The global order has developed fissures in recent years, which have deepened and widened after the advent of US President Donald Trump.
The Russia-West Cold War has been intensifying since 2014. It is characterised by Western sanctions against Russia, an information war of mutual recriminations and proxy wars in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan. Under the Trump administration, however, things have taken an even nastier turn. Military confrontation has sharpened on all three fronts. Sanctions have been given a new twist by extra-territorial application — targeting foreign companies engaging with Russia in the defence and energy sectors.
Western efforts to “punish” Russia have resulted in a stronger Russia-China strategic partnership. In exchange for Chinese political and economic support, Russia has shared sophisticated military technologies with China and allowed the latter to enter into strategically important hydrocarbons projects. A Russia-China axis is increasingly evident on various international issues.
The recent tweets, words and actions by the Trump administration have created a wider churn in international relations. The US unilaterally withdrew from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal and will now impose sanctions on foreign companies with projects/investments in that country. It has also introduced hefty import tariffs on steel and aluminium. The President’s candid tweets criticising the policies of world leaders have caused consternation.
President Trump has publicly accused America’s European allies of benefiting unfairly from trade agreements with the US and has made revocation of import tariffs conditional on a more equal US-EU trade deal. Germany has been warned that its planned gas pipeline project with Russia will attract US sanctions. European countries, which have been traditional US allies, are seething at being treated on par with adversaries and their commercial interests ignored.
The US imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports, to address the massive trade deficit and to punish China for violating intellectual property rights, has led to Chinese retaliation and US threats of counter-retaliation, sparking fears of a wider trade war.
President Trump’s out-of-the-box initiative for a summit with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un has been welcomed, but there are underlying anxieties about its implications. Russia and China are anxious to ensure that they remain involved in the future dispensation in the Korean peninsula, which is in their backyard. Japan is concerned that the Korean settlement may not address its security threats and, moreover, a consequent reduction of US military presence in the region may change the balance of forces in the Asia-Pacific even more in favour of China. This latter concern is shared by countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as India.
India has been under pressure from the US on tariffs, intellectual property rights and, above all, defence cooperation with Russia. It is being asked to halt negotiations for S-400 air defence systems and to reduce the proportion of its arms acquisitions from Russia. The openly stated objective is to “incentivise” India to import more defence equipment from the US. With over 60 per cent of the weapons and equipment of its armed forces of Russian origin, this is not something India can do overnight, even if it so desired. In its present form, therefore, the US demand effectively amounts to disrupting India’s defence preparedness.
Political analysts have been struggling to decipher, from the bewildering jumble of US pronouncements and actions, a coherent “Trump Doctrine”. The US periodical The Atlantic recently explored the Trump administration’s worldview, through interviews with senior US officials. One description of it was “no friends, no enemies”, which one can see in actions being taken without regard to relations with the concerned countries, when they are deemed to be in America’s interests. Another description was “permanent destabilisation creates American advantage” — keeping all interlocutors off-balance is one example. The third description, given by President Trump’s closest advisers, was, simply, “We’re America, bitch” — an earthy, aggressive (and, perhaps deliberately, misogynistic) encapsulation of Mr Trump’s view that America, as the world’s most powerful country, can assert itself everywhere without fear of consequences.
The tactics of blackmail and coercion driven by this worldview may produce short-term gains for the US, but they may also trigger a counter-trend. Countries would draw the lesson that they should develop strategic autonomy to protect their interests. The European example is instructive — after over 70 years of a close strategic alliance, Europeans are being publicly humiliated and forced to change policies which are in their national interest. They may now strive with greater purpose for the strategic autonomy that they sought in the early 2000s, but were thwarted by the Iraq war, the Euro crisis and internal divisions. China, which has tended to see Russia as a junior partner, is now seeing greater value in the partnership in the context of US unpredictability. Japan, a staunch US ally, is cultivating a stronger partnership with Russia and building bridges with strategic adversary China, which has found it equally expedient to reciprocate. The future world order will be shaped by the interaction of these perspectives and actions.
Under these circumstaces, India’s options are conceptually simple, but diplomatically challenging. We have to persuade the United States that our strategic partnership is mutually beneficial, without linking it to India-Russia relations. Our diversification of defence acquisitions should ensure continued increase of imports from the US, specially if they are willing to transfer more sophisticated weapons and technologies. There is a transactional element in American postures; we should be willing to make concessions on trade and IPR that might ease pressure in other areas. There is a strong geopolitical basis for the strategic partnership with Russia and we should sustain its vibrancy. China’s concerns with global developments should enable India to maintain serenity in relations, pursuing mutually beneficial cooperation while remaining vigilant on threats to our strategic interests. We should resume our strategic dialogue with Europe on coordinating responses to current US actions, as also on working together for a multipolar world order. Finally, it is important for us to distinguish relations with the US administration from relations with the United States.