America: The ‘Indispensable’ nation

U.S. is truly the indispensable nation when it comes to empowering, instead of restraining, ambitious regional powers to pursue their narrower interests in the name of anti-China containment. We can expect more of the same “indispensability” when Hillary Clinton assumes the U.S. presidency.

Hillary Clinton affirmed “American exceptionalism” in a speech to the American Legion in Cincinnati on August 31.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton addresses the National Convention of the American Legion in Cincinnati

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton addresses the National Convention of the American Legion in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation…And part of what makes America an exceptional nation, is that we are also an indispensable nation.

In fact, we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead.

Commentators were struck how Secretary Clinton claimed the mantle of Ronald Reagan:

The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country.

In Clinton’s vision we are not, I might say, the country that screws up big time… like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in Libya, for instance.

The determined efforts of the Clinton campaign to scuttle away from its flag-bearer’s dismal Libyan legacy is one of the many moments of low comedy in this presidential campaign.

When Clinton was Secretary of State, a Libyan triumph was expected to serve as the tent pole foreign policy achievement for her presidential run.  Instead, Libya descended into anarchy, became a crucial origination point and way station for transnational Islamic militants, and emerged as a nexus of destabilization for North Africa.

Which makes this statement by Clinton rather ironic:

When America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.

In her politics, I believe Clinton is an instinctive and indefatigable front-runner, determined to push her way to the front of the biggest parade and claim to be leading it, consequences be damned.  In the US, that parade is organized by the Pentagon and it marches overseas.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, America in Clinton’s view is not only “exceptional”, it is “indispensable” especially in affirming the US military’s preferred mission of expanding its budgets, clout, and military alliances to ensure that China does not gain the strategic upper hand in Asia.

Unfortunately, in Asia the United States is not solely “indispensable” any more.

The U.S. military no longer plays the role of “honest broker” i.e. the invincible hegemon keeping the peace amid a collection of weak Asian states and restraining local arms races.

The realities of Asian demographics, economic growth, and defense spending demonstrate that America cannot dictate the terms of the local security regime by itself.  It has to work within the constraints of the local environment to formulate and exploit a viable role for itself.

In Asia, the US has adopted a doctrine of China containment, packaged as “defending the principled international order” [against unprincipled China, though it’s never openly stated] and relying on overt tilts toward Japan and India as anti-China counterweights.  The unacknowledged by-product is a polarized region with a burgeoning arms race, and the United States struggling to forestall a wholesale stampede toward nuclear weapons.

In the containment equation, the US can no longer do it alone and a new generation of “indispensable” nations has risen.

In North Asia, Japan is “indispensable”.  In South Asia, India is “indispensable.”

And the U.S. approach to the region acknowledges this.

America no longer “leads”.  It “enables,” by leveraging its military capabilities to assist Japan and India in claiming roles as “net security providers” in their regions.  As a toxic by-product, it also incites adventurism by Japan and India, two countries currently governed by essentially anti-US revisionist nationalist parties intent on exploiting American power as long as it is useful, and securing their local hegemony against the day when American power is no longer decisive, necessary, or available.

The clearest indication of this moral hazard is South Asia, where the United States has yielded to its deep feelings of disgust with Pakistan and unease with China, and put its eggs in India and Narendra Modi’s basket.

The United States has rather recklessly proclaimed that enlisting India as an anti-PRC ally is a way, way bigger priority than what happens to Pakistan.  As the India Times reported Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s remarks a while back:

 Dr Carter, in more than one way, sought to suggest that Pakistan was a minor distraction, and the real elephant – or dragon – on the world stage is China.

“The days are gone when we only deal with India as the other side of the Pakistan coin, or Pakistan as the other side of the India coin. I know that there are those in India and Pakistan who are still glued to that way of thinking. But the US put that behind us some time ago,” Carter said on Friday at the Council for Foreign Relations. The US, he added, has much more to do with India today than with Pakistan; there is important business with respect to Pakistan, but it has to do largely with terrorism and regional stability, whereas there is “a whole global agenda with India, agenda that covers all kinds of issues.”

As part of the India courtship, Secretary of State Kerry was in New Delhi on August 31 to extol India as an exponent of the “principled rules-based order,” and declare “we are, after all, the world’s two largest democracies, bound by common values, values of tolerance, equality, respect for religious pluralism, and a yearning for peace.”

Ahem.

If there is a genuine revisionist, irredentist, and revanchist power in Asia, it is not the People’s Republic of China; it is Modi’s India.  His RSS movement (which works through the BJP as its political organ) is overtly fascist in its inspiration, and Modi has been convincingly linked to the orchestration of a savage anti-Muslim pogrom while being chief minister of Gujarat (he dodged a U.S. State Department visa ban only by virtue of his assumption of the PM office).  In the regional thug department, India recently concluded a successful round of extra-legal bullying through blockade to enforce its will on Nepal and impose a new government.

