T K Arun
As evident from the hurried and ill-planned US retreat from Afghanistan, America will stay a reliable ally as long as its interests converge with India’s. India must develop the integrity, discipline and political cohesion to stand on its own feet.
There is this old tale about the measure of friendship that holds true whether you’re hunting and gathering in the jungle or racing with other rats in the corporate HQ. Two friends walk along a forest trail. One is scared, the other is brave and reassures his companion that they could, together, take on any danger that springs on them.
Along comes a huge, hulking bear. The brave one bolts and climbs a tree. His friend drops to the ground, lies absolutely still, desperately hoping it is indeed true that bears don’t eat anything dead. The bear comes up to the prone body, sniffs it elaborately from head to toe – and moves on.
The brave one comes down from his perch and asks his friend what it was the bear had whispered into his ear during their long communion. “Don’t trust someone who runs away when you need him the most,” comes the reply. The average Afghan will not trust the US anymore.
Can America’s allies count on the leader of the free world, after the finest American performance in Kabul last week has been by the sturdy Chinook helicopters ferrying fleeing Americans from their embassy to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, which, in all likelihood, would soon sport a new name?
US Vice-President Kamala Harris is touring Southeast Asia, reassuring allies there that the superpower’s commitment to the region remains rock solid, never mind the American abandonment of Afghanistan. Who will believe them now, jeers the Chinese. Some concern has been raised in India, too, about putting too many eggs in the American basket. So, how reliable are the Americans, after the way their cookie crumbled in Kabul?
Neither a boy-scout promise nor the boy who stood on the burning deck, waiting for his father’s call that never came, is a good guide to the conduct of nations in their dealings with other nations. Cold calculus of their national interest informs it — mediated by the political repercussions among voters of specific actions taken in pursuit of national interest, let us hasten to add.
In that light, neither South Korea nor Japan should have any reason to worry about being ditched by the Americans in the face of putative Chinese aggression. But that really cannot be said about Taiwan. Americans subscribe to the One China policy, as do most countries of the world, including India.
That is to say, everyone agrees that Mainland China and the island of Formosa – to which the routed forces of Chiang Kai-shek fled after losing the civil war and control of China to Mao’s Red Army, renamed the People’s Liberation Army – form one country. That is why most countries have formal diplomatic relations only with the People’s Republic, and not with Taipei.
China is committed to reunification with the former Formosa, now known as Taiwan. America is committed, sort of, to prevent reunification by force. There is no formal treaty with Taiwan: how can there be a treaty with a non-state? Will the Americans risk an all-out war with China to prevent the One China policy reaching its consummation? Even before the fall of Kabul, that looked unlikely. After American departure from Afghanistan, it looks even less likely.
Taiwan’s best guarantee against desertion by western allies is a company: the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation. TSMC makes the world’s most advanced silicon, circuits as small as 7 – now going down to 4 – nanometres.
Intel is still stuck at 11 nanometres in the race to ever smaller circuits that allow more transistors to be crowded on to a single wafer of silicon, increasing computing power. The West cannot afford to have China control the production and supply of the most sophisticated bits of microelectronics.
Now, efforts are underway in the West to end this dependence on Asia for the most sophisticated semiconductors, and once the new plants come up in the US and Europe, Taiwan would lose that strategic value as well.
But suppose the Chinese were to initiate hostilities towards South Korea or Japan, where the US has its army bases, can the Americans afford to look away? They cannot. American insularity is towards the well-being of other nations, but for its formal allies to be threatened, leave alone attacked, when American troops are deployed in their territory is to hurt America’s own well-being.
Certain strands of American domestic politics have always been isolationist, but America does not quite resent its own status as the world’s foremost power, and understands that to back down on treaty commitments in the face of Chinese aggression is to forsake that status, forever. That is unlikely to happen.
That logic will prevail for Europe and America’s Nato allies, as well. An attack on any member of Nato is to be deemed as an attack on every other member. Turkey is making it difficult to live up to that proposition. But its unravelling, if it happens, will have little to do with Afghanistan.
What of the series of islands in the seas around China? There are a number of small islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea over which China has disputes with multiple southeast Asian nations and Japan. The southeast Asian nations, save Vietnam, are unlikely to have the stomach to take on China aggressively, were it to assert its claims on these islands.
China is their largest economic partner, apart from being the neighbourhood dragon that politely suppresses its belches of fire. The president of the Philippines chose to ignore an International Court ruling in its favour and against China’s claims over the Spratly Islands. US commitment to protect the territorial status quo in the seas around China is unlikely to be put to the test anytime soon, as no Asean nation is in a hurry to make a clear choice between China and the US.
That is, of course, different from the shared need to defend the freedom of navigation in the waters around China. But that freedom is vital for China as well. And that is unlikely to be a flashpoint in regional tensions.
What about the Quad, the US-led grouping that includes Japan, Australia and India? How strong would be the US commitment to strengthen and develop relations and cooperation among the Quad? The Quad, and the US foreign policy pivot to the Indo-Pacific more broadly, are part and parcel of creating a counterweight in Asia to Chinese power. That goal remains paramount and so US commitment to the Quad will remain robust, too.
Objectively speaking, it is the collapse of the Afghan government forces that took the world by surprise. It is that unforeseen collapse that has resulted in the chaos surrounding evacuation of people from Afghanistan, leading to the impression of Taliban triumph and America’s rout. Suppose the Biden administration had had the sense to evacuate those Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisals before they closed down their air base at Bagram.
Suppose the American withdrawal had been carried out without chaos. The Americans would not have been perceived as fleeing Afghanistan. In reality, the US is tired of expending lives and treasure on the hopeless cause of nation-building in the western mould, after having achieved its goal of removing Al Qaeda training camps and after having killed Osama bin Laden.
The US is leaving Afghanistan, after signing a treaty with the Taliban in Qatar. This reality has been obscured by the messy exit, giving rise to the illusion of defeat of the world’s superpower at the hands of Pakistani proxies.
The one country that Americans fled in defeat was Vietnam. Yet, that defeat did not cripple the US militarily in terms of geopolitical dominance. The US had waged war in Indochina to halt the advance of world communism. It got a bloody nose and had to flee.
Yet, 15 years later, it was the leader of world communism, the Soviet Union that crumbled, bringing down with it the make-believe world of a non-capitalist paradigm of development. Globalised growth sharpened income inequality within countries, but made average incomes of nations converge as never before. More significantly, nearly two decades of unprecedented growth across the world pulled tens of millions of people out of absolute poverty and its degrading hobbling of human potential, especially in China and India.
Americans remain a reliable ally, so long as their interests converge with ours. But the ultimate guarantor of our interests are ourselves. India must develop the integrity, discipline and political cohesion to stand on its own feet.
First Published in Federal Can you trust the US as an ally, after Afghanistan? on August 5, 2021
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About the Author
T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.