The broad thrust of the NSS document transcends Trump and reflects a growing consensus in the American establishment that China is an adversary. As far as India is concerned, this is the good news.
The Trump administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS) on 18 December. In principle, the congressionally-mandated document charts out Donald Trump’s strategic objectives and ways to meet them. Trump’s worldview is distinctly un-strategic, with a marked preference for tactical “deals”. As a White House official admitted, it is unclear whether Trump even read the document that bears his signature. Given this disposition of the disruptor-in-chief, the extent to which a National Security Strategy of the Trump White House can — or should — be taken seriously can be questioned.
However, the broad thrust of the document transcends Trump and, as has already been noted by other analysts, reflects a growing consensus in the American establishment that China is an adversary. As far as India is concerned, this is the good news. The bad news is that Russia — supplier of almost 70% of Indian weapons and fellow champion of a multipolar world — is also in the American cross hairs. The Trump NSS clubs Russia and China together in the same conceptual category of “revisionist” states. Long wary of hyphenation, New Delhi may now have to deal with the consequence of yet another one.
NSS makes good on one of the persistent themes of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements in the run-up to 2016 elections: of Chinese as unalloyed hostiles out to “rape” American workers. It describes the People’s Republic as a mercantilist power with views “antithetical” to that held by Americans. It amplifies New Delhi’s concerns with Chinese-led global infrastructure initiatives such as the Belt and Road system. Most crucially, it notes “China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.” This formulation frames Beijing as architect of zero-sum games, and is in sharp contrast to the “win-win cooperation” narrative preferred by Chinese mandarins.
Coming as it does on the heels of the Doklam standoff, the Indian establishment could indeed welcome this recognition of Chinese intransigence. It would also note how this is a far cry from the Obama administration’s 2015 NSS that welcomed the rise of a “peaceful” and “prosperous” China. As 2018 rolls in a sharp deterioration of China-US ties cannot be ruled out, especially if Washington perceives Beijing as obdurate when it comes to resolving the crisis in the Korean peninsula. Should Trump act against China economically, his actions will have the imprimatur of a formal strategy document.
The bad news for New Delhi is the administration’s stance on Russia that NSS codifies. After Trump’s election late last year, senior Indian officials viewed it as a net positive for India, premising it on the possibility of a US-Russia rapprochement based on candidate Trump’s open admiration of Vladimir Putin. Since then, details of how Russia may have influenced the 2016 US election have come to light. As special counsel Robert Mueller probes the extent to which Trump’s campaign may have been in cahoots with Moscow, his administration may be cornered into taking a much tougher stance on Russia partly to dissociate itself from charges of overt collusion.
Indeed the hostile language of the Trump NSS when it comes to Russia may largely be for domestic consumption, with the 2018 US congressional election in mind. Without irony, the document notes Russia’s interference in domestic politics of other countries. However, should Trump act on his own NSS, Putin could well raise the stakes for the US and its allies, and probe the seriousness of Trump’s so-called “imperialist” strategy — as Kremlin described the NSS soon after its release. As India seeks to play nice to two actors deeply antagonistic towards each other, the NSS stands to complicate Modi’s foreign policy in the run-up to the 2019 general election here at home.
New Delhi has recently sought to reinvigorate a cooperative triangular relationship with both Russia and China, the recent RIC foreign ministers’ summit in New Delhi being a case in point. It has also acquiesced to the renewed quadrilateral dialogue with the US, Australia, and Japan, a development that has been welcomed by the Trump NSS. Taken together, New Delhi will soon find itself upholding the precepts of the US-led liberal order, and sup with US-described “revisionists” at the same time.
This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.