Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
THERE are US Presidents who treat their Vice-Presidents so badly that the job feels like “a pitcher of warm spit”. Among these was Dwight Eisenhower, whose half-hearted endorsement resulted in Nixon losing to Jack Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race. And there are the Bill Clintons and the Barack Obamas, who made sure that their “Veeps” (as Vice-Presidents are referred to) were given major responsibilities, and served in that sense as Deputy Presidents rather than as ribbon-cutters whose only chance at power came were their bosses to suddenly pass away. Jack Kennedy himself was dismissive towards Lyndon Johnson, regarding the Texan with the subsurface contempt of the Boston Brahmin for a country hick. It needs to be mentioned that Lyndon Johnson, when he became President of the United States in 1963 following the murder of President Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, did more for the vibrant African-American community in the US than any predecessor bar Abraham Lincoln.
It was Johnson who introduced Medicare and other measures that gave a measure of healthcare to the underprivileged, although the Vietnam War (which he entered into on the advice of those who had been selected for top jobs by Kennedy and retained by Johnson) proved his political undoing. In his campaign, Donald Trump chose the Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, to be his running mate, raising eyebrows at the little-known politician who subsequently became the Vice-President of the US. Despite several episodes that would have fazed a lesser man, Pence (a complete family man and devout Christian) has stood by his boss, despite barbs from many who expected him to be more critical of the New York billionaire. With his speech a little over a month ago on US-China relations at the Hudson Institute in Washington, Vice-President Pence has entered the history books.
The Trump Doctrine is that the US was Number One in the 20th Century and will remain Number One in the 21st. The challenger in the 20th Century, the USSR, was forced into dissolution in 1991, and Pence makes clear that the effort will be to ensure a similar result for the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) during this century. The US will use whatever means it sees as necessary to stop what till the inauguration of Donald J Trump on January 20,2017 was regarded as the inevitable ascent of China as the world’s top power within a little over a decade. President Xi Jinping has become the most focussed and strong leader of the PRC since Mao Zedong, and has gathered around himself a team of experts and implementors who are working at ensuring that China becomes the top scientific and economic power in the world during the period when Xi remains in charge, which could be as much as a decade more.
Given that Trump regards America First as his mantra, while Xi is obviously looking to a world where China would be what the country has been in several previous millennia, the centre of global authority, it was inevitable that a clash of interests would come, and it has in the form of a trade war initiated by Washington that is unprecedented in its ferocity. Specifically, the effort is to ensure that the cluster of hi-tech industries that it core to a country’s prowess remain a US monopoly. This is sought to be achieved by cutting off market access to Chinese tech giants such as Huawei, which is moving at speed in developing products that are cheaper and practically as good as rival (and much higher priced) offerings by US and a few EU companies. Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix are a few of the technology maestros that have sprouted in the US and which are each bigger than economies of most of the countries of the world.
Only China has been able to set up companies with the capacity to take on these titans, and if the markets for enterprises such as Ten Cent or Baidu get shut off for “reasons of security”, the expectation is that their climb to the top will not get slowed down but reversed. In such a context, the two markets of immense future importance are Africa and India. Should Chinese tech companies dominate these markets, they would be able to surpass their US competitors even if substantially hobbled in the US and in much of the EU by protectionist measures presented as security concerns. Of course, even in the US and the EU, once Huawei and other Chinese companies develop products that would be much cheaper and better than their US and EU competitors, it would not be possible for Washington and Brussels to keep them from local markets.
The pressure by consumers in these advanced markets for access to cheaper and better products would be too strong to ignore. In fact, some of the Trump policies may end up helping China, including the effort by the White House to restrict the flow of H1B visa holders from coming to the US and having their family members also find jobs. Should China open the door to tech workers from countries such as India at a time when the US is closing its own access, such a move would assist Chinese tech companies to procure global talent. For that to happen, working and lifestyle conditions in Chinese cities for such workers need to be of a high standard, something well within the capacities of the Chinese Communist Pary (CCP) to ensure. Donald Trump and Mike Pence know that once China moves ahead of the US in fields such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and in space and ocean exploration , it is game over. Hence the effort to ensure that the US lead in such fields remains.
The Trump Doctrine is based on the axiom that the US should be the leading power in the world, and it is to the credit of President Trump that he is open and honest about his intentions while several of his predecessors had the same objectives, but covered these up in honeyed and misleading language. The Hudson Institute exposition of the Trump Doctrine by Vice-President Pence has been a refreshingly open exposition of the strategy of the US Government, and has drawn world attention. After such a speech, Pence will be the centre of attention at all global fora, and it is expected that he will soon make forays into countries such as India that are crucial in any strategy of ensuring that US leadership continue into the 21st Century. In the 1970s, Moscow was the target of Washington and therefore Beijing became its ally. In the present period, it is Beijing that is the target of Washington and Delhi increasingly becoming its ally.
Although arms lobbyists have succeeded in delaying the matter for yeas, it is expected that BECA (the data sharing agreement) between the US and India will get signed, perhaps this year itself, if Prime Minister Modi pushes his bureaucrats into action. The world has entered into a period where trade relationships that are immense in scale coexist with rivalry in military matters. Japan, the US and India have each extensive commercial linkages with China while at the same time coming together in an alliance where the armed forces work together in a manner never seen before. Will such a “balance of opposites” continue undisturbed, or will the world tip suddenly into a global conflict as took place a hundred years ago in Europe? The flashpoints are rising, and it will take skill and luck to ensure that a single spark of tension morphing into conflict somewhere does not expand into a prairie fire that would burn across the world.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.