The latest iteration of the US National Security Strategy (NSS) issued this week in Washington confirms the slow but steady convergence of American interests with those of India in the Subcontinent and more broadly the Indo-Pacific. It was no surprise that Delhi quickly welcomed US President Donald Trump’s strategy and the importance his administration attaches to the partnership with India. But there is a lot more to the NSS than the laudatory references to India and the criticism of Pakistan and China.
In the deeply-divided Washington, Trump’s NSS received mixed reviews. Understanding the internal debate in the US about its approach to the world is as important for India as parsing the administration’s latest thinking on China and Pakistan. For, Trump could well be the harbinger of major discontinuities in the US engagement with the world amidst significant internal economic turbulence.
For many in the US, the NSS reinforced concerns that Trump’s “America First” approach departs from the principles of internationalism that shaped American foreign policy since the Second World War. Others note that the president’s security team has sought to move Trump closer to the mainstream of the American worldview. But the president’s instincts appear very different.
As America argues with itself over foreign, economic and security policies, India is in a relatively happy situation. The Trump administration is determined to build on the US advances with India over the last two decades. If President George W. Bush affirmed that Washington will support India’s rise, Trump is welcoming India’s “emergence as a leading global power”.
If presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama stopped seeing India through the constricting prism of South Asia, Trump is betting on a larger role for Delhi in stabilising the Indo-Pacific. Although the term Indo-Pacific was first used by Hillary Clinton, it was Trump who articulated the idea at the highest level during his visit to Asia last month. The change in the American thinking is now reinforced by the first ever use of the term “Indo-Pacific” in the NSS documents that the US Congress demands from all administrations.
Within the Subcontinent, Trump, like his predecessors, acknowledges profound concerns about Pakistan’s support for international terrorism. Unlike Bush and Obama, Trump has promised to confront Rawalpindi on the issue. Fingers remain crossed in Delhi on how far the administration can go. It is not for nothing that Delhi underlined cooperation on counter-terrorism in endorsing Trump’s national security strategy.
On the face of it, Trump’s critique of China’s policies goes beyond what we have seen from any of the administrations since the normalisation of relations between Washington and Delhi in the 1970s. Washington now identifies China as a major challenge to America’s economic prosperity and political primacy.
Yet, the Administration’s ability to act decisively against China, we must not forget, will be constrained by the profound economic interdependence and the need for Beijing’s cooperation in addressing a large number of issues. But there is no doubt that the tough rhetoric on China comes after a year in which Trump sought quite hard to to secure some kind of a deal with the Chinese leadership on economic and political issues. The strategy document is strongly critical of Russia but Trump took a different tack in his speech, where he pointed to cooperation with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Underlying these apparent contradictions is the new dynamism in great power relations.
The NSS says, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity”. The previous administrations assumed that China and Russia can be integrated into the global order led by the United States. In the new “competitive world,” the NSS argues, “this premise turned out to be false”.
The dawn of a competitive world does not mean Trump wants to take the world back to the Cold War. The NSS says, “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict — although none should doubt our commitment to defend our interests. An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict.”
Trump is affirming that Washington will not sit idly as other powers undermine America’s position. He wants to defend American primacy by rebuilding its military power, insisting on greater reciprocity in its alliances, reducing the constraints on economic growth imposed by domestic and international regulations, and demanding fair trade rather than free trade. America, Trump insists, will no longer be deluded by the ideology of globalism, multilateralism, but will operate on the basis of “principled realism”.
Many in Washington and a large number of US allies are sceptical if the “America First strategy” will work. That is unlikely to deter Trump. On its part, Delhi should focus on the sources of internal change in America that are compelling Washington to recalibrate its external relations. For that, Delhi has to look at one of the key propositions in Trump’s NSS: “Economic security is national security”. Aligning India’s economic strategy with the changes unfolding in Trump’s America is the key to an enduring and productive bilateral partnership. Central to that approach is the revitalisation of India’s high-technology partnership with America.
The NSS says the US will turn to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and gene-editing to keep its competitive edge in the global economy. While he might be opposed to importing cheap labour, Trump’s NSS says America “must continue to attract the innovative and the inventive, the brilliant and the bold”. Put another way, America is not going to close its borders to Indian technical talent.
The NSS adds that America “will nurture a healthy innovation economy that collaborates with allies and partners, improves STEM education, draws on an advanced technical workforce, and invests in early-stage research and development (R&D)”. India’s real opportunity with Trump’s America, therefore, lies in building on the expansive linkages between Bengaluru and Silicon Valley and demonstrating that the two nations could simultaneously prosper.