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Recent US moves reflect its shifting focus to Indo-Pacific

The administration of US President Donald Trump sent out confusing signals soon after coming to office by threatening to withdraw the US from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations Human Rights Council. The administration also slapped sanctions against Iran and Russia in a bid to coerce and prevent them from adopting strategies contrary to Washington’s interests.
Of late, Washington seems poised to disengage militarily from Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. This apart, President Trump’s decision to erect a wall against neighbor Mexico to prevent migration has precipitated the country into a temporary domestic political chaos.
However, there are clear indications that the administration will maintain its influence in the Middle East through its Arab Gulf allies. For instance, the administration has not only been lobbying for maintaining arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, President Trump has admired Riyadh’s willingness to contribute to reconstruction efforts in Syria. He said: “Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States. Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors.”
Amid perceptible disagreements within the administration, the decision seems to be based on the realization of America’s long military entanglements claiming substantial amount of economic resources with mounting troop casualties in the region without palpable benefits and solutions at sight. It is in this light that the administration’s decision to draw up plans to remove approximately 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan as well as all 2,000 from Syria must be understood.
On the other side, the administration has clearly adopted measures to enhance its role and contain Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The administration not only articulated an innovative geographical expression for the “Asia-Pacific” by renaming it “Indo-Pacific’’ and underlined the centrality of India to the region but containment of China and formation of a group of allies became central to its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Indicating positive engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives with the objective of casting the US as a trustworthy partner in the Indo-Pacific region in July and some days later he pledged to provide $300 million in new security funding for the region.
Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in July, “Australia, the United States and Japan have announced a trilateral partnership to invest in projects … that would build infrastructure, address development challenges, increase connectivity, and promote economic growth.”
The belief that the Trump administration on the lines of “America first” thinking would hamper the alliance system is refuted by its stress on the formation of a formidable alliance system in the Indo-Pacific. The administration concluded a so-called 2+2 meeting with India on September 6 that devoted more time to discussions on the American imperative of shaping the contours of Indo-Pacific policy and intended to bring India closer to the US in sharing similar viewpoints as regards their role and aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region.
In Washington’s perception, New Delhi was a reluctant partner in the overall American strategy to strengthen the US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral format primarily aimed at containing Chinese influence. The Trump administration seemed poised to inspire and recruit stable partners in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of rising prominence of the Chinese role under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Signing of the defense pact known as the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) on the eve of the 2+2 dialogue, while facilitating Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting-edge and high-end secured communication equipment from the US, was primarily aimed at allowing interoperability between the US and Indian armed and naval forces and enabling India to put Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean and Himalayas under close surveillance.
The two countries also agreed to conduct tri-service military exercise during the dialogue. Forging ahead with Indo-US strategic relations, the American leadership granted India Strategic Trade Authorization-1 (STA-1) status with an objective to ease export controls over sales of high-technology product, which has so far been applicable only to its NATO allies.
On the other side, the Trump administration indicating a low priority for the Afghan engagement (Islamabad was previously considered central to Washington’s Afghan war and peace strategy) extended its suspension of security assistance to Pakistan as Islamabad failed to act against terrorism as per the American convictions.
While the leadership in Pakistan was reeling under economic crisis and poised to seek loans from the International Monetary Fund, the Trump administration expressed its unwillingness to assist Islamabad in securing any loans from the IMF to repay Chinese loans. The administration remained cautious as to Beijing’s rising geopolitical influence under its BRI, which it believed could rise to global prominence if unchecked.
The administration continued to show its disapproval of the Chinese BRI over issues from rising indebtedness among participating countries to lack of transparency and disregard for an open and inclusive approach on sustainable financing. Further, it took to stiff trade restrictions to check Beijing’s growing economic clout allegedly by illegitimate means, which took the form of a trade war between the two great powers.
The Trump administration made efforts at attaining breakthroughs in the process of denuclearization of North Korea and ushering in peace on the Korean Peninsula arguably to concentrate more on containing Chinese influence. The administration meanwhile announced its decision to withdraw from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, indicating its preference for a comprehensive pact that included Russia, the United States and China, and US national security adviser John Bolton was noticed saying in Moscow that Russia had been violating the INF Treaty for years and rising powers such as China meant that it was a “new strategic reality out there.”
