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'National Security Conversations' Episode 4: Indo-US Ties and Korean Rapprochement

Happymon Jacob, associate professor at JNU, speaks to Sumit Ganguly, professor at Indiana University, about the Trump presidency, Korean rapprochement and Indo-US ties under the shadow of China.

Highlights from the interview:

American retreat from global engagement under Trump

The American retreat largely stems from the election of Donald Trump as the president of the US who has strikingly different world view than his predecessors. He envisions the US as a leading power in the international system without wanting to take the responsibilities that come with being a leading power in the global order. He does not want to spend any American resources unless they very narrowly and very specifically meet American needs as he defines them.

During Obama’s presidency, there was a shrink in defence budgets, but that did not mean a retreat from global engagement, unlike Trump. The current POTUS shows a complete lack of interest in supporting multilateral organisations and multilateral treaties and a dramatic increase in the defence budget exceeding $700 billion.

Contemporary world order: The age of ‘entropy’

We are entering a period that Randall L. Schweller calls ‘the age of entropy’, where we are witnessing a period of growing disorder in the international system because certain rules of the road are no longer being upheld by the global hegemon. Most rules were upheld by the US in the post-Second World War era. But under Trump, we have an individual and a handful of advisors surrounding him, shredding any notion of these rules of the road and behaving in an utterly unilateral fashion. Trump’s idiosyncrasies makes one yearn for the days of George W. Bush, whom one was highly critical of for undertaking unilateral actions, particularly in Iraq. Compared to what Trump is doing, Bush seems like a model of common sense and restraint.

Incoherence in American strategic policy

There is a degree of strategic incoherence because, on the one hand, the Department of Defense is trying to focus on two potential rivals, China and to a lesser degree Russia. Russia poses less of a threat because of all the manner of domestic informalities but it becomes primarily a threat because of modernisation of its nuclear weapons, investment in hypersonic technology and the modernisation of its military.

China poses a multifaceted threat to the US ranging from economic domination to the acquisition of new military capabilities all the way from space to nuclear. Consequently, the Department of Defense has a coherent strategy for coping with the potential threats that could emerge from PRC and Russia, whereas with Trump, it all depends on the will on one man and what strategy he would like to pursue with the potential adversaries. This strategic incoherence endangers America’s interest and America’s security over the longer horizons for the simple reason that rivals who are hostile to the US will seek to take advantage and exploit this kind of strategic disarray that characterises this administration.

Thaw between the US and North Korea

One of the possible reasons for the current thaw in Korean peninsula could be because Kim Jong-un realised that he is dealing with someone who is even more unpredictable and mercurial in behaviour that himself. Perhaps Trump’s blaster, his posturing, his sheer unpredictability and hostile language perhaps convinced Kim that it would be worth trying to negotiate with Trump for fear that things could truly get out of hand. The other reason could be that Kim realised that he cannot indefinitely pursue the policies that he was pursuing because domestically he is facing stress as his economy is quite fragile because of sanctions.

Mainstreaming a nuclear North Korea

A situation where the US is going to agree to a nuclear North Korea cannot be visualised. A nuclear North Korea cannot be mainstreamed for the simple reason that there is strong opposition in the US on the issue, which bring all factions, the Left and Right together. The one thing that unites people in the non-proliferation community, whether on the Right or the Left, is that we are not going to permit a state like North Korea to possess nuclear weapons. This is where liberals and conservatives will readily come together.

On the other hand, a situation where Trump manages to de-nuclearise North Korea also cannot be envisioned. One simply cannot see how Trump is going to bring about the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula because that is Kim’s only ‘trump’ card. What is possible though is a freeze on further tests, freeze on missile test and a freeze on further production of nuclear material. Overall, I am deeply pessimistic about these talks, especially given that the principle negotiator is Trump whose capacity for negotiations is virtually non-existent. Based on the precedent set by Trump by wanting to pull out of the deal with Iran, why would Kim sign on to an agreement knowing that the US could back away from it?

BRI, CPEC and India

I am not surprised that this regime in India took a hard line with CPEC. It was much too difficult for this regime to suggest that it would be perfectly alright for China to build a road through the disputed territory or occupied territory. As for BRI, perhaps a bit more consultation and discussion were possible.

However, high-handedness of the PRC in the recent past probably played a role in India saying no to being a part of this initiative. Perhaps a bit more consultation was possible but the problem is that the Chinese have not always been forthcoming in terms of goals and interests. They have dissembled on these matters and penetrated so many of India’s neighbours and have sought to turn the neighbours against India. Hence, I am not entirely shocked that India took this hands-off attitude and chose not to engage in consultations. There is a degree of dishonesty on the part of the PRC which India must confront. 

Toned Shift for Indian foreign policy under PM Modi

India’s foreign policy under PM Modi is extremely uneven. In certain areas, he has demonstrated a degree of resolve and a willingness to engage with a series of partners. But Modi has not brought about any paradigm shift or a revolution in Indian foreign policy. I think there is much continuity instead of a fundamental shift. Chris Ogden has called this as a “tone shift” not a fundamental shift and I basically agree with this line of argument.