As United States President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Defence Secretary, retired marine, General James N. Mattis has laid out the incoming administration’s policies in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of growing Chinese expansionism. In a bid to understand what those policies entail, one will have to go back a couple of years. At a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing two years ago, Mattis had presented his vision of how to counter the Chinese. “While our efforts in the Pacific to keep positive relations with China are well and good, these efforts must be paralleled by a policy to build the counterbalance if China continues to expand its bullying role in the South China Sea and elsewhere,” he said. “That counterbalance must deny China veto power over territorial, security and economic conditions in the Pacific.” Fast forward to 2017 and during his Senate confirmation hearings for the post of US Defence Secretary he went a step further.
“India, Australia, Japan and several of the Gulf Cooperation Council states are key partners in addressing the security challenges in the region, and it is my view that increasing our security assistance and military-to-military engagement with strategically positioned nations such as these is essential.” For the incumbent Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, these comments brought a sense of relief. Abe’s decision late last year to reach out to India stemmed from fears that the US, under a Donald Trump Presidency, may disengage from its commitments in East Asia, especially in reference to China’s territorial disputes with Japan. Throughout his election campaign, Trump had asserted that the US should withdraw from protecting its traditional allies in the NATO and East Asia and save precious American military resources. This sense of uncertainty among US allies in the region had strengthened the argument for close India-Japan ties to counter the growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
For the NDA government in India too, the incoming US Defence Secretary’s recent statements would have been received with great satisfaction. After a promising start, India’s relationship with China entered a downward spiral, culminating in Beijing’s decision to stymie New Delhi’s efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and vote against Pakistan’s use of ‘non-state actors’ (terrorist groups) to fulfil their strategic objectives, across multilateral forums. In the past year, both India and the US have signed a slew of important defence, trade and energy related agreements. Mattis’s statements during his confirmation hearing are in line with one of the key foreign policy initiatives of the outgoing Obama administration—to make India a major player in its “Pivot to Asia” doctrine to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Asia. Prime Minister Modi seems happy to play along, considering China’s recent economic and military concessions to Pakistan.
New Delhi has legitimate grievances against Beijing. However, it must carefully assess any attempt to embrace a US-led military alliance in Asia entirely. There is little clarity on the gains that may accrue to India’s strategic interests if New Delhi indeed put its weight behind an Australia-India-Japan-US maritime alliance in the Pacific. In fact, the consequences of taking such a position are pretty clear. As it has done in the South China Sea, such a move would compel the Chinese to escalate tensions along the disputed border with India. There isn’t much the Americans can provide that would deter the Chinese from escalating tensions, besides the odd condemnation on international forums. India should also carefully consider whether it is in a position to take on the Chinese in the Pacific, defending the likes of Vietnam and Japan, considering how India’s posturing in Ulaanbaatar backfired on the Mongolian government. In other words, the risks of isolating China might be too much. In such uncertain times, caution must precede action.
In fact, there are points of great convergence between India and China, besides the burgeoning volume of trade. Tackling the threat of transnational terror can be one real point. At present, however, China’s security establishment has thought it wise to use regional clients like Pakistan to contain the threat, in the face of transnational terrorism sparked by ISIS. As the Americans have found out, using Pakistan as a buffer to contain cross-border terror is a strategy fraught with significant risk. India must find a way to drag China away from this foreign policy misadventure. There have been reports of a growing tide of fighters from its troubled Xinjiang province to jihadist groups in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Pakistan’s track record of using “non-state actors” to fulfil their strategic goals as they do in India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh will come back to haunt the Chinese. Moreover, recent evidence seems to suggest that some of these groups have gone beyond the control of the Pakistani establishment. Until better sense prevails, the Chinese government will continue to behave in a manner inimical to India’s security interests. And finally, Washington’s track record with its allies in the developing world does not inspire much confidence. Modi would also do well to learn from former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s decision to temper relations between “natural allies”.