Just a day before a horrified world watched protesters dressed in Viking costumes and fatigues storm the US Capitol, Robert O’Brien, assistant to the president on national security affairs, declassified an interesting document on the Indo-Pacific. The document made it clear beyond doubt that the US administration under President Donald Trump intended to maintain America’s primacy against an “illiberal” and increasingly powerful China.
The ‘US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’ is a secret document from 2018, which held the tiller of policy firmly for three years, something Indian policymakers will remember with gratitude. New Delhi might also be thankful that the document is out in public, because it means the incoming Joe Biden administration won’t find it easy to backslide on any of its commitments. But then that was probably the intention anyway, since declassification in a mere three years, rather than 25 years, is extremely unusual. In the chaos of the Trump exit, someone wanted this document out and in discussion.
The document powers through on military options
The ‘US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’ is essentially one of the operational policy documents that follows the overarching strategy laid out in ‘National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017’. While the NSS mentioned China 33 times, it did not call Beijing out as a threat to US pre-eminence in the Indo-Pacific, and US interests globally, which the Framework document clearly does. It foresees that ‘strategic competition’ between the US and China will persist, given systemic divergence and opposite goals.
Quite unlike the NSS, which piously says that “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor… conflict”, this document identifies various friction points including possible conflict arising from Beijing’s steps to compel unification with Taiwan, and also clearly identifies the defence strategy as capable of, ‘but not limited to’, denial, defence and domination of all areas outside the first island chain.
Those are powerful objectives, particularly when a key sentence is blacked out, which probably refers to the nuclear and missile option. In a flip side to all this, the document calls for cooperation with China when ‘beneficial to US interests’ – which is also what the Biden team is saying. But this goal is hedged with so many other objectives — including maintaining an ‘intelligence advantage’ over China and ‘inoculating’ the homeland, friends and allies against Chinese intelligence activities — that any fears about Washington giving in unreservedly to Beijing’s lures in commerce fade away.
The India factor – the key
The most startling aspect, and not just for Indians, is the centrality of India in this grand plan. Remember that the NSS mentioned India all of three times and even then paired it with Pakistan. The ‘US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’ has an entire chapter on India, with no reference to Pakistan whatsoever.
The document reads almost like a timeline of the past three years. There is the call for upscaling of the ‘Quad’, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India, Japan, Australia, and the US, which did happen thereafter; emphasis on the need for stronger foundation for defence cooperation and interoperability, seen later in the signing of the remaining three Foundational Agreements; mentions of the setting up of the Indo-Pacific wing and an Oceania wing in the Ministry of External Affairs, the first tri-Service exercises, and so on.
Then there is the bland assessment that “a strong India in cooperation with like-minded countries would act as a counterbalance to China”. One wonders whether this particular text was at all leaked to Beijing, which would give at least one reason (among a host of others) for its untimely attack on Galwan Valley in Ladakh.
Then there is an intriguing sentence. The document notes that the US would offer support to India to address ‘continental challenges’ like the border dispute with China, through diplomatic, military and intelligence challenges. If this resolve was indeed carried out, one can only say that both India and the US need to increase their capabilities since neither seemed to have expected China to strike. In the final analysis, Galwan was not about a failure of the military, diplomacy or intelligence; it was a failure of assessment. Perhaps both countries need to step up their cooperation with a real heart to heart across a table between professionals.
The neighbourhood and beyond
There is one seeming anomaly in the document. After identifying India as a ‘net provider of security’, the next section identifies the need to ‘strengthen the capacity’ of the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The US has since signed a Defence Agreement with the Maldives, and is set to sell defence equipment to Bangladesh. That deal could include Apache helicopters, whose fuselage is being made in Hyderabad, which could potentially mean a three-cornered defence relationship that outbids China.
In Sri Lanka, an apparent renewal of the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) and a Status of Forces Agreement seems to have gone through despite protests. It seems New Delhi is content to cede some space to the US in its neighbourhood – a complete departure from its position a decade ago – in the face of expanding Chinese influence.
Even as the US enters India’s traditional ‘sphere of influence’, another shift in geopolitics is possible. The Framework specifically notes that Russia will remain a ‘marginal player’ in the region. In that case, the whole fuss about CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) should be set aside, particularly since threatened sanctions are likely to severely set back the relationship by several years. Instead, Russia could be encouraged to be part of military exercises with selected Quad countries. India could thereby act as a bridge between Russia and the US. That is not asking for the moon. It’s just common sense.
Beijing’s ‘defensive defence’
Meanwhile, in Beijing, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian lashed out at the Framework as belonging to the ‘dustbin of history’, accusing the US of ‘ganging up’ against it, reasserting that Taiwan was an ‘inalienable’ part of Chinese territory, and, incredibly, with a straight face, saying that China had a ‘defensive’ defence policy and regional countries would swear by this.
Whether this is the power of self-deception or simply outright duplicity is unclear, but Zhao’s call for an “end to cold war zero sum games” may yet echo onto nervous bourses and business houses in the US and Europe. The truth, however, is that the Framework reflects nothing less than reality. A resurgent China will inevitably challenge the US somewhere and soon, and the only country using its soldiers to box it in is India. The best advice for any incoming administration is, ‘Get used to it’. After all, that’s probably why the Framework is out there in the first place.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.