It is worthwhile mentioning that the Indo-Pacific region is not only rich in natural resources, especially hydrocarbons that fuel the industrial engines of the world’s economies, it is also emerging as a center of international trade and investment by throwing up a large market of nearly half of the world’s population. There are in fact many reports that predict that by 2050, half of the world’s top 20 economies will be in the Indo-Pacific and countries like India, China, Indonesia and Japan will be among the top five economies in the world.
Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.
Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) chief Upendra Kushwaha, a former Indian cabinet minister who recently quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, joined the opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and became a part of the Grand Alliance in Bihar. Kushwaha cited dissatisfaction with the NDA government’s failure to fulfill the promises made to the people of Bihar as the reason for his joining the Grand Alliance.
Although the exact reason he left the NDA was unhappiness regarding seat-sharing with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the major constituent of the NDA, no doubt this has brought smiles to the face of the Indian National Congress (INC), the main constituent of the UPA, which is now hoping to return to power in 2019.
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Former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, currently led by his son Tejaswi Yadav, is the main opposition party in the state. Congress, buoyed by victories in the recent state assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, is trying to flex its muscles to gain more of Bihar’s seats at the upcoming national parliamentary elections from its ally RJD. Some Congress leaders have even pitched for a 20:20 seat share just like the equal seat share of the two NDA partners BJP and Janata Dal (United).
However, Congress is aware that an equal seat share with the RJD is not possible given the INC’s weak organizational structure in the state in comparison with the RJD, which has been successful in holding its core vote banks – Yadavs and Muslims – accounting for 31% of the state population. During the last national election, out of 40 parliamentary seats held by Bihar, the RJD contested 27, leaving 12 seats to the Congress. The remaining lone seat was contested by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
But the current scenario of the Grand Alliance, which expanded with the membership of the RLSP, presents a gloomy picture for the Congress. Recently, the Vikassheel Insaan Party led by Mukhesh Sahni, an Extreme Backward Caste (EBC) member, also joined the Grand Alliance.
The INC has a task ahead to bargain with the RJD to retain the previously allotted tally of 12 seats in Lok Sabha, lower house of Parliament. The Grand Alliance in Bihar currently comprises the RJD, Congress, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular), the Kushwaha-led RLSP and Sharad Yadav’s Lok Janatantrik Dal.
Besides, there are talks between RJD and the three Left parties – the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). It is to be noted that CPI (ML) and RJD have been arch-rivals in Bihar state politics but their strong opposition against the BJP has brought them closer.
According to reports, the RJD is willing to sacrifice seats to accommodate its allies but it will contest no fewer than 20 seats. The RLSP, as the reports say, is promised four or five seats by the RJD. The other parties – HAM (S), LJD, CPI, CPM and CPML – may get one seat each, although they are eager to contest more than one. Also, the RJD may concede one seat to the Samajwadi party. In such a situation, Congress is left with a smaller number of seats in its share than in 2014. The RJD is reportedly supposed to allocate only eight seats – fewer than 2014 elections – to INC.
In the present scenario, it seems that to defeat the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress has no other option but to agree to the will of its allies that are dominant in their own regions. Bihar, once a stronghold of the Congress, is a significant state for national politics and the Congress is aware of the fact that to restore its lost glory, the party has to revive in the state.
However, at present, there are no hopes of increment but rather high chances of decrement in the tally of Congress’ seat share in the Grand Alliance and it is definitely a challenge for the INC in Bihar to persuade the RJD to allow it to contest at least in 12 seats like in 2014 in the upcoming general elections.
And if the party fails, it will be a blow to the Congress, as it will continue to be dominated by regional forces like the RJD in Bihar, and this may have adverse effects in seat bargaining in the upcoming 2019 polls in other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, where Congress is willing to stitch alliances with the other regional parties to defeat the BJP.