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Quo vadis: ‘Containment of China’ in Trump era?

MR josseBy MR Josse

KATHMANDU: Last week, I recommended that our foreign policy wonks pay heed to how developments are likely to unfold in the US-China-India arena, après the January 20, 2017 inauguration of president-elect Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

It could provide useful guidance on safely steering Nepal’s political and diplomatic passage through the envisaged choppy seas of a Trump era in international relations, particularly if we attempt to fathom whether President Trump would aid, or hinder, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fealty to a ‘containment of China’ policy, in tandem with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the US, among others.

HELP OR HINDER?

The issue has not only been taken cognizance of by discerning observers;  it is reflected in these developments: the toppling of the ‘pro-Chinese’ government led by K.P. Sharma Oli; the installation of a ‘pro-Indian’ government under Prachanda’s helmsmanship; the crude scrubbing of a proposed October state visit to Nepal by Chinese President Xi Jinping; and its ‘replacement’, as it were, by one by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.

Yet, speculating on the possible thrust and contours of American foreign/security policy in the Trump administration is hazardous business, given that the next American president is not only most unconventional but that he will be entering the White House as a rank outlier sans an official voting record as far as key American foreign/security policy staples are concerned.

Nevertheless, certain tell-tale pointers are discernible. Among them is that – as Clifford A. Kiracofe, a former senior staffer of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recalls in the Beijing Review – “Trump has indicated that U.S. allies in Europe and in Asia need to do more for themselves. He correctly notes that the present arrangements are an economic burden to the United States at a time when the U.S. financial system and economy are in a shambles.”

Clearly, as world history as proved time and again, nation states do not have the luxury of simultaneously prioritizing “guns” as well as “butter”: a judicious choice for an America determined to be “great again” and to put “America first” is, perforce, this: give up on the futility of endless wars spawned by pursuing obsolete Cold War verities and opt, instead, for a foreign/security policy of consolidating an effective and sufficient self-defence capability in a polycentric international system rather than being seduced by the siren call for global domination through alliances centred on American preeminence.

Additionally, there is the widespread conception that America today is a waning or fading power, fostered as much by America’s inability to shape events in the Middle East, in North Africa, in Afghanistan or to stem the rise of ISIS – despite the expenditure of horrendous amounts of American blood and treasure – as by the increasing assertiveness of Russia and China on the world stage.

While American inability to reverse Russian annexation of Crimea and her continuing intervention in the affairs of Ukraine has been taken note of by all, even an ally such as the Philippines has indicated her intention of building bridges with Beijing and Moscow, while Malaysia has signaled that it is prudent to forge closer ties with an increasingly influential, munificent Beijing.

CHANGING SCENARIO

Whatever the reason(s) for those shifts, one can hardly ignore the import that not only have leaders of Vietnam and the Philippines said that disputes over the South China Sea should be resolved bilaterally, as Beijing has all along proposed, but that – as Ma Xiaoling discloses in the Beijing Review – “The first major breakthrough in China-Vietnam relations took place on the security front. On October 22, the Chinese Navy’s 23rd escort fleet berthed in Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam, underlining this improvement.”

Interestingly, in the same write-up, Ma adds: “According to reports by The Times of India, Japan pushed for Indian involvement in the South China Sea, despite the fact that India has nothing to do with the dispute.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent meeting with Trump in New York at the former’s initiative, and the fact that the U.S. president-elect has called for scrapping the U.S.-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact, are clearly deserving of attention, since the TPP was, as a recent AFP report put it, “part of Obama’s push to counter the rising strength of China and a pillar of Abe’s economic reforms.”

To that listing must be included Xi’s telephonic conversation with Trump the other day wherein, among other things, the Chinese president reminded him that since the two countries established formal ties 37 years ago, bilateral relations had been “continuously progressing”, as also the report put out by Reuters that Vietnam will shelve ratification of the TPP due to political changes ahead in the United States, but wants to maintain good relations with Washington as much as it does with all other countries.

image0013MODI’S INDIA

Finally, one recalls Modi’s recent visit to Japan – after Trump’s stunning shock electoral victory – where a civilian nuclear accord was formalised, a step perceived, in the words of a Reuters’ dispatch, “as the first big move to build a regional counter-weight to China.” During the visit, Modi, praised the “growing convergence of views between his nation and Japan, saying strong ties will enable them to play a stabilising role in Asia and the world.”

Not surprisingly, those with acumen at deciphering diplomatic tea leaves have interpreted such maneuvers as reflecting a joint Indo-Japanese belief that the ‘containment of China’ goal is a shared geo-strategic objective.

The critical question now is whether Trump’s America will desist – or not – from joining such a dangerous geopolitical game.

America’s geo-strategic interests in China are immense and do not necessarily coincide with Japan’s or India’s.

If the Trump administration does, India’s pressure on Nepal to join in the anti-China dance will increase exponentially; if not, New Delhi will quickly see how the Prachanda-led coalition’s please-India-at-any-cost posture will boomerang.

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