And the Hindutva hypernationalist ideology of Modi’s RSS encourages dreams of the reconstitution of ‘Akhand Bharat’ or ‘Undivided India’, by reversing the dismemberment of greater India into Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the current Indian state, expectations and ambitions Modi has now begun to put into play.

In his Independence Day speech and private remarks to the RSS, Modi positioned India as the protector of the Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan nationalities of Pakistan, igniting a firestorm of enthusiasm among hardliners in the RSS movement who see India, not Pakistan, as the rightful ruler of the Baluch and GB regions.  By the Hindutva ideology, Pakistan is an illegitimate and synthetic entity serving as a vehicle for the oppression of Muslim Indians by the Punjab nationality that dominates Pakistan’s demographics and society.

As a top RSS ideologue put it in a dialogue with a sympathetic Pakistani scholar, “the creation of Pakistan [is] “one of the biggest onslaughts on India’s cultural and civilizational unity”, and Pakistan had “failed to evolve as a nation-state.”

His interlocutor replied, “Pakistan is not a state. Pakistan is a state of mind. A state of mind cannot have a nationality. Sooner or later, Pakistan will end up in the scrapheap of history, “Insh’allah” (God willing) and “Unless India helps Baluchistan in its freedom struggle on moral and strategic grounds, the Pakistan military will make the Baluch people strangers in their own land.”

This is a formula that is, understandably, welcomed by the Baluch separatist element.  As one overseas mainstay of the movement put it on Twitter,

I urge respected friends to stop calling Bharat Mata [India] foreign power in Baluchistan @MEAIndia @narendramodi We are Mother India sons, Pak fake

On one level, Modi’s speech was simply an effort to skate past the embarrassment of a new outbreak of popular protests in Kashmir against the Indian government and, with it, resistance against one of the most pervasive military occupations in the world.

There are few good options for Modi in Kashmir and he apparently decided to turn the tables by contrasting what he presents as India’s lawful and restrained security operations in Kashmir with the extra-legal, death-squad-tinged program of terror allegedly practised in Baluchistan by Pakistan’s army and intelligence services.

But challenging the undivided legitimacy of Pakistani rule over Baluchistan, a territory uncontested by India, evoked memories of the Indian role in the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 and, for those with a taste for the dark side, Indian meddling in the Tamil independence movement that yielded one of the most spectacular cases of blowback in world history: the assassination by Tamil suicide bomber of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The non-BJP Indian establishment regarded Modi’s move with a range of responses from cautious endorsement to queasy fascination to outright horror but is putting its shoulder to the wheel on behalf of the new policy, including consideration of internationalizing the Baluchistan issue through recognition of a Baloch government in exile.

One reason is Modi’s Baluchistan gambit was cannily packaged in a China-containment package appealing to the US as well as Indian hawks.  In addition to Baluchistan, Modi implied a moral protectorate over Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed territory in northern Pakistan, as well, thereby injecting India as a stakeholder into disputes at both ends of China’s cherished CPEC economic corridor inside Pakistan.

As Harsh Pant put it, “Modi has thrown down the gauntlet …The [CPEC] won’t succeed without India’s support on regional security.”

Now, I have good confidence that if the PRC had, for instance, declared it was holding the Straits of Malacca hostage in the name of protecting the beleaguered Chinese diaspora in Malaysia even if it threatened the disintegration of Malaysia into its constituent sultanates, we’d be hearing about reckless Chinese disregard for the niceties of the principled rules-based international order.

And back in the day, maybe the United States would have thought it desirable to discourage India’s inclination to foment a potential existential crisis in a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

But you know, today, Pakistan doesn’t matter, China does…and we need India.

So from the United States…crickets.

Well, actually a reassuring round of pro-India chirping in line with the burgeoning US-India security and diplomatic cooperation.  As the Indian press observed approvingly in the wake of Kerry’s visit, the anti-Pakistan tilt was confirmed by an unprecedented US-India communique jointly calling out Pakistan for its support of terrorists and, naturally, ignoring Indian excesses in Kashmir while maintaining a discrete silence concerning Modi’s assumption of the role of champion of the oppressed people of Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan.

And now the US can only hope that India does not exploit its status as “indispensable” US ally to blow up the whole region.

What we’ve learned is that the U.S. is truly the indispensable nation…when it comes to empowering instead of restraining ambitious regional powers to pursue their narrower interests in the name of anti-China containment.

And I think we can expect more of the same “indispensability” when Hillary Clinton assumes the U.S. presidency.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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