Trump’s security strategy draws India closer, targets Pakistan and China

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US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in June. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

The first National Security Strategy from the Trump administration offers lots of support to India, while taking a tough stance against Pakistan. The US National Security Strategy paper, being released by President Donald Trump on Monday Washington time, seeks to support “India’s emergence as a leading global power” and promises to “to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.”

On Pakistan, the paper, believed to be the defining policy statement of US strategy for the coming months, there is a lot of tough love. It clearly states that the United States “continues to face threats from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan.”

It also expresses concern that there are fairly high chances of an India-Pakistan conflict, which could lead to a nuclear confrontation and therefore calls for “consistent diplomatic attention.”

What will cheer Indian policymakers is the unambiguous recognition of India as a major emerging global power by the Trump administration. It also takes forward the current Indian government’s push for a seat at the high table.

This also takes forward the intentions declared in the joint statement issued on June 27 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Washington, DC. The statement underscored the need for a stable Indo-Pacific region and put emphasis on “respecting freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce throughout the region,” which was interpreted as a statement made with China in mind. At that time Modi and Trump also called on “Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.”

The security strategy paper also reiterates Trump’s earlier stance on Pakistan’s “destabilizing role” in Afghanistan, when he outlined his broad strategy in August. At that time he said, “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror. The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict.”

The new strategy paper once again calls on Pakistan to desist from engaging in “destabilizing behavior” in Afghanistan. But what should be worrying for the army generals in Rawalpindi is a clear call to end its “support for militants and terrorists” who target US personnel as well as interests in the region. This, the strategy paper says, could undermine the historic strategic relationship between the US and Pakistan.

Putting Pakistan on notice, it says “no partnership can survive a country’s support for militants and terrorists who target a partner’s own service members and officials.”

Instead, it calls for Pakistan to take “decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil.”

India is once again identified as a “major defense partner,” and the US promises to expand these ties. However, though India and the US have signed a logistics agreement – the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – it is yet to see any meaningful exchange coming out of it. This was seen by strategic observers as a first concrete step in building a military alliance between India and the US, since joint military exercises on land, air and the sea have seen a considerable degree of interoperability between the two countries.

Of great interest to Indian strategy planners are the tough observations on China. Along with Russia, the paper calls China a “challenge to American power, influence and interests.” Trump and his team are facing a major probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and special prosecutor Robert Mueller over possible collusion with Russia in subverting the 2016 US elections.

The paper says that both these nations are attempting to “erode American security and prosperity,” a possible indication that the US administration recognizes Russia and China as major threats. It points out that both nations are also building advanced weapons and capabilities that can “threaten critical infrastructure” and the US “command and control” architecture.”

The paper paints China and Russia as “revisionist powers” who want to shape a world that is “antithetical to US interests and values” and is part of a troika of threats alongside rogue nations such as North Korea and transnational non-state actors such as jihadi terrorists.

The US stance on China will be of particular interest to India’s strategic planners. The confrontation between India and China over the Doklam Plateau earlier this year continues to simmer as Chinese troops build up positions on their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction.

The paper notes that contrary to US hopes, “China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others in the region,” This, for New Delhi and other powers in the Indo-Pacific region, is a reaffirmation of the values that could shape the emerging “Quad” in the coming days as a bulwark to Chinese expansionism.

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