The Mattis-Tillerson Reconnaissance: Asian Geopolitics Stirring Change In Trump Doctrine

by Syed Ata Hasnain - Oct 24, 2017 08:13 PM +05:30 IST
The Mattis-Tillerson Reconnaissance: Asian Geopolitics Stirring Change In Trump DoctrineUS Defense Secretary James Mattis attends a guard of honour ceremony prior to a meeting with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • There is a churning in Asian geopolitics that is causing US President Trump to overturn his intent of pulling the country out of the international arena.

United States (US) Defense Secretary James Mattis was here a month ago. Now as he visits East and South East Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his rounds in South Asia. Obviously there is a churning in Asian geopolitics which is getting US President Donald Trump to overturn his much-avowed intent of pulling the country out of the international arena and taking it into a period of isolation. That understanding needs to be clear before we can venture into and focus more on the flurry of visits to South Asia.

First, the almost complete defeat of Islamic State and the almost certain victory of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War appear to be reducing the importance of the Middle East in the eyes of the US, although the Russian-Iranian dominance will continue drawing the US’s attention. The country is now making up with respect to its faux pas on Qatar, and attempting to get Saudi Arabia to lift its ban on that country. This affair still remains complicated due to the involvement of Iran as a virtual partner for Qatar.

Second, Islamic State may have been purged from Iraq and Syria. Yet, it has fought a four-and-a-half-month-long battle at Marawi, Mindanao in Philippines. Its re-emergence in South East Asia will cost the world more emotional, political and economic harm notwithstanding the fact that the battle at Marawi ended in favour of the Philippines Army. There is much concern about this in all ASEAN countries with an Islamic population.

Third, East Asia is drawing considerable attention with the intransigence of the “rocket man”, as the US President likes to mockingly call the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The unpredictability of North Korea and its threat to the US and its allies along with demonstrations of potential nuclear targeting, is something which could be taken humorously in the past. No longer. The world has seen enough mad men who have held the entire human race to ransom. Thus, even with all its power, the US has no easy answers for the North Korean drama, and China isn’t of much help either. East Asia needs much attention, but that cannot happen easily unless the US frees itself from the pull of South West Asia, which essentially means from the Af-Pak region.

Fourth and last, but also probably the most significant, is what Secretary Tillerson referred to – the attitude and demeanour of China, which is refusing to adhere to a rule-bound world. With Xi Jinping clearly outlining China’s no-holds-barred approach to its ambitions, the US can only yield strategic space at the cost of hastening China's ambitions to a time well before 2049. China’s attitude after the refusal to abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice on the South China Sea islands has only added to an already bloated ego and unmatched arrogance.

Thus, there is little surprise that the US is reworking the Trump Doctrine on foreign policy, which sought more isolation away from other people’s wars, even before it could get off the anvil. What probably worries the US is Afghanistan and the persisting presence of an undefeated Taliban. The experience with Islamic State was sufficient to shake the confidence of the US and Europe, and Af-Pak is the additional worry because there exists within it an ecosystem which can produce a scourge worse than Islamic State. Fifteen years of fighting did not produce the desired result for the US in Afghanistan. Drawing down and redefining the meaning of military defeat to scavenge respect do not make it easy to return in those numbers, over 14,000 at its peak. Financial constraints after the meltdown of 2008 and now marginal recovery do not permit that flexibility either. Although there are as yet no indications, the possibility of Islamic State finding some common ground with the Taliban cannot be completely ruled out.

The challenge is enhanced because Pakistan, which has received tremendous US support, politically and economically, continues to play games which are inimical to US interests. Its proximity to China especially after the advent of the One Belt, One Road concept, with the flagship project being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC), has increased its intransigence on Afghanistan, where it extends support to the Haqqani network, adding weight to the Afghan Taliban.

There is another issue not being adequately factored into the equation by analysts – Doklam. China’s inability to demonstrate its capability to achieve its ends against a middle power such as India, should throw the strategic environment of Asia into even more speculation. While Pakistan would be forced to rework its collusive strategy, a seething China under a reinvigorated Jinping would become even more unpredictable.

President Trump’s initial statements blaming Pakistan for the difficulties in Afghanistan suddenly gave way to friendly overtures, leaving many in India disappointed. Pakistan obviously perceives that there are limits to US coercion, yet it is important to play along with it because it can make things difficult in terms of relationships with the West and the international monetary institutions.

The US had made it very clear almost eight weeks ago that it expects India to play a very important role in Afghanistan, but equally, the Indian government had also defined its role and ruled out military deployment.

From India’s security perspective, it expects the US to place sufficient strictures on Pakistan to prevent it from undertaking its proxy war efforts against India with much impunity. However, the US is now wont to doing that in order to keep all options open on the future arrangements for securing Af-Pak against the Taliban thrust. Defense Secretary Mattis promised the Congress that he would make one more effort to get Pakistan to cooperate on Afghanistan. He lived up to the promise through the recent pressure imposed on Pakistan in the hostage rescue case involving the American-Canadian couple kidnapped by the Taliban. That has paved the way for overtures from the US, starting from the President himself.

India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s visit to Kabul and the visit of the Afghan President to India are enough indicators to prove that grounds for an initiative on Afghanistan are being prepared; who will play what role in it is as yet unclear. Tillerson's visit to Afghanistan, the meeting and consultation of the Group of Four, US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, also add to the seriousness of the effort to prevent Afghanistan from becoming turbulent again, beyond the controllable state.

The New Delhi visit by Tillerson is obviously to seek further clarity after Mattis had surveyed and reported back to Washington. Although it is tempting to write off India's importance as being just the provider of soft power and training for the Afghan National Army, that would be trivialising a role which has a larger scope and is limited thus far only due to a lack of clarity on what end result is desired. India will remain a very important player in the emerging strategic scenario and the US also knows it.

The US’s tendency to go back on its promise to stop hyphenation of India with Pakistan could be misread by many. The inclusion of Pakistan in any plan for Afghanistan is a given. The simultaneity of diplomatic efforts involving India and Pakistan would continue to add to the allegations against the US. However, the Indian leadership would be fully alive to the situation, realising that the current run of events does not fall within the ambit of hyphenation, but rather alludes to a larger consultation to resolve an intractable problem.

The run of events must not be expected to lead to immediate results. We are far from that stage. Perhaps after President Trump's visit to Asia next month, some indicators of the future course will emerge. Yet, it's always good to sign off with a reminder. In the process of high-profile meetings and diplomatic flurries, India's own security must remain in focus. It may be easier for Pakistan to continue carrying out under-the-radar activities in Jammu and Kashmir even as its attention and cooperation are urgently required in issues the international community considers currently more relevant.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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