with China. This is not to excuse Russian behaviour in Ukraine or Georgia or Syria, or its threat to the Baltics. But an easier way to ensure Russian cooperation in all these cases would have been to find a modus vivendi that would have provided security for both Russia and its smaller neighbours. Trump’s revision of US policies towards Russia is thus also long overdue.
An America partnering with Russia and containing China is an ideal opportunity for New Delhi and for the rest of Asia. For India, Russia has been historically a close strategic partner and the US a new one, and it would be difficult for New Delhi to maneuver between them if they are on bad terms. While the US is without doubt a more valuable partner today, India cannot easily ignore its dependence on Russia just yet. And a Sino-Russian partnership would be a serious strategic headache for India. Thus there is little doubt that India stands to benefit if Trump brings US and Russia closer and splits Russia from its entente cordiale with China. Russia may be less important to the rest of Asia, but anything that limits China’s power would obviously benefit them too.
Unfortunately, this rosy strategic picture has a number of blemishes that New Delhi would be wise to consider too. The most important is that it is not clear that Trump is basing his approach on any careful consideration of strategic choices. So far, neither Trump nor his supporters or campaign have presented any well thought strategic rationale for his choices, leading to the unsettling conclusion that these are random thoughts that have internal logic and consistency only by chance. As Thomas Wright recently argued about Trump’s foreign policy, “it is hard to say if small actions are part of a coherent strategy or if he is simply winging it.” If this is a valid conclusion, the danger is that US strategy could change very quickly, if Trump falls out with Putin or if China is smart enough to find a way to appease or appeal to Trump. India, as well as Washington’s other allies and partners, need predictability and dependability from the senior partner in the alliance. It is early days yet, of course, but Trump needs to generate some confidence that there will be some stability in his approach, possibly by outlining a strategic rationale for his policies.
Second, much of Trump’s criticism of China has to do with China’s mercenary trade policies that exploits liberal trade unfairly. Trump has repeatedly blamed China for stealing US jobs, though data has consistently shown that the vast majority of manufacturing jobs lost in the US is due to automation, not China. Though China can make some concessions — on currency valuation, or greater market access, for example — it is unlikely that Beijing will be able to satisfy Trump’s demands. The consequences, if Trump is serious, could be a trade war that could escalate to beggar-thy-neighbour policies that will leave not only China and the US worse off, but seriously damage the other Asia Pacific economies, including those of India and Japan. The US needs to counter China and oppose China’s unfair trade practices, and it might lead to a trade war if China is obdurate, but a trade war cannot be the starting point.
Third, Trump’s focus on China’s trade policies also suggest the additional danger that if China is able to successfully negotiate a deal with Beijing, the US might cut a separate deal with Beijing and leave its allies in the region in the lurch. Of course, this is a problem for all allies at all times — think of poor Taiwan itself — abandoned because the US decided that it had bigger fish to fry. The evidence on this so far in a Trump administration is mixed. On the positive side, Taiwan, the first point of tension, is a political rather than an economic issue, and many of Trump’s advisors are concerned more about the political and military challenge that China presents than simply trade issues. On the negative side, Trump has been harsh about free riding allies and appears far more unilateralist in his approach, suggesting he does not see much use for allies, or at the least, that allies will have to walk behind than alongside the US. It is too early to figure out which of these tendencies will prevail.
This leads to the final point: the role of allies in Trump’s strategy. American strategy until now has been to enroll allies in its strategic projects, not because the US can’t go it alone but because it is cheaper and more legitimizing to have others support you. Trump seems to think of allies only in terms of the former, as a way to reduce US material burden. On the one hand, this is not a new issue: US has for decades tried to get its allies — from Europe to Asia — to bear a fair portion of this burden. On the other hand, the US has never threatened to walk away unless it is paid, as Trump has implied. Even the most unilateralist of US administrations, George W. Bush’s for example, understood the need of alliances as legitimising tools. The Trump administration needs to realise this too.
For US allies and partners in Asia, US unilateralism has both benefits and risks. If the US is willing to balance China on its own, it absolves allies and partners of both the political cost of joining an anti-China group as well as the material costs of balancing, while benefiting from China’s containment. But the downsides are also great: a fire in the region will singe everyone. An additional concern for US allies will be that a volatile Trump will need to be handled with kid’s gloves: the usual practice of cursing Washington for six days in a week and expecting its help on the seventh might no longer apply.
For the last decade, the problem was that the US seemed to ignore the rising challenge from China and Washington’s policies only seemed to strengthen Beijing. US allies in Asia were desperate for the US to step up. Trump’s efforts to befriend Russia and balance China makes perfect strategic sense. The problem is that it is not clear that it is strategic.