The Trump administration continues to drop diplomatic munitions on its way out. After a January 9 announcement that the United States will be lifting all “self-imposed restrictions” on engagements with Taiwan, the White House has released an important national security document it declassified on January 5 – a document that bears an original “Declassify On” date of December 31, 2042. While the act itself is extremely unusual, it fits an emerging pattern in the last days of the Trump administration in which it goes out of the way to make a point when it comes to China and Iran as key threats to the United States.
The “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” (SFIP), a National Security Council product, was approved in February 2018 and “provided overarching strategic guidance for implementing the 2017 National Security Strategy within the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region,” according to a statement by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien accompanying the SFIP’s public release. So, it is only natural that we compare it with the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) released by the Department of Defense in June 2019 to see the extent to which the two are in sync. (An expanded O’Brien statement noted that the SFIP was approved for “implementation across Executive Branch departments and agencies,” presumably including the DoD.)
There are three major observations one can make after comparing the two.
Whatever Happened to Russia?
The 2019 IPSR identifies Russia (which it termed a “Revitalized Malign Actor”) as one of the four key challenges in the United States — China, North Korea, and “transnational challenges” being the other three. It notes: “Despite slow economic growth due to Western sanctions and decreasing oil prices, Russia continues to modernize its military and prioritize strategic capabilities – including its nuclear forces, A2/AD systems, and expanded training for long-range aviation – in an attempt to re-establish its presence in the Indo-Pacific region,” going on devote a laundry-list of complaints about Russian behavior.
And yet, the 2018 SFIP clearly states: “Russia will remain a marginal player relative to the United States, China, and India.” So, Russia is a threat in a public document but not one in a classified one? (In 2019, I had asked a senior Trump administration official in a closed-door meeting at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi why the IPSR did not bear the imprint of the State Department; he has assured me that in any case it went through interagency review. Considering the declassified document, that assertion is a particularly curious one.)
India and U.S. – Squaring a Circle?
The second difference between the two documents is the place of India in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. In the 2019 IPSR, treaty allies — such as South Korea — are front and centered, and India is clubbed with other smaller South Asian powers under the “Expanding Partnerships in the Indian Ocean Region” header. However, in the 2018 SFIP – and more consistent with the 2017 National Security Strategy – India’s role is magnified, no doubt to the delight of the commentariat in New Delhi, if not the Narendra Modi government.
Interestingly, as an action point, it notes the need to provide India with support through “diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China…” This claim is consistent with what has been known for a while in Indian strategic circles – and with statements made by outgoing U.S. ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, on January 5, incidentally the same day O’Brien declassified the SFIP.
However, all the talk of maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific” (which the SFIP links with the U.S. position globally) will likely raise a few eyebrows in New Delhi. As the Modi government untiringly reminds its audiences, India’s preference is for a “multipolar Asia in a multipolar world.” This dissonance becomes even more glaring when one considers the fact that the SFIP talks about aligning U.S Indo-Pacific strategy with India’s. Modi has repeatedly made it clear that his vision for the region is “inclusive” as is not “directed at anyone.” It is unlikely he’d sign up for a project to maintain U.S. regional primacy.
The Matter of Missing Mongolia
Mongolia occupied a pride of place in the 2019 IPSR, with the document devoting 221 words to the country. “The United States and Mongolia share a vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific that safeguards sovereignty and freedom from coercion for all countries. Mongolia’s regional cooperation and support for multilateral institutions contributes to peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and serves as a stabilizing influence in the region,” it noted.
Mongolia is mentioned precisely once in the 2018 SFIP; however, it fares better than Nepal, which is not mentioned at all (unlike in the 2019 IPSR).