The National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States of America was released on Monday. This 60-odd-page document, the first of its sort by the Donald Trump administration, seeks to outline the US’ internal and external challenges and lay out a roadmap for the year ahead. According to the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganisation Act of 1986, the publishing of the NSS is meant to be an annual affair. However, barring Ronald Reagan, no president has produced a new NSS every year. In fact, the eight-year tenure of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, only saw two such reports being published.
Getting back to the 2017 edition, there are a number of a notable features of Trump’s ‘strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology’, like the absence of anything relating to climate change — the document instead dwells on the merits of fossil fuels — and a suspicious view of China and Russia. Most relevant to South Asia, however, are the references to India and Pakistan, particularly when seen as an evolution of how Obama’s NSS of 2015 viewed both countries.
In the 2015 iteration of this text, India found itself mentioned six times — half of which referred to the growing bilateral relationship, something that blossomed during the Obama presidency and has the potential to go even further under Trump.
Stating that the US was “primed to unlock the potential of (its) relationship with India“, the document listed that there were several areas of strategic and economic convergence — “particularly in the areas of security, energy, and the environment” and the “rebalance to Asia and the Pacific“. It went on to add that the US recognised the effect “India’s potential” would have on the future of major power relations. Further, along with supporting India’s role as a regional security provider, the document backed its “its expanded participation in critical regional institutions”.
The most palpable theme to emerge was that Washington saw ‘potential’ in New Delhi, but largely saw India as a work-in-progress rather than the finished article.
Flash-forward to 2017 and Trump’s NSS paints India in a very different light: “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner,” it proclaims and adds that the US will “support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region“.
For starters and from the language used, it would appear that the US now sees India as less of a work-in-progress and slightly more as an almost-finished article.
The NSS goes on to state, “We will expand our defence and security cooperation with India, a Major Defence Partner of the United States, and support India’s growing relationships throughout the region” and “We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.” And finally, “…we will encourage India to increase its economic assistance in the region.”
And having seen India as an almost-finished article and made all the right noises (see: leading global power), it’s time for the country to make itself useful. The allusion to quadrilateral cooperation and India’s ‘growing relationships throughout the region’ can be seen as a thinly-veiled reference to the country’s role in the US’ China strategy. And the bit about economic assistance is unmistakably linked to Afghanistan. More on this shortly.
– “We will also work with the countries of the region, including Pakistan, to mitigate the threat from terrorism and to support a viable peace and reconciliation process to end the violence in Afghanistan and improve regional stability.“
– “(W)e will continue to work with both India and Pakistan to promote strategic stability, combat terrorism, and advance regional economic integration in South and Central Asia.”
These were the only two references to Pakistan in Obama’s NSS of 2015 and it’s not entirely unthinkable to imagine that Pakistan was still seen — if one goes by the document — as one among a set of countries that could be relied upon to bring about peace to the region. Not, it must be added, as a country responsible for instability or for fostering terrorists.
The NSS of 2017, however, is a very different story. So much so, that it had Pakistani NSA Nasser Khan Janjua up in arms and led to him alleging that the US was showing preferential treatment to India. But what was it that raised his hackles?
The very first mention of the country refers to the threat from “militants operating from within Pakistan” and the very final one to the fact that the US will “insist that Pakistan take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil“. The US, the document adds, seeks “a Pakistan that is not engaged in destabilising behaviour“. It goes on to add that Washington will press Islamabad “to intensify its counterterrorism efforts” and promises that trade and investment relations will be built “as security improves and as Pakistan demonstrates that it will assist the United States in our counterterrorism goals“.
Finally, the document flags a potential India-Pakistan “military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange” as an area of grave concern and urges Islamabad “to continue demonstrating that it is a responsible steward of its nuclear assets“.
