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Opinion

January 28, 2018

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A strategic shift

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has outlined a new American policy whereby countering China’s rapidly expanding military and an increasingly aggressive Russia are now the main focus of America’s national security, outpacing the threat of terrorism. For almost two decades, America’s military focus has remained on fighting terrorism, and the counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The broad new strategy for the US Defence department warns that all aspects of the military’s competitive war-fighting edge have been eroded. Mattis said that building a force that can deter wars with and Beijing as well as America’s enemies such as North Korea and Iran will require an increased investment to strengthen the military.

The timing of this policy shift is linked to a series of internal and external factors. Owing to ongoing investigations in America against Russia’s alleged role in meddling in the US presidential elections in support of Trump, there is a perception created among a large segment of society that the current US establishment favours a policy of appeasement regarding Russia.

By November 2018, as many as 33 US Senate seats are likely to be up for grabs, which could be a crucial factor in the future legislation process. The rise in the US military budget to $824.6 Billion for FY2018 at the expense of other social heads could also have been an important consideration to build threat perception. In the external context, the rapid rise of China’s military and economics prowess; its policy on the One Belt One Road; its growing influences in the Middle East, Africa and Europe; and its attempt to gradually replace the petrodollar by the yuan constitute a threat to a US-led unipolar world.

Russia’s increased willingness to use its military muscle without the shackles of the Western democracy models and employ cyber power to influence the domestic issues of its targeted countries has ominous connotations. The Chinese-Russian nexus constitutes an unconcealed threat that warrants a focused response.

That the shift in strategic orientation has been announced by the defence secretary and not Trump or, for that matter, the secretary of state, has stirred a debate. It is believed that the shift will result in a less kinetic role for the military while other elements of the state’s power are likely to play a more decisive role in confronting other aspirants to the superpower status. This shift is also a departure from the earlier policies of the Trump administration. It implies more involvement in fomenting alliances with other countries and greater interference in their internal affairs. This also subtly conveys the importance of General Mattis in policy formulation after Bannon’s exit. Despite reiterating a commitment to the campaign against terrorists, the new strategic objectives are likely to give boost to militant organisations. Some of these terrorists groups can be used to serve American interests.

The core issue of regaining a military edge over its competitors has pitfalls in economic fallouts to America-centric policies. This will entail both a qualitative and quantitative edge in conventional and nuclear deterrence. Technological superiority to its adversary, which has established military hardware programmes and manufacturing capabilities, will consume both time and resources.

The change in focus in the national strategy will also have different ‘playing fields’. While the importance of the Middle East in pursuing low-intensity conflicts to woo various regional players to purchase US hardware and test its efficacy in combat will continue, other regions will assume more significance. Asia will have preeminence, not only for its contiguity to China, Russia, North Korea and Iran but also because of its control over the South China Sea. An effort to solicit Taiwan’s support against China can also not be ruled out. India has a strategically advantageous position to counter China in its backyard. Afghanistan serves America’s purposes of fighting terrorism and countering the spread of China and Russia’s influences. It also facilitates its efforts to sabotage CPEC.

In Europe, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries will also be buttressed as a counter to Russia’s military adventurism. Europe could be a prime partner in countering Russia in particular. Owing to the growing partnerships and the investment of China with many European countries, the prospects of creating a front against China are bleak. The growing European concerns following Russian interventions in Eastern European states and the use of cyber warfare as an instrument of policy projection could be useful in consolidating partnerships against a common enemy. However, in terms of posing a credible deterrence to the threat of the use of ‘hybrid’ warfare by Russia as a new model of power projection, a potent, all-encompassing political, diplomatic and fiscal understanding between Europe and the US will be imperative.

The return to the superpower rivalry of the cold-war era may not follow the same script. This is due to changes in geopolitical compulsions and the socioeconomic milieu. China’s rise as an economic power and its heavy investments in US treasury bonds and in Africa, the Middle East and even Israel, Asia and Europe has improved its stakes as a powerbroker. Whether this influence will be eroded by the US in the foreseeable timeframe remains a subject of conjecture.

Russia has also been able to effectively spread its influence and forge alliances with Turkey, Iran and Qatar and the Arab world. Its military remains a potent rival to the US military might. Its traditional strategic relations with India – a key player in America’s strategy of containment in China – also make India a suspect in its real potential. India has always been adept at balancing inter-state relations with rival powers and will continue to pursue same policies in the future. In addition, the volume of trade between India and China exceeded $71 billion in 2016, making China one of the major trade partners of India. America’s possible baits for a nuclear deal and support for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council are not likely to win their full cooperation as an ally.

The new defence strategy shift could compound tensions in an already polarised world. Its manifestation requires large spending in military capabilities and close coordination with other elements of national power. The US has ended FY 2017 with a budget deficit of over $666 billion, which could weaken its abilities to achieve an edge in conventional and nuclear deterrence. This declared animosity, when linked to the travel ban on some Muslim countries, could add to the ever-growing list of US enemies. Only time will tell how the policy is translated into reality. But the issue requires more debate in the US and other affected countries so as to ameliorate its contours.

The writer is the former corps commander Lahore and ambassador to Jordan.

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