India needs to maintain its strategic autonomy

With the call that "America is in the game and America is going to win", strongly reminiscent of his populist campaign speeches, US President Donald Trump launched his first National Strategic Security (NSS) policy document on December 18, 2017. He categorised his ambitions for the US based on "principled realism" to be propelled by the "re-awakening of America".

That Trump's NSS was shorn of any diplomatic finesse and loaded with maximalist rhetorical stirrings for his nation was, to say the least, on expected lines.

Throwing to the winds previous President Barak Obama's cautious American foreign and economic policies, including withdrawing from earlier US internationally agreed upon commitments to combat climate change, Trump's macho exhortations did not find much resonance even among many centre-of-the road American politicians and strategic analysts.

The strategy document, which every US president is required by law to produce, lays down the administration's foreign, security and economic policies. Though normally the US Secretary of State introduces the document, Trump broke with tradition to personally enunciate his future strategies.

He unleashed his priorities for the coming years based on his "whole of government approach" which stresses the "economic and military might" of the US to further America's national strategic objectives. That, currently, the US is financially fatigued and even militarily weary and stretched, according to its own analysts, is another story.

Trump outlined his NSS based on four pillars -- protecting the homeland, promoting prosperity, peace through strength, and accelerating US influence globally. Terming China and Russia as "revisionist powers", he called upon the US military to augment its capabilities, reiterating that "our rivals are tough, they are tenacious and committed to the long term, but so are we".

He cautioned China on its growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region while mildly chiding it for its One-Belt-One-Road initiative, exclaiming that though the country "presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, China's dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific". The NSS document categorically castigates China that it "seeks to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and re-order the region in its favour". That the US has not done much, physically, to check the Chinese in the choppy waters of the Indo-Pacific is a harsh reality.

Trump also alluded to the "unfair" trade practices adopted by China while also seeking its cooperation to keep North Korea's dangerously errant nuclear ambitions in check. That North Korea has got away-so far -- with its nuclear blackmail in the region and even threatening the US -- is a sad commentary of the times when possession of nuclear weapons, even by nations otherwise starved of basic necessities, has emerged as the final arbiter of one's ultimate status in the world.

In his geo-political projections, Trump was, perhaps, unfair to Russia, portraying it as a global rival stating that Moscow "seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders", alluding to Ukraine and Crimea.

This assessment will hardly be welcome to India, which has been looking for rapprochement between the US and Russia in the South Asia region, especially in Afghanistan and Iran, to counter the ever-growing Pakistan-China nexus. It would be fair to also assume that notwithstanding Indian sensitivities, even its decades-old partner, Russia, is searching for newer alliances in the region.

The NSS document, however, would be music to Indian ears, as it terms this country a "leading global power" while also seeking larger Indian assistance in South Asia. The US called for stronger strategic and defence partnership with India.

As done many times in the past, without much success though, the NSS warned Pakistan to refrain from its assistance to terrorists in the region, stating that the US sought a "Pakistan that is not engaged in destabilising behaviour and a stable and self-reliant Afghanistan".

Additionally, Trump also said that "we have made it clear to Pakistan that while we desire a continued partnership, we must see decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory. And we make massive payments every year to Pakistan. They have to help". That any such exhortations to Pakistan will ever help decreasing terrorism in the region is a moot point which the US acknowledges but, off and on, persists with its policy of appeasing its one-time protégé, an aspect which needs to be critically factored by the Indian security establishment.

Notwithstanding the shrill rhetoric of Trump's call to his nation, only time will tell if his articulation gets translated into reality -- some of it definitely fraught with additional dangers to global peace. As India gets inexorably closer to its "strategic partner", it will be worthwhile for it to never forget the simple rule in global geopolitics -- that for a nation of its values, size, global and regional influence there is immense wisdom in maintaining "strategic autonomy" and being ever-prepared to fight its own battles.

(Lt. Gen. Kamal Davar (retd) was founder of India's Defence Intelligence Agency and is currently President, Delhi Forum For Strategic Studies. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor)

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