US Defence Secretary James Mattis, while unveiling the strategy of the US Defense Department on 19 January 2018, underscored the key priorities of the US in the security sphere. He made some significant points. First, Mattis spoke about the threat the United States faces from both Russia and China. Mattis said:
We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia, nations that seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models – pursuing veto authority over other nation’s economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.
Russia & China Take Aim
Both Russia and China criticised the US’ strategy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded to Mattis’ remarks and the Trump Administration’s approach towards Russia, saying:
It is regrettable that instead of having normal dialogue, instead of using the basis of international law, the US is trying to prove their leadership through such confrontational strategies and concepts.Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister
A spokesman of the Chinese embassy in Washington, reacting to the report and Mattis’ speech, said:
…if some people look at the world through a Cold War, zero-sum game mindset, then they are destined to see only conflict and confrontation.
Second, Mattis spoke about a free Indo-Pacific, and the increasing relevance of alliances and partnerships. The US Defence Secretary said:
A free and open Indo-Pacific region provides prosperity and security for all. We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.
A New Amoral Direction?
Mattis’ reference to threats emanating from China, and the reference to the authoritarian models being pursued by these nations is significant – Trump himself has been agnostic to political systems, and while speaking of Democratic systems, he has been largely indifferent. While the US did make compromises with authoritarian rulers and tyrannical regimes, Trump does not even pay lip service to the values the US has stood for for so long.
Martin Wolf in an article for the Financial Times titled Davos: The liberal international order is sick rightly says: “Yet now, when potent authoritarian regimes challenge democracy, the US has withdrawn its moral support. Mr Trump even shows sympathy for autocrats abroad.”
While the new strategy speaks about alliances, Trump has been critical of NATO. Mattis, however, spoke in favour of alliances, saying:
We will be willing to be persuaded by them, recognising that not all good ideas come from the country with the most aircraft carriers.
Democracies Band Together, but Trump Injects Uncertainty
Even in the context of China, Trump has been unpredictable. He was floored by the warm reception given to him as well as the commitments made by Chinese investors during his Chinese visit in November 2017.
Trump, while speaking at the Great Hall of the People during his visit, blamed previous US administrations for the trade deficit. Said the US President: “But in actuality I do blame past [US] administrations for allowing this out of control trade deficit to take place and to grow. We have to fix this because it just doesn’t work … it is just not sustainable.”
Mattis’ reference to a free and fair Indo-Pacific would certainly be welcomed in India, Japan and Australia. The Quad Alliance (India, Australia, Japan and the US) has repeatedly spoken in favor of a free Indo-Pacific, and democracy has been repeatedly cited as a key common factor.
At the meeting held between representatives of the four countries, on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Manila in November 2017, the thrust was on a free and fair Indo-Pacific.
There was also an emphasis on shared values of these four countries. The US State Department issued a statement saying they were:
...Committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.
Will Trump Follow Through on Terror?
While there is a lot to welcome in the Defence Strategy unveiled by the US, New Delhi would pay careful attention to a few points:
Mattis spoke about terrorism. There is no doubt that the Trump Administration has come up with some tough words for Pakistan-based terror groups, including those targeting India, such as JeM (Jaish-E-Mohammad) and LeT (Lashkar-E-Taiba).
During his meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had shared a list of 20 terror groups operating from Pakistan including LeT and JeM. US has also repeatedly supported a proposal to declare JeM Chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a terrorist, though China has blocked this move.
At the same time, seeing Trump’s unpredictability, it remains to be seen whether he will go whole hog against terror groups targeting India. Apart from this, countries like Saudi Arabia and China will do their best to soften US attitudes towards Pakistan.
For India, a Mixed Bag
Second, Mattis’ aggressive remarks against China will also change geopolitical dynamics, and push Russia closer not just to China, but Pakistan as well. This certainly is not good news for India.
Third, while the report targets Iran, dubbing it a rogue state and equating it with North Korea, the former is extremely important for New Delhi, since India has lent financial assistance for the Chabahar Port in Iran, which will be New Delhi’s gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan.
India would be wary of a situation where Iran too sways decisively towards China. So far, New Delhi has successfully balanced its relationship with the US and Iran, while Iran has managed robust economic ties with China, while also strengthening linkages with India.
In conclusion, the US Defense Strategy is a mixed bag for India. New Delhi realises the importance of the US, and the bilateral relationship has moved beyond individuals. Yet the US President’s unpredictability, and tendency to assume that complex issues can be dealt with through mere transactionalism, would be a cause of worry.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. He can be reached @tridiveshsingh .The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)