In an exclusive interview with Zakka Jacob, Executive Editor, CNN-News18, Trump’s former National Security Adviser, John Bolton shares his views on the real picture of India – US ties, amid India’s ongoing standoff with China, and much more.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q – If you were advising Indian policymakers what would you tell them about how India should go about dealing with this Chinese challenge?
A – Well, I think there’s a long history of disputes about the border clashes along the border. I think, from India’s perspective, it’s important to look at this – not just in the context of India-Chinese relations but as part of the pattern of Chinese behavior on its periphery. In the east China sea, in the south China sea with respect to Vietnam and in the context of its overall military build-up, its increase in its naval forces for the first time in 500 years, its increase in its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities, offensive cyber warfare program – it’s extraordinary. These are all signs of China pushing out, reasserting itself in many respects. So, I think from India’s viewpoint there’s obviously a serious violation of the understanding that had been in a place for a long time. I think India responded in a temperate and prudent fashion but I do think and I would expect that top political-military officials are looking at this in a strategic sense and I think that’s important. I don’t think this a one-off incident.
Q – If you were to take the long view on India China conflict or even the US-China conflict that’s been going on, do you agree with the assessment that for the foreseeable future we are going to see the US and China locked in some kind of cold war much like what the US and Soviet Union were locked in through the second half of the 20th century. If you do agree with this assessment, then how countries like India should be seen as responding to the development?
A – I think it will be a period of potential confrontation. I would not myself describe it as a cold war. I think that the cold war was a particular kind of ideological struggle and China obviously has a different way of organizing itself domestically – very troubling from the US perspective. If you look at what they are doing to Hong Kong, if you look at what they are doing to Uyghurs in northwest China – their repression of religious freedom. Their external approach is very belligerent and given the strength of their economy, this is going to be a struggle that could consume much of the century.
For example, their use of what seemed to be commercial companies like Huawei and ZTE, an effort to take control of fifth-generation telecommunications systems, I think from the Chinese point of view, this is well thought out over a long period of time and I think those who don’t particularly want to be in a China-dominated world have to think strategically in response. So, for example, there have been consultations already, trilateral consultation between Japan, India, and the United States, Australia and Singapore played a role there as many of the other nations of Southeast Asia. I think that’s the way India should look at it. If there is a broader effort by China to assert its interest to perhaps see hegemony on the Asia landmass, I think India needs to look at this bigger problem too.
Q – In your time in office particularly around the Balakot airstrikes and you’ve written a little bit about this in your book and even before that when Uri happened. Was there a sense, did you get the feeling that things would slip out of hand between India and Pakistan? Was there any intervention that was made from the US side at that time? More importantly, how was it for you for the 2 years when you were there dealing with the new Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, what was your impression of working with him?
A – Well we were certainly willing at the beginning to give him the benefit of the doubt he came with enormous domestic popularity. The US obviously has its own distinct interest in Pakistan because of the conflict in Afghanistan and the assistance that ISI and other parts of the Pakistani military have given the Taliban and the other terrorist groups over the years but we thought that it was possible that Imran Khan would be able to make some changes and as I say I think it’s the right thing to do give a new leader that benefit but just within the recent past he’s essentially defended Osama Bin Laden there has not been significant change in Pakistan’s behaviour with respect to Afghanistan we’re in the midst of a peace process I think is doomed to failure with the Taliban and obviously Pakistan’s connections with China, China’s efforts to extend its influence in Pakistan have continued so this is something that we do take seriously the conflict on the subcontinent is one that has a long history going back to partition but China’s involvement and I should say in the interest of full disclosure Russia’s involvement are things that concern us and any indication of a worsening India-Pakistan relationship would have implications for the United States.
Q – The public affection between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump, people believe in even comparing it to some kind of bromance. You were an insider on this particular during howdy Modi event which happened a few months ago. Publicly they are obviously very effusive in their praise for each other but does that betray a sense of hard-nosed beginnings for negotiations that happen on the inside, what was the view from the inside when it comes to India US?
