By Marvi Sirmed

US President Donald Trump announced his administration’s new grand strategy for foreign policy on Monday while speaking at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington DC.

Among the audience were his cabinet secretaries, government workers and uniformed members of the military. The document that he called ‘America First National Security Strategy’ outlines the major national security concerns of the United States and how his administration planed to deal with those.

The strategy is focused on four pillars in a 68-pages document: protect American homeland and way of life; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence in the world. Looking at the strategy document, Trump seems to be anxious about the increasing influence of China and Russia in South Asian region. Both of these countries have been termed ‘revisionist powers’ and ‘competitors’ of the US who, according to the document, intend to challenge US power and erode its security and prosperity.

Calling it an ‘ethical realism’, Trump appears to be rethinking current US relationship with China and Russia based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and including them in international institutions ‘would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners’. In a separate chapter on the regional context of the strategy, the document looks at South and Central Asia as a region that presents some of the ‘most complicated national security challenges and opportunities’ for the US.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are featured prominently in this section. With the patronizing tone adopted for Afghanistan while aiming for its stabilization and self-reliance, an accusatory tenor cannot be missed that the strategy adopts for Pakistan. Time and again in the document, the US commitment towards Pakistan is described in terms of seeking it to be a country ‘that is not engaged in destabilizing behaviour’.

In line with the policy for South Asia that Trump announced in August, the new strategy puts peace in Afghanistan as the central focus. While reiterating the importance of India’s role for economic assistance in the region, the report identifies it as a priority issue for the US to deepen strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role for security in Indian Ocean and throughout the broader region. This is way beyond just seeking India’s contribution in the development of Afghanistan, as was envisaged in the earlier South Asia Policy.

Labeling China as a rival in the region alongside Russia, the new strategy intends to ‘help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region’. Read with the priority area mentioned above, it is safe to assume that the strategy would seek to field India as the counterbalance to increasing Chinese influence especially viz a viz its Belt and Road Initiative (formerly called One Belt One Road). The CPEC project under this initiative seems to be intimidating the US as a key challenger to its interests in the region.

For Pakistan, the strategy echoes the broader frustration that the Trump administration officials including secretary of the state and the defence secretary have been expressing for months now. It asks Pakistan to ‘intensify its counterterrorism efforts, since no partnership can survive a country’s support for militants and terrorists who target a partner’s own service members and officials’. It further goes on to say that the US will also ‘encourage Pakistan to continue demonstrating that it is a responsible steward of its nuclear assets’. Meaning thereby, the pressure on Pakistan to deliver Taliban on the negotiating table alongside decisive action against the Haqqani Network would continue.

Blunt it might seem, but it still uses soft verbs while defining the course of action towards Pakistan: the US will ‘insist’, ‘encourage’, and ‘press’ Pakistan to act on counter-terrorism. While pursuing its carrot and the stick approach, the strategy keeps conspicuous ambiguity on the possible ‘stick’ it might use. The ‘carrot’, nonetheless, is mentioned in terms of building ‘trade and investment ties as security improves and as Pakistan demonstrates that it will assist the United States in its counterterrorism goals’.

More worrying than Trump’s veiled warning of increasing India’s role in Afghanistan and helping it become counterweight to China and Russia in the region is his reference to Pakistan’s nuclear assets. He has suggested through this ‘ethically realist’ policy that Pakistan will have to demonstrate that it is a country responsible enough to be in possession of these tactical weapons.

Complacence Pakistan may decide to continue viz a viz ignoring the tone adopted in this policy by once again labeling it as ’empty threats’ by the US. Dilly-dallying in taking decisive action against our former allies – Taliban and Haqqani Network – we might adopt as our continued policy. But it remains Pakistan’s most serious challenge in dealing with Trump’s America to weigh its options with pragmatism by reviewing and revising these ages- old policies.

It is important to look at the emerging realities of the South Asian region with a potential new bloc in the making. Pakistan being at the confluence of competing powers like China and Russia in a neighborhood where it struggles to maintain tactical parity with a much bigger rival, cannot afford to turn into a junior player in an important geo-strategic chessboard just because of the false notion of keeping unchallenged influence in Afghanistan through spent and exhausted weapons like Haqqanis. -- Courtesy DT