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South Asia’s Reckoning With Global Alignments in the Trump Era

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The Pulse

South Asia’s Reckoning With Global Alignments in the Trump Era

U.S. foreign policy might not change, but the world has and will — especially in South Asia.

South Asia’s Reckoning With Global Alignments in the Trump Era
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released

Just three months into the Trump administration, it has become clear that despite all the prior talk about improving relations with Russia, of NATO being obsolete, and of not going into Syria, the general strategic thrust of U.S. foreign policy strategy is not that different from Barack Obama’s, or from what could have been expected from Hillary Clinton had she become the U.S. president. The United States will continue to project power throughout all regions in the world, and unilaterally if need be. Whether this is the result of conscious deliberation or Trump discovering the domestic value of cleaving to a more traditional foreign policy, the result is the same.

This, of course, means that American interests will always be diametrically opposed to those of Russia, China, and Iran, the countries that most want to project influence and power in their neighborhoods without American influence.

Thus, the geopolitical configuration of the world today is one that is hard to preserve, as it has been developing for nearly two decades on the basis of the national interests of various countries.

In short, the world is divided into two camps are: an alliance led by the United States, and an ad hoc grouping of countries, of which the primary ones are Russia, China, and Iran, that would like to see, at least theoretically, a multipolar world with many great powers.

These two camps may not be formal alliances, but as the century wears on, it is becoming increasingly obvious that it will be hard to change the makeup of the two camps, and their basic antagonism to each other’s interests; after all, the goals of American predominance and the multipolarity are diametrically opposed to each other. This antagonism toward giving the United States a free hand throughout the world is what keeps Russia, China, and Iran together along with several smaller states like Syria and North Korea. It has become evident that some combination of the three big players in this grouping, Russia, Iran, and China, work together for a variety of geopolitical goals in various countries throughout the world. For example, it was recently reported that Russia and Iran have been supporting and advising the Taliban in Afghanistan.

American attempts to peel at least one of three countries apart and bring them closer to the United States has so far failed, though some variation of this policy, if not explicitly articulated, was behind both Obama’s outreach to Iran and Trump’s bonhomie toward Russia. Although Russia, China, and Iran all want closer relations with the United States and are not necessarily committed to each other, the logic of geopolitics makes it difficult for any sort of grand bargain to work out. And besides, the interests of various secondary powers aligned with the United States prevent any thorough reset of relations Russia, China, and Iran.

In addition to the United States, other big players in the Western camp include close allies of the United States that either share similar ideological and geopolitical goals, such as the United Kingdom or Germany, or rely on it for military support, such as Japan and Saudi Arabia. Countries that have their own opposing interests within a region will naturally gravitate all the more strongly toward one of the two camps. For example, the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry can be seen in this light; as the rivalry between the two countries continues to fester, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have become more and more stalwart members of the American camp, to the point where it almost seems as though Saudi Arabia wants to serve as the deputy sheriff of the Middle East. Similarly, in East Asia, rivals Japan and China find themselves in opposite camps, despite the logic of regional economic integration dictating otherwise.

The logic of the trends where countries increasingly find themselves in one of two geopolitical camps isn’t absolute, and puts some states in the strange situation of being partially in both camps, or independent from them; for example Turkey is increasingly distant from the West, has ambiguous relations with Russia, and tries to get along with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, while also seeming them as rivals.

Nowhere is this sort of ambiguity as true as in South Asia. India and Pakistan are the two more important world powers that haven’t clearly aligned with either of the two aforementioned camps. And while they may never formally do so, increasing rivalry between the other great powers make put them in the awkward position of having to draw closer to one camp or the other.

The problem is clear for both countries. India has a proud tradition of non-alignment. Its own rivals are China and Pakistan; it is on good terms with other countries, including pairs of rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Russia and the United States. Yet, these countries are hardly on the best of terms. Likewise, Pakistan is close to both Saudi Arabia and China, and has traditionally had fairly good relations with the United States. As Arif Rafiq notes at The National Interest, both India and Pakistan like to have their cake and eat it too; “India can fancy itself as a potential security guarantor for the GCC while continuing to have close military cooperation with Iran.” Likewise, Pakistan can pursue close relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and increasingly also Russia, in addition to the United States.

Can India and Pakistan have their cakes and eat them too in a world increasingly falling into two camps? Perhaps for several more years; and if they were smaller countries located elsewhere, perhaps for much longer. But ultimately, both India and Pakistan will probably have to make the choice to lean toward the faction that gives them the most support against what they perceive to be their greatest security threats. India, in other words, will draw closer to the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific such as Japan, because its biggest rival is China. Moreover, China is close with Pakistan, while at least the United States is willing to hedge its bets in South Asia. This, in turn, would bring India closer to Israel and Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding its good relations with Iran. Yet, as I pointed out last year, Iran will pursue its own national interests, regardless of what India wants, and this includes supporting the Taliban. Likewise, for Pakistan, while Saudi Arabia is a generous benefactor, its national security needs necessitate strong relations with China. This also enables closer relations between Pakistan and Russia. Additionally, Pakistan (like Syria and Iran) has reportedly cooperated with North Korea for decades, hardly a way of endearing itself to a camp led by a country that wants to push for a rules-based world order.

The fact that the world is increasingly falling into two geopolitical camps, thus, has the effect of impacting the geopolitical directions of several countries throughout Asia, in particular South Asia.