A – Well President Trump doesn’t do hard-nosed bargaining because he doesn’t prepare for it. I think Prime Minister Modi has been thinking strategically from India’s perspective I think that’s the approach that he took to the United States I think it’s a reflected as well in his willingness eagerness I would say to engage in these trilateral discussions that Prime Minister of Japan has encouraged I think Modi and Trump are good politicians. I think Modi could see that when he invited Trump to the howdy Modi rally in Houston some months back and Trump showed he understands the increasing importance of the Indian American community in the United States by accepting the invitation. So I think personal relationships between the two are actually in better shape than Trump’s relationship with a lot of other democratically elected leaders but I don’t have any doubt that what we required between India and the United States are a lot more intensive strategic decisions may be at the highest political level and over a sustained period of time and if I have a regret in that respect it’s that during my tenure at the White House we didn’t do nearly as much as we should have.
Q – India is still very reluctant. India is not shedding its inhibitions about an American strategic embrace so certainly it’s not shedding it fast enough. The American diplomats, American policy makers would like India to come into America’s strategic embrace as it were faster in a much tighter way. Was that your impression also of working with Indian diplomats and the overall sense of India US?
A – Well I would say that we are eager for India to come into our strategic embrace and this has got to be an alliance. Here both sides see and understand the mutual advantages I think that in the Trump administration it’s fair to say that the economic bilateral economic issues to a much larger role than typical of how from seas much of the rest of the world and there are a lot of economic differences in trade issues that need to be resolved I don’t think that should enable the strategic dialogue I will say come back to the Russian point the history of India in reliance on Russia for sophisticated weapon system is well known. I think the purchase of the AS400 air defense system is a big problem for the United States and I think a realignment of these types of decisions would go a long way toward facilitating a better strategy corporation understand the history here I understand what does from the Indian point of view but I do think as we look at China in particular one thing to keep in mind is by the end of the century I would worry if I were a Russian I would be a lot more worried about the Chinese influence in Russian affairs than almost anything else and so I think it’s in the US interest and I believe therefore in India’s interest also to find ways to decouple Russia and China or at least prevent further increase in Russian subservience to China.
Q – You have obviously dealt with a lot of thorny issues with the Chinese whether its on trade whether it’s on Taiwan Hong Kong the south China Sea East China Sea. In your experience how does one get China to change its behaviour at least to begin to understand and respect international laws, international treaties and just international order? How did you get China to reshape its behaviour in a way that it is acceptable to the rest of the world?
A – Well I think it would start with recognizing the two foundations. I think at least of US policy I will just put that way toward China for the past almost 40 years have proven to be untrue. We believe that when Deng Xiao Pang abandoned many of the government’s Marxist principles that the increased wealth in China would have to main effects number one that China would become a more responsible stakeholder in world affairs in it would engage in a peaceful rise that’s proven to be false it’s obviously dramatically expanding the military capabilities it has not behaved responsibly in the World Trade Organisation. It continues to steal intellectual property. I think that’s one of the foundations now of its economic growth. So it has not adjusted to the rest of the world. It is relatively cynically applied to mercantilist foreign policy in the World Trade Organisation and number 2 we believed hoped that increased material wealth in China would also lead to an increase in democratic practices that democratic elections in remote villages would spread, they would move to the provincial level they’d move to the national level that’s obviously the opposite of what’s happened. Xi Jinping is the most authoritarian leader since Mao Zeitung and that’s had an effect dramatically inside China but internationally as well. So we need new foundations for our basic policy and I think we come to this late we have missed a lot of opportunities we didn’t see the signs emerging of China’s the increase belligerence in China’s own behavior but I think in the US in Western Europe and another country is a perception is changing dramatically and I think that’s one reason by we need to have more discussions with India to see how your perception is aligned with ours.
Q – In your assessment, what would be the legacy of Trump’s presidency particularly on the foreign policy? The Trump administration has been very insular, some of its foreign policies have been damaging to American standings in the rest of the world and how would it change come November if there were to be a new president in the White House?
A – Well I think the record would be very mixed. I think it is a positive development to get out of the failed Iran nuclear deal. I think as part of the change in attitude toward China you can see a difference in the trade relationship but I think there are many opportunities that were missed and I think there’s going to be a substantial conversation about America’s role in the world after November whether Trump wins or loses.
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