The Singapore Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has important takeaways for India about its role in the Indo-Pacific.
Today, the whole world has one eye peeled on Sentoso Island, 30-odd miles from the mainland Singapore on its eponymous Strait. That is the chosen location for Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump summit. For India, there could be two takeaways: one, the American posture on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the offshoot of which is to remove China from North Korea’s geo-political schema; and two, its post-summit role in the Indo-Pacific. The upshot of these two developments is potentially far reaching.
For the US President, Donald Trump, the fact he is being able to engage the East Asian nation on the marquee issue of nuclear weapons, is itself a victory. His middle American constituents of “deplorables” (as Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate had described them) will know that he has shown up the coastal elites, who have long ruled them.
The US presidents are considered to commandeer a “bully pulpit.” President Trump has shown, time and again, that he could go beyond the policy gibberish, and instead reach his middle American constituency straight from his Twitter account. They understand plain talk. His way of a seemingly limited vocabulary and the apparent impersonal nature of the written word he overcomes, addresses his subjects of vitriol, with a rare directness that appeals to the simplicity of his constituents.
During his first intensive interaction with whom he believes to be the second most intractable nation (as one of his fellow worthies amongst former US presidents had dubbed the “Axis of Evil”) he will surely not defer to the wishes of his minders. His second National Security Adviser – in just 800+ days of his presidency – John Bolton or his second Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, are also in the list of his handlers. Restraint is an attribute that cannot constrict his style, as has been seen from the first days of his assumption of office.
Surely, the past summits – either during the Cold War or any other summits between heads of government of regional powers – have witnessed a virtual clamp-down on news . An age-old diplomatic tradition is followed in these meets: At the end, there is usually a joint press conference if the bonhomie between the two leaders needed to be declared. Otherwise, a dry statement is issued signalling failure.
Strategic communication is Trump’s forte. He plays all kinds of games through his incessant twitter wars, be it with the liberal media or the US Congress or even special counsellor, Robert Mueller, who is investigating various legal violations of Trump, his family and his associates. In case of Kim Jung-un. this practice of incessant tweeting would not undergo a change, when he knows he can shape summit conversation by tweeter through twit storms.
In that light, the first contention of this article as an outcome for Trump, will have a larger than life presence at the summit. That is, the primary source of encouragement for engagement with ‘Dear Brother’ Kim would be the fact that the two are summiteering, with all its pomposity and glory. Trump has already declared that denuclearisation will not take place out of just one meeting, he told White House reporters, after he met the North Korean special envoy on previous Saturday (2 June). After all, the summit is expected to be just one day long.
Trump does not have a clear picture about where he is going as is evident in the confessional comments made on 2 June. He is trying to adlib his way through, Or so it seems. In a candid comment to his favourite media, Fox News, he was seen saying that there wasn’t much need to “prepare!”
His sense of US foreign policy begins from where Obama left off. From all appearances, he seems to look at the summit as an ahistorical development: Kim’s side should ensure the meet bolsters his image of being a ‘great negotiator.’ Foreign policy and international relations are rooted in the knowledge systems of what has gone before. Certain continuity on policies is required and that is an attribute which allows the world of friends and foes to think “stability” – a desired end-state of all status quo powers.
While both China and India is striving for a ‘rules based world order,’ Trump tore up the international arrangement by which Iran had capped its nuclear programme. But he neither has the savvy the neo-cons had with which they pulled through a ‘war based on falsehood’ against Iraq during George W Bush’s administration. Nor does he have the ability to finesse the Korean desire to conjoin the divided nation and provide Pyongyang the benefit of the ‘open economy.’
Kim’s effort will be to bring to the table a package of measures, in exchange for lifting the US-led sanctions on his country’s economy. He would also like the US vote for a unification of the two Koreas. What Moon Jae-In of South Korea does with the North is largely their own business, especially in view of Trump’s original plan of withdrawing 20,000 troops – a total withdrawal – from the South. The real player in the game will be from further north of the Yalu river: China. An important point to note is that Kim has already had two meetings with Xi Jinping.
As the economic superpower, and at a time when the nation is aggressively seeking to expand its global role, China cannot have disturbed equilibrium at its doorstep. Trump is wont to do that. Apparently his understanding of American foreign policy is a stand-alone exercise. His lack of interest about the positions of previous administrations on any issue affords him the ability to tear into them. Exemplar: the Iran nuclear deal. Hence, absent in the process is coherence and composite character of the US national interests.
