The recently released U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) is the key to understanding the Trump administration’s foreign policy outlook. The frequent mention of India and China, albeit in different contexts, offers an important insight to the country’s foreign policy focus in the days to come. The NSS document placed great emphasis on the emerging competition between two visions of the world order — one based on a democratic, rules-based regime and the other based on a more repressive, authoritarian regime — with the United States championing the former and China, the latter. In this context, the NSS has repeatedly identified India as a “leading global power” and a key “strategic and defense” partner. The repeated mentions of China and India in the NSS foretells the trajectory of great power relations in the near future.
U.S. President Donald Trump, during his presidential campaign, was a vocal critic of China, going so far as to blame the country for the ever rising trade deficit, the slowdown of the American economy, and the consequent loss in American jobs. But after coming into power, the Trump administration has been far more accommodating toward China. After Trump’s recently concluded visit to Beijing, U.S.-China relations looked set for a turnaround.
The NSS, however, belies those expectations. The document clearly and repeatedly denounces China’s attempts at using economic inducements and military might to “persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.” Further, and in rather tough words, the NSS criticizes China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for its “unfair trade practices” and “extractive economic policies.” The document highlights the threats to the sovereignty of smaller nations from Chinese dominance and goes on to underline the U.S. commitment to restricting Chinese “acquisition of sensitive technologies.” In what seems like an open challenge to China’s infrastructure and economic activities around the world, the NSS pits the United States as a global champion of “free and open seaways, transparent infrastructure financing practices, unimpeded commerce and peaceful resolution of disputes.” The document makes no secret of the establishment’s concerns over China’s rapidly increasing economic footprint in African countries, which has rested on “corrupting elites, dominating extractive industries and locking countries into unsustainable and opaque debts and commitments.” In the process, and as an important observation, the NSS points out China’s economic mercantilism, which underlines its foreign policy strategies.
The NSS clearly spells out how the United States sees China’s rise – as hegemonic, authoritative, autocratic, exploitative, and therefore, a threat to the democratic, rule-based world order. The NSS marks a toughening of stance on China’s attempts at creating a bipolar world and is indicative of the potential hotspots in their future bilateral dealings. It is also a sign of the times to come, which could be marked by increasing U.S.-China tensions over issues pertaining to trade practices and territorial sovereignty, and frequent confrontations at multilateral forums. All in all, and to his dismay, President Xi Jinping’s efforts at establishing a personal rapport with Trump in order to ease irritants in the bilateral relationship may have been in vain.
By contrast, the NSS brings some cheer to India. For the first time, in very clear terms, the United States has identified India as its key strategic and defense ally in three of the most important regions in the world: Central Asia, South Asia, and the Indo-Pacific. In the Indo-Pacific, the United States sees India as a partner in “quadrilateral cooperation,” thus going a step further in officially institutionalizing the “quad” as a cooperative mechanism between the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia. The use of terms “strategic and defense partner” and “quadrilateral cooperation” in the same breath may signal the U.S. intent to use the quad and, more importantly, ties with India to hedge against China’s rise in the region.
While the quad may be Washington’s best bet against China in the Indo-Pacific region, the NSS identifies India as its key ally in the Central and South Asian region. In explicit terms, the NSS promises to deepen the country’s “strategic partnership with India,” and to support India’s “leadership role in the Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.” It also emphasizes the need for India to increase its economic assistance in the South and Central Asian regions. Essentially, the NSS hints at the need for India to assume the role of a net security provider in Central Asia, albeit with the United States’ economic and military assistance. As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan becomes imminent, Washington will expect India to increase its presence in the region, through development assistance and other forms of socio-economic & military support.
The United States will also need India to become its key ally in South Asia, given that its geography and location offers key strategic benefits that can only be derived through enhanced cooperation and deeper engagement between the two countries. As India directly overlooks the Indian Ocean region and lies in close proximity to key sea lanes, including the Malacca Strait and the Gulf of Aden, it offers the best chance against China’s designs of controlling the global chokepoints for energy and other trade routes.
By partnering with India, the United States expect to successfully hedge against Chinese designs in the IOR. Besides, India’s reputation as a global leader and a champion of democratic values adds more legitimacy to the U.S.-led global order, which is facing recurrent threats and potential debasing from China. India-U.S. partnership will therefore gain greater prominence in the face of similar sets of challenges arising from the transformations portending in the old world order.
The threats to U.S. hegemony from a rapidly expanding China are real and the National Security Strategy seems to have embarked upon a plan to counter this by deepening engagements with other rising powers, identifying key allies, and — in a move Trump may happily approve of — gradually shifting the burdens of responsibility onto their shoulders.
Niharika Tagotra, Ph.D., is a Research Scholar in International Politics at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University