More countries set to close ranks against Washington’s unilateralism

By Xie Chao

It is clear that US President Donald Trump has resorted to unilateralism to change America’s strategic position in relation to other major powers. While making it plain that any state continuing to buy Iranian oil after November 4 will be subject to sanctions, he announced that the US will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, a decision that shocked many American allies in Europe.

Trump has come to office with the mission to put “America First” and “Make America Great Again,” but most states are finding that Trump’s goal, to be realized or not, will be pursued at their cost. His unilateralism to try to alter the international trade system has made major powers tired and exhausted from adjusting to erratic and inept foreign polices announced by the White House. India is among one of those frustrated powers. There are abundant reasons supporting a conventional perspective that India worries a rapidly rising China and is keen to join forces with the US. But New Delhi appears equally suspicious of American unilateralism as it is uncomfortable with China’s rise.

The Doklam standoff once gave outsiders the impression that in order to balance its powerful neighbor, India would strengthen its ties with the US to counter China, and indeed New Delhi is consolidating strategic ties with Washington and some major defense agreements have been signed to expand cooperation in the larger Indo-Pacific region. But at the same time, India is also resetting ties with China. It is believed that it started the initiative as early as this March, when it became clear New Delhi wouldn’t be exempted from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff hike.

The Trump administration’s unilateral moves on changing the international trading system have made India suffer because of the depreciation of the Indian rupee. New Delhi also finds a loss of policy autonomy when the US threatens to sanction its arms trade with Russia and warns it to cut oil imports from Iran. Japan is facing a similar dilemma. On the one hand its traditional security ties with the US is facing more challenges, on the other, its relations with China have been frosty for years the recent uptick notwithstanding. Tokyo is finding less and less flexibility adjusting major power relations.

Since he took office in 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s anti-China campaigns, including a key role in the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia strategy and worldwide bluster for direct competition with Chinese overseas infrastructure investment, cost him trust, a precious asset to deal with China. Japan-China relations hit such a low that the last prime ministerial-level visit to China took place in December 2011.

It’s very hard to regain trust after losing it, but a turbulent Trump administration has been pushing Japan into a corner. Trump scorned the value of traditional US-Japan ties; rampantly discarded the Trans-Pacific Partnership which would strengthen American hold in the region; and held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whose nuclear program was a constant security concern for Japan. In order to force Japan into negotiating a trade agreement, Trump is threatening additional tariffs on Japanese products.

Both India and Japan display new cooperative gestures and a desire to seek rapprochement with China, so as to hedge against uncertainty in the relationship with the US. Coincidentally or otherwise, they both decided to adjust polices toward the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). India, though still reluctant to join the BRI, agrees to explore the “China-India Plus one” or “China-India Plus X” cooperation model. Japan is urging a more active role by its companies to capitalize on opportunities created by BRI endeavors.

An unpredictable Trump administration is changing the perception of threat of major powers. To countries that are friendly to the US, an obvious source of threat is China, because they worry that a rising China would change the status quo. But now Trump has smacked them right in the face when his foreign policies have changed the status quo thoroughly to cause collateral damage, or worse, direct damage. India and Japan won’t be the last ones, more states will choose to soft-balance US.

The author is an Assistant Research Fellow, Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University, and a Visiting Faculty Scholar (2018-2019), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, India.

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