The Pentagon released the U.S. National Defense Strategy last week, shifting its focus, for the first time in over a decade, from fighting terror to preparing for what it believes is a threat from China and Russia. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) is an important document penned by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis which encapsulates the Trump Administration’s defense policies in one place for the first time. The NDS bluntly describes a US military that is losing its edge over potential competitors, and urges “increased and sustained investment” for “long-term strategic competitions specifically with China and Russia”.The NDS alsoidentifies three theatres of engagement for the US: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East which is consistent with what the Obama administration had been doing towards the end. The NDS specifically points out that “China is a strategic competitor which is using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarisingfeatures in the South China Sea”[i] while on Russia, the document blames Russia of violating the borders of nearby nations and pursuing vetopower over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbours.The unclassified synopsis of NDS 2018 acknowledges an increasingly complex global security environment,characterized by overt challenges to the free and open international order and the re-emergence oflong-term, strategic competition between nations. The NDS states in clear terms about growing Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and states on China that “As China continues itseconomic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it willcontinue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony inthe near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future”.
The Trump administration had also released its first National Security Strategy (NSS) last month on 18 December, 2017. In principle, the strategy which has been outlined in the NSS document charts out the strategic objectives of Trump’s administration and also the ways to meet those strategic aims.The NSS document describes the Indo-Pacific region as the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world and maps it as a stretch from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States and reinforces its commitment to freedom of the seas and the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law in the Indo-Pacific region.
The NSS reflects a growing consensus in USA that China is an adversary. The document is a frank acknowledgment of widely shared concerns about China’s rise. It is important here to note that the approach of Trump administration is far cry from the Obama administration’s 2015 NSS which had welcomed the rise of a “peaceful” and “prosperous” China. In future, a sharp deterioration of China-US ties cannot be ruled out, especially if Washington perceives Beijing as a hindrance when it comes to resolving the crisis in the Korean peninsula.Trump administration’s complaint of China’s bullying of other States using “economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats,” echoes fears spreading from Asia to Europe.
In the Indo-Pacific region, as far as India is concerned, the NSS “welcomes India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner”[ii]. On the future course of action in the bilateral partnership of USA with India, the document mentions thatUSA will expand its defense and security cooperation with India which is a Major Defense Partner of the United States, and will also support India’s growing relationships throughout the Indo-Pacific region. There is a specific mention in the document of much talked and debated “quadrilateral partnership” amongUSA, Japan, India and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region and the NSS puts its stamp on it by mentioning the “Quad” for ‘free and open Indo-Pacific”.
On the issue of maritime cooperation, US has time and again shown its willingness to deepen its strategic partnership with India and support India’s leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region which is reflective in the cooperation in the Malabar naval exercise. Terrorism in South Asia is one of the biggest challenges among other geopolitical issues and in a direct reference to it, the NSS states that “US will press Pakistan to intensify the counterterrorism efforts, since no partnership can survive a country’s support for militants and terrorists who target a partner’s own service members and officials”.
Overall, the hypothesis of the NSS is based on the principle of realism in international relations as it defines the international system as one of great power competition in which the document specifically points out about Russia &China and portray them as “Revisionist Powers” challenging the status quo and identifies both the nations as strategic competitors or opponentsof the United States. The NSS also criticises past several decades of U.S. foreign policy approach and points out that in past it was shaped by the misguided belief that “engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.”This kind of realist framework in the conceptual context needs to be welcomed because it was long overdue departure from previous and successive administrations of USA.
Interestingly, the NSS neither makes any mention of China’s “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” Initiative nor it mentions about the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which together has the potential for a parallel Sino-centric sphere of influence in future.
USA needs to shred its obsession with zero-sum trade reciprocity and should come out with a coherent and comprehensive geo-economics strategy if it wants to preserve the U.S. led rules-based order and counter China’s grand strategy to carve out a parallel Sino-centric order or sphere of influence.
(Siddharth Singh is working as a Research Fellow with India Foundation)