The spectacular headline-hogging victory of billionaire tycoon and reality TV star Donald Trump, who took charge as the 45th president of the US on January 20, has unsettled the global consensus about America’s leadership and position in a conflicted and mutating world order. His flamboyant personality, schooled in real estate and entertainment business, coupled with his blunt talk on a host of sensitive subjects has sent ripples of anxiety across the world about what it means to have Trump as the president of the world’s most powerful democracy and the largest economy, armed with the globe’s most powerful military machine and nuclear arsenal.
Nearly all parts of the world, impacted by the US’ policies directly or indirectly, are speculating feverishly about the ramifications of the Trump presidency. The dominant sentiments are that of anxiety, befuddlement