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Trump and South Asia: Breaking New Ground

July 18, 2018

By C. Raja Mohan

In his first year and a half in office, President Trump has repeatedly questioned the global political order and launched unexpected departures from established U.S. foreign policy, provoking widespread unease among Asian observers. This week, we present the first of four essays that reflect Asian views on the U.S. administration’s early record in Asia. These essays, written by prominent Asian experts, appear in the latest publication of the Foundation’s signature foreign policy project, Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: An Early Assessment of the Trump Presidency. This week’s author is director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

U.S. president Donald Trump’s foreign policy has received unprecedented negative reactions from the traditional security establishment in Washington as well as the strategic communities of America’s main allies and partners. It has been criticized for its incoherence, for wantonly undermining old institutions like the State Department, for breaking away from long-standing international obligations, and for its departure from the many principles of American internationalism held sacrosanct for decades. That, of course, has not really deterred Mr. Trump from pressing on in the manner that he has seen fit.  

President Trump’s emphasis on “America First,” his attacks on the world trading system and his launch of a trade war against key economic partners, his demand that allies take on a “fair share” of the American burden, and his opposition to the global trading rules carefully constructed under U.S. leadership over many decades have thrown the international system into great turmoil.   

Many believe, and many others pray, that President Trump and his policies are an unfortunate deviation from Washington norms that will be corrected, sooner rather than later, under pressure from the so-called permanent establishment and push-back from other institutions like the U.S. Congress. It is also possible, however, to view Mr. Trump as the accidental instrument of a long-overdue correction in U.S. foreign policy that will establish a better fit between American ends and means in a rapidly changing world. Whichever assessment prevails over the near term, there is no denying the unprecedented turbulence in America’s engagement with the world under Trump.   

Meanwhile, in a striking contrast, the Trump administration’s policy towards the South Asian subcontinent has shown a measure of continuity, purposefulness, and innovation.  South Asia is one of the few regions to have seen considered review and reformulation of previous U.S. policies. The president outlined his new approach to South Asia in August 2017, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke about the administration’s policy towards India on the eve of his visit to South Asia in October 2017. During his travels to Asia at the end of 2017, Trump also outlined a strategy towards the Indo-Pacific with a special emphasis on the role of India. This, over the long term, could integrate the South Asian subcontinent into U.S. strategies towards what has traditionally been viewed as the Asia-Pacific region.    

Four broad themes stand out in Trump’s approach to India and the subcontinent. The first is a new commitment to the stability of Afghanistan. Reportedly against his own instinct, which was to end the wars begun by his predecessors in Asia and the Middle East, Trump decided to order a small increase in the American military presence in Afghanistan. Unlike President Barack Obama, he refused to set a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He also eased the rules of engagement to facilitate a more robust confrontation with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which continue to destabilize Afghanistan through sustained terror attacks. The United States hopes to demonstrate that these groups cannot win the war for Afghanistan, and to compel them to come to the negotiating table.    

It is certainly too early to judge the new policy a success. The Taliban and the Haqqani Network have stepped up their attacks in Afghanistan and have rebuffed all U.S. efforts to initiate a dialogue between Kabul and its adversaries. The fighting season in the summer of 2018 could be quite intense and set the tone for future actions by the Trump administration in Afghanistan.    

Second, the success of Trump’s policy on Afghanistan is likely to depend on what happens in Pakistan, for it is the Pakistani army’s support for the Taliban and the Haqqani Network that has limited the prospects for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Trump’s predecessors certainly had no difficulty in recognizing Pakistan as very much part of the problem in Afghanistan, but given its dependence on Pakistani territory to resupply its troops in Afghanistan, Washington found it hard to confront Pakistan’s policy of playing both sides in the war on terror.   

Trump, however, has signaled his intent to grasp the nettle. He has threatened Pakistan with severe consequences if it does not change its ways. He followed through with significant cuts in U.S. military assistance to Pakistan and mobilized international support to put Pakistan on the watch list of countries financing terrorist groups. Pakistan has so far refused to change course, and Trump will soon have to decide either to escalate the confrontation with the Pakistani army or return to the policy of acquiescing in its destabilization of Afghanistan. Many within and without the administration are cautioning Trump not to push too hard against a nuclear Pakistan and warning of the dangers of driving Islamabad deeper into Beijing’s strategic embrace.   

Third, Trump has called on India to play a larger role in Afghanistan. Washington in the past discouraged India from assuming a significant security role in Afghanistan, for fear of offending Pakistan’s political sensibilities. Trump has shed some of those inhibitions. Trump’s conviction that America’s friends and allies must do more to promote regional and global security certainly drives him to the position that Delhi must do more for the stabilization of Afghanistan. Whatever the motivation, Trump is moving away from the policies of Obama and Bush, which put engagement with India and Pakistan in separate boxes, but he is not returning to the older policy of placing India and Pakistan on the same pedestal. He is recognizing the greater weight of India in the region and demanding that it be deployed in support of U.S. objectives towards Pakistan and Afghanistan.   

Fourth, and even more important over the long term, Trump has begun to put India at the very heart of a new strategic balance with China. Trump has explicitly challenged the assumption of previous administrations that sustained engagement with Beijing would turn China into a benign actor and a trustworthy partner. Trump has come to the conclusion that competition with China is inevitable, and that any strategy for balancing China must involve India. If previous administrations merely hinted at this long-term prospect, Trump seems to be nudging the relationship with India towards an explicit framework of strategic burden-sharing with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, through both bilateral understandings and multilateral arrangements with Japan, Australia, and others.   

By any measure, Trump’s approach to India and its neighbors could be the harbinger of a major structural shift in the way Washington relates to India, Pakistan, and China. The prospect of a fundamental transformation of U.S. thinking towards southern Asia and the Indo-Pacific littoral, however, continues to be tested by issues of organizational and doctrinal coherence that have dogged the Trump administration. Even a modestly focused deployment of energies towards the goals outlined by Trump could leave the international relations of the subcontinent irrevocably altered. 

Dr. C. Raja Mohan is director of the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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