If it wasn’t just the insinuations against Pakistan, with which Page 50 of the NSS 2017 is replete, that got Janjua’s goat, it’s quite likely it was the tone of the statements about the country that did. It appears to be, in equal parts, an admonishment and a threat. Accusing Pakistan of being engaged in ‘destabilising behaviour’, warning it against being irresponsible with its nukes and ‘insisting’ that it cracks down on terrorists (something, it is implied, Pakistan has shown no inclination to do so far) and challenging it to show continued responsibility with nukes comes across like a school matron disciplining an errant child. The part about the desire to build trade and investment ties can be read as a threat because the wording of the text implies that this won’t happen unless security improves and Pakistan ‘demonstrates’ that it will be part of the counterterrorism effort.
Contrasting the glowing references to India with the nearly-damning ones to Pakistan goes some way in showing just why Janjua reacted the way he did.
So what to make of all this?
The Trump administration — and more specifically, the man at the helm of it — has been talking tough on Pakistan ever since it took over in January this year. For instance, in August, when the US approved a $255-million aid package for Pakistan (having provided nearly $33 billion since 2002), Trump said, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond… We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added, “We’re going to be conditioning our support for Pakistan and our relationship with them on them delivering results in this area.”
With that in mind, it’s unsurprising to see the sort of language used in various public utterances manifest itself on the pages of the NSS. For the near future, it looks like this public war of words between Islamabad and Washington will continue… largely in the press. Trump or a member of his Cabinet will fire off a salvo at Pakistan. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif or Janjua or someone else will return fire. Frostiness will reign supreme and then a bilateral visit by a secretary or minister will smooth things over until the next salvo. Will this iteration of the NSS make a difference to Pakistan’s relationship with terrorism emanating from its own soil? Hard to be certain, but for now, it seems rather unlikely.
What all this means for India is very different. It would be easy for New Delhi to thumb its nose at China — that took a bit of stick in the NSS — and pat itself on the back about how mighty it has become on the world stage that even the US acknowledges its majesty and gives it the proverbial bhaav. Unfortunately, it looks like the reality is very far removed from this interpretation.
Admittedly, Trump — or his NSS at the very least — acknowledges India as a leader and a partner. However, the lines about India that follow and a cursory reading of the rest of the document indicate that there are three clear areas (and one slightly fuzzy one) in which the US now needs India:
First, as a part of the US strategy to counter China: The references to leadership in the region, New Delhi’s growing relationships in the region and quadrilateral cooperation make this part very clear. Washington is wary of Beijing’s growing clout and using New Delhi as its ‘guy on the inside’ will ostensibly help the US ‘contain’ China, particularly in the South China Sea, without getting its own hands too dirty.
Second, as a part of the US strategy to curb terrorism emanating from Pakistan: All that talk of regional and global leadership when read alongside the lines on Pakistan indicate that the US is not too pleased with Pakistan. And by demonstrating this state of displeasure while talking up India — all publicly, the document gives the impression that Washington has picked a side. In doing so, the effort could be to embolden India to carry on with its actions against Pakistan. Once again, this would save the US the effort of actually getting its hands dirty.
Third, the allusion to India’s economic assistance in the region clearly refers to Afghanistan: New Delhi and Kabul share cordial, if not outright warm, relations and Washington is not unaware. The US drawdown from Afghanistan has been a nightmare that keeps on giving (grief, that is) and costing American taxpayers millions every year. What better way than to pull out of yet another botched endgame in that country than by getting a willing neighbour to foot the bill?
And the fuzzy fourth, three references to the India-US defence partnership in a document that is fairly critical of Russia, could hint at Trump’s willingness to take Moscow (New Delhi’s largest source of arms imports over the years) out of the game by striking better defence deals with India. Despite still having a great deal of warmth and positivity, the India-Russia relationship is at its lowest point since Independence. Could the US be planning to replace Russia in India’s mind space? Perhaps, but it’s far too early to even contemplate the remotest notion of all that.
Of course, there is the fact that India is obviously not going to unquestioningly and obediently follow the US’ instructions on foreign policy. But, the NSS is a good indicator of the roles Washington sees other countries playing. To sum it all up, it’s true that there’s been a major shift in the way the US perceives of India — Washington sees New Delhi as a far more useful player in its game than ever before. It is still too premature and extreme to use the word ‘pawn’ just yet.