By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: International relations are, almost by definition, invariably in a state of flux given the inherent fluidity and fickleness of the forces that shape world politics, influence the international economy and define power differentials between the key players in the global theatre.
Despite that established verity, it will be no exaggeration to state that today – in the topsy-turvy era of Donald Trump where unpredictability is king and rocking the boat the new normal – the uncertainties and anxieties that usually infuse the world order are gyrating or bouncing around in a frenzy, as if the world itself has become a humungous kaleidoscope.
A review of a few significant recent developments will perhaps clarify that claim. Let me begin with the new US Defence Secretary James Mattis’ maiden trip abroad – to South Korea and Japan, traditional US allies nervous about the intentions of the new American president, particularly with respect to the question of North Korean nuclear ambitions and a rising China’s increasingly assertive posture, especially in the Asia-Pacific.
Apparently, both Seoul and Tokyo appear to have been reassured about America’s commitment to their defence, including with regard to the perceived nuclear threat from Pyongyang, via a commitment to press ahead with plans to deploy a US anti-missile system this year – despite angry protests from Beijing. That said, it is enormously revealing that Mattis’ East Asian odyssey did not include the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia or Taiwan!
My take on that is that, despite the sound and fury of anti-China bluster and hints about America jettisoning the One China policy, care has been taken by the US not to go rushing, helter-skelter down the anti-China highway – at least not yet, not before a face-to-face encounter between the US and China sometime in the not too distant future.
For perspective’s sake, I wish to remind readers that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently concluded a visit to Australia, his first since Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister over two years ago, wherein the two leaders reaffirmed, inter alia, their commitment to a rules-based order, dependable security partnership and open markets. Only a shade less noteworthy is that Abe’s whirlwind tour of the Asia-Pacific included stops in Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia where generous offers of assistance were proffered.
One need not be a geopolitics wizard to appreciate Japan’s uneasy concerns about what Trump’s detailed blueprint for the region will be like, not excluding whether the new US president will, on the whole, opt for an isolationist policy or interventionist approach. In the meantime, what merits attention, too, is that although Mattis made it very clear that America’s long-standing treaty with Japan vis-a-vis the Senkaku – known in China as Diaoyus – Islands stands, he simultaneously emphasised: “At this time, we do not need for dramatic military moves at all…What we have to do is to exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts, to try to resolve this properly, maintaining open lines of communications.”
What adds to the general sense of ambiguity and confusion is that Mattis’ call for military restraint contrasts vividly with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments during a Senate confirmation hearing asserting that China’s access to the South China Sea islands it has been fortifying might be blocked, raising the prospect of a military confrontation.
Elsewhere, too, fundamental issues of war and peace are whirling around rather dangerously. To take but one example: Russia, days after Trump stepping into the Oval Office, escalated her intervention in the affairs of eastern Ukraine, almost as if Moscow believed that Trump would be prepared to give her a greater say in Ukraine’s internal domain than his predecessor. A few days later, however, Trump’s new ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, rapped Moscow’s knuckles rather sharply at the world forum for those moves, threatening that sanctions would remain in place, if she did not move out of Ukraine.
Likewise intriguing was Tehran’s test-firing a new missile, and then, when put “on notice” by Trump’s national security adviser Gen. Mike Flynn, once more firing salvos of those weapons reminding that as they were not prohibited by the nuclear treaty formalised in 2015, Iran reserved the right to do so in the interest of defending state sovereignty.
Plainly, key strategic players on the international chess board, are engaged in testing new limits to which they can – without any pain or cost – push their foreign/security policy boundaries. Less dramatic, but significant nonetheless in that context, is Turkey’s rapprochement with Moscow, a development that is seemingly at odds with the traditional Western stance, not least of all since Ankara is a NATO member.
Although admittedly different in many respects, Trump’s messy temporary travel ban on entry into the US from seven predominantly Muslim countries – but not including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia or Pakistan – to my mind, fits snugly into such a ‘testing the boundaries’ paradigm. Though it has caused an embarrassing flap in Washington, I believe that it, too, tests the limits to which the Trump administration can move in that and related spheres.
Closer home, it is only a tad less intriguing that soon after Trump’s executive order on travel ban, Pakistan placed Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the chief suspect of 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, under house arrest. My guess is that Islamabad was strongly advised that not taking such action would invite stern sanctions from Washington. What adds a further dash of interest is that while Saeed’s organisation, had been declared a terrorist outfit by the UN long ago, TV anchors in India were not coy about claiming – incredulously – that New Delhi was successful in securing Saeed’s detention!
Within Nepal, meanwhile, the arrest of the ‘Free Madesh Alliance’ leader, C.K. Raut, is being conflated with pro-Indian Madeshi politicos voicing support for a Nepali version of the ‘Two Nation’ theory that split India into two in 1947.
Is India, too, testing new foreign/security policy boundaries in Nepal?