On the last day of 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) into law. ARIA was introduced in the US Senate in April this year and was passed by the US Senate on December 4. It was approved by the US Congress on December 12. The bill aims to counter the encroaching influence and growing threat from China and to reinvigorate US leadership in the Indo-Pacific region, including strengthening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties with India. ARIA cites “China’s illegal construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea and coercive economic practices”, and mandates actions for countering China’s influence to undermine the international system.
With reference to India, ARIA specifically calls for: recognition of vital role of strategic partnership between the US and India in promoting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region; strengthening and broadening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties between the two countries; US commitment to all Indo-US bilateral and security agreements and arrangements including the New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship, and the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), and; reiteration of the designation of India as a major defence partner, which is unique to India, which elevates defence trade and technology cooperation between the US and India to a level commensurate with the closest allies and partners of the United States.
ARIA has a budget of $1.5 billion over a five-year period to enhance cooperation with America’s strategic regional allies in the region. It also notes the increased presence throughout Southeast Asia of the Islamic State and other international terrorist organizations that threaten the United States”. ARIA also refers to Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between US, Australia, India, and Japan (termed Quad), calling it vital to address pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region in order to promote a rules-based order; respect for international law; and a free and open Indo-Pacific, clarifying at the same time. It, however, clarifies that Quad is intended to augment, rather than to replace, current mechanisms.
What has changed with Trump signing ARIA? Not much really except what has already been in vogue over past several months has simply been converted to a law. The DTTI has been in vogue since it was suggested by Leon Panetta, then US Secretary of Defence in 2012. India signed the General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002, Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. With these foundational agreements that the US signs with key defence partners, US accorded the title of ‘major defence partner’ to India in 2018. The US is now angling for India to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial cooperation. However, there are reservations in India over sharing Indian terrain mapping with the US and vice-versa.
What has changed past few months is perhaps Trump’s heightening eccentricity and megalomania, indicative from his tweets, ostensibly without consulting any of his advisors and government officials. His decision of asking Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in leading the fight against the Islamic State is akin to asking mama to eat her own baby; the naivety even more erratic than his boisterous tweet after meeting Kim Jong-un that denuclearization of Korean Peninsula had been achieved. Wonder if Trump has noticed that Spurning Erdogan’s cronyism and authoritarianism (in conjunction Erdogan’s vision of an Islamic Caliphate), Turks are leaving their country in droves; what a reversal of the moderate and secular vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who laid the foundation of modern Turkey.
Being one of those US Presidents who never served in armed forces, Trump talks of former Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis, asking “What has he done for me?”. No one of course would ask Trump whether he is above America and whom should Mattis owe his loyalty to – him or the nation? Trump also says he would have made a good General – an observation he should have left to others. Two days after signing ARIA, Trump took a jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for funding a library in Afghanistan; saying it is of no use in the war-torn country, criticizing India and others for not doing enough for the nation’s security. Indian investments in Afghanistan are mostly on mega infrastructure projects, humanitarian assistance, small and community-based development projects, civil aviation, military training and equipment assistance, besides others. India has built the 218 km Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan, Salma Dam and the Afghan Parliament building. All Indian investments are in consultation with Government of Afghanistan.
Trumps plays with his ‘tweeter’ like a fascinated kid, but would do well to do some soul searching for himself about America’s role in Afghanistan, particularly with respect to: permitting air evacuation of a weak Pakistani division with 9000 Taliban from Kundus and Khost during US invasion of Afghanistan; ignoring US-NATO Generals that the solution for stability of Afghanistan lies inside Pakistan; soft-paddling Pakistan’s export of terrorism in India and Afghanistan beyond perfunctory noise – curbs on aid having come only recently; not pressuring Pakistan to open land route between India and Afghanistan; surge in Taliban influence despite preponderance of firepower and weaponry; restricting US-NATO financial aid to Afghanistan to five years – in turn restricting Afghan soldier’s contractual tenure to three years, not conducive to specialization; not permitting expansion of air and artillery integral to Afghan National Army, and; lack of response to expansion of Chinese influence in Af-Pak.
America has paid millions of dollars to Pakistan for sustaining US-NATO forces via Pakistan. Does Trump expect India to do so? With American proficiency in sub-conventional war, why no thought was given to liberate parts of Pakistan and open a south-south corridor linking Central Asia and South Asia. Putting Indian boots on ground in Afghanistan is hardly feasible due to maintenance costs without a land route. India could have put limited ‘covert’ boots in conjunction Afghan special forces more than a decade back but for that the political hierarchy is yet to steel itself. As a businessman, Trump should know that security and economy are closely interlinked and interdependent, but nothing was done to elevate the economy of Afghanistan despite US-NATO presence past decade and a half. The least that could have been done was to help Afghanistan capitalize on its 2-3 trillion dollars worth of minerals, petroleum and gas reserves.
ARIA stresses on strategic partnerships, but did Trump take into confidence any strategic partners before announcing US withdrawal / partial withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan respectively? For that matter, while he said US will do no more ‘policeman’ of the world and that US troops should guard their own borders, wonder if he noticed spontaneous follow up announcement by Chinese Prrsident Xi Jinping warning Taiwan of unification by force and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un saying if sanctions are not lifted, nuclearization will continue. Not that North Korea ever gave up its nuclear program but Kim Jong-un is probably looking forward to his next meeting with Trump, with latter showing him another video of the goodies-in-waiting should the nuclear pursuit be given up. As for South Asia, the unpredictability of Trump is indicative he is likely to go mushy on Pakistan to enable full US exit from Afghanistan before the next presidential election. So what is the solace from ARIA – aside from businessman Trump securing more defence contracts from India?