Why Hasn’t the United States Thrown Its Support Behind India in the Doklam Standoff?

There are good reasons for Washington to avoid being drawn into the Doklam standoff.

Why Hasn’t the United States Thrown Its Support Behind India in the Doklam Standoff?
Credit: Madhumitaworld via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent column for the South China Morning Post, Sumit Ganguly expressed some dissatisfaction with how the developing U.S.-India relationship is playing out in regards to the crisis on the Doklam Plateau. As Ganguly notes, the latent promise of the U.S.-India relationship has not yet resulted in overt U.S. support; Washington has not taken advantage of an apparent opportunity to solidify the partnership, and give China a sharp rebuke.

There are certainly good reasons why the United States might resist even rhetorical intervention in this particular crisis. It would be nice to believe that the Trump administration was approaching the situation with care, refusing to give India the appearance of a free hand (thus limiting escalation concerns), while maintaining its effort to get Chinese cooperation on the North Korea issue. Conversely, it might even be nice to think that the Trump administration had given the issue a great deal of thought, and deliberately decided not to engage; this would be in keeping with Trump’s distaste for international entanglements, although perhaps not with his bombastic rhetoric towards China.

Unfortunately, only the most sincere diehards believe that the administration is capable of either of these variants of fine-tuned strategic thinking. At the moment, elements of the foreign policy apparatus of the administration appear committed to battle on two fronts; on the one hand, resisting Robert Mueller’s inquiry into collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, and on the other hand attempting to destroy opponents within the administration. Although Trump has seen some recent success (most notably the North Korea sanctions at the UN Security Council), the scene largely remains chaotic.

In the absence of serious strategic direction from the president, Congress can take up part of the mantle. As Raymond Vickery has suggested, Congress can take its own steps to remedy the problem; action of this sort would be particularly appropriate as certain technology transfer requires Congressional approval. And while the U.S. Congress is bitterly divided on many issues, a belief in the value of U.S.-India relations seems to have achieved a degree of bipartisan consensus. Other actors can also play a role; the U.S. business community has certainly made no secret of its ambitions to work with India, and to push the Trump administration into closer commercial ties.

But of course, Congress can only go so far; the foreign policy apparatus of the United States remains the purview of the president. While President Trump clearly enjoys the chaos in his administration, and believes that competition brings out the best in his subordinates, he would be well advised to develop a coherent strategy towards the U.S.-India relationship.