Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times
Critics of US President Donald Trump had been slamming his foreign-policy approach of relying solely on economic levers by rebuffing the American deep state’s longstanding preference for periodically employing military force to assert US power. These critics must be stumped by the daring, Trump-ordered assassination of the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, General Qasem Soleimani, who was effectively the second most powerful person in his country.
Iran is virtually India’s neighbour. Until 1947, India and Iran had long shared a common border. But Iran was not on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mind when he sought to initiate a new practice on New Year’s Day: To discuss a shared vision of peace and prosperity in the sub-region, Modi telephoned leaders of all of India’s immediate neighbours other than its two adversaries, China and Pakistan.
Modi’s exclusion of Pakistan and China, which routinely flout international norms, was intended to underscore the threat to regional peace from their growing axis. China’s challenge to norms and rules, of course, extends across the Indo-Pacific region. But the US-Iran tensions following Soleimani’s assassination could impinge on India’s security interests, including its reliance on oil and gas imports from the Persian Gulf region.
More broadly, by drawing the US into greater conflict with Iran, the killing could distract from America’s larger strategic goals, as in the Indo-Pacific region. Iran will likely retaliate against Soleimani’s killing, waging its conflict with the US across the Middle East and beyond and employing all tools. A US-Iran escalatory spiral would serve as a strategic boon for China.
The Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) held great promise when it was unveiled more than two years ago. It was seen as a much-needed successor to the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which failed to take concrete shape. The broadening of the US policy focus to a wider region (Indo-Pacific) was a response to the expanding ambitions of China, which, after building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, has started focusing on the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and embraced by India and the US. India has been including the “free and open” phrase in joint statements with strategic partners. As US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong put it, “India as a nation has invested in a free and open order”.
The Trump administration, however, has still to provide strategic heft to its FOIP policy. Indeed, like Tokyo, Washington no longer refers to its FOIP vision as a “strategy”. After Soleimani’s killing, there is a real risk that Trump’s FOIP policy, like Obama’s pivot to Asia, could fail to gain traction. The tensions and conflict with Iran, by distracting American policymakers, could result in Trump’s FOIP policy remaining more rhetorical than real.
To be sure, Trump’s lasting legacy will be the paradigm change in America’s China policy. As the philanthropist George Soros recently put it, “The greatest — and perhaps only — foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration has been the development of a coherent and genuinely bipartisan policy toward Xi Jinping’s China”.
US leadership and resolve are essential to build a credible counter to Chinese expansionism. But the roles of the other major democracies are also important.
In this context, Abe’s postponement of his India visit due to Assam unrest could only have pleased Beijing. A Modi-Abe summit in Guwahati, followed by the two leaders’ visit to a new peace museum in Manipur that commemorates the Battle of Imphal between the Imperial Japanese Army and Allied forces during World War II, would have highlighted northeast India’s role as the bridge to the rest of Asia.
The Assam violence, although short-lived, will make already-wary Japanese companies more reluctant to invest in India’s northeast — to the delight of China, which doesn’t want any foreign investment or even multilateral lending going there. With private Japanese investors averse to taking risks, Japan must provide greater Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans in order to finance socioeconomic projects in India’s northeast. India, however, is already Japan’s largest ODA recipient. Japan is the only foreign power allowed to undertake projects in India’s sensitive northeast, as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Against this background, an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies isn’t on the horizon. But if democratic powers leverage their bilateral and trilateral partnerships to generate progress toward such a concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable in the years ahead. This, of course, is contingent on US foreign policy not becoming preoccupied again with the Muslim world.
US interventions in the Islamic world under Trump’s immediate two predecessors paved the way for China’s muscular rise. Now, by escalating the conflict with Iran, Trump could relieve pressure on Beijing and undermine the fundamental shift in the China policy he initiated.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.