On the other hand, he is trying to convert a 240-year-old liberal democracy into a handmaiden of a unique kind that any Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) would throw up as an example of a ‘strong man’ mould. When the US and North Korea stepped on the escalation ladder in the middle of last year, Trump had shown a penchant for personal attack on Kim. Added to that, was the ‘mad man’ practice of security policies. By this, Trump – underlined by his deputies — meant to showcase his unpredictability though he was the man with his finger on the nuclear button of much larger arsenal.
In June 2016, the US-based Atlantic magazine featured Trump on the cover. They also carried a psycho-political profile of the incumbent president (then a candidate), written by leading psychologist, Dan P Mcadams. He wrote:
“In ‘The Art of the Deal,’ Trump counsels executives, CEOs, and other deal makers to “think big,” “use your leverage,” and always “fight back.” When you go into a negotiation, you must begin from a position of unassailable strength. You must project bigness. “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after,” he (Trump) writes.”
With that attitude and ‘illusions of grandeur,’ the danger is that, they could actually make Kim fear the presence of a ‘hyperpower.’ That Trump could drive him to the wall is enough for Kim to be afraid for his regime meeting an end similar to the Libyan supremo, Muammar Qaddafi. This in turn, could mean that Kim withdraws from the table, his more generous offers. Certainly, that would be regressive and not the desired end-state. This situation would actually strengthen China’s hand: something India could possibly live with.
In fact, Beijing could enjoy the realpolitik position of emerging from the so-called ‘strategic back-burner’. This befits the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ that the current government has now embraced after its initial attempt at flirting with the USA. They realised that the transactional quid pro quo that the Obama Administration had struck with its preceding government had partially met the goals of the American establishment. In other words, Obama’s defence secretary, Ashton Carter sealed the deal in June, 2016, with UPA government by making India a ‘Major Defence Partner’.
The Indian government has realised that fire-breathing Donald Trump was apparently so reckless that they need not give up their own transactional quid at this stage. This is the time of declining sanity worldwide. As we all can see, with the US and its friends in Europe, countries are polarising on one end of the political spectrum or the other. The NDA II’s New Delhi has a pro-active agenda of seeking quick results. India’s foreign policy, coupled with the leadership’s worldview, conditioned by its compulsion of defeating Pakistan and deterring China the simplistic Chanakyan way, was flawed. The flaw was in terms of reading China’s intervention in the sub-continent that was flaunted by the UPA II government, which has taken a page out of the NDA I’s post-Pokhran II playbook.
But the NDA II government came to power six years after the 2008 financial crisis in the West- what the Western media called the Great Recession. Six days usually is a long time in politics. Six years is a lifetime. Thus, when the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi ascended to power, he decided to engage in the ‘near abroad.’ He probably planned for a deeper engagement with the neighbouring countries, consolidate his action and then range out for the ‘far abroad.’ But his focus soon shifted to managing major power relations. In that process, he had to engage the US, China and Russia. The rest is history.
In that light, the Singapore Summit is important and can prove to be seminal. The grand strategic ambition of India does not include more than the existing four nuclear weapon states (NWS) in the Asian continent, including Israel. Jaswant Singh of the Vajpayee government, said as much, when he declared that India’s goal was to join the club of N-5 and close the door behind it.
With North Korea, the knock on the door for NWS status is more important for regime-sustenance than any ambition of the expensive nuclear programme. Interestingly one recalls, how during the regime of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang would calibrate its nuclear programme to match its bad harvests, even within the economic sanctions regime imposed by, mostly, US food aid. From the beginning, their nuclear programme was meant to be a transactional chip, bargaining for various necessities in the process of nation-building.
The Indian government had been chosen to remain quiet about its position on the North Korean nuclear programme, as it did with the programme of any other nation. New Delhi had turned the art of stating reservations on sensitive strategic issues into a form of finest quiet diplomacy. So it was unsurprising that the North Korean ambassador to India, Kye Chun Yong, had given a call for talks with the US on the nuclear weapons issue in August 2017.
Chaotic Washington was still getting the act together in the Trump era and ignored the call. But when the new American president engaged with Kim Jong-un, the conversation was marked by vitriol and personal invective. Escalation dominance by one of the youngest national leaders in the world, Kim, showed much perspicacity in eventually setting up the talks.
Having said that, New Delhi will be looking at Singapore for two key take-aways: one, how the Trump Administration, half-way through its term, deals with the issue in terms of maintaining global stability and its nuclear non-proliferation goals. Two, whether Trump’s arrangement with Pyongyang expands India’s role in the Indo-Pacific – a topic about which there is still no national consensus here.
Come Wednesday, this conundrum will be clear. And Trump the negotiator, will be judged by all the world if he is fit to rule the first among equals – the USA – in the group of nations who call themselves major powers in a multi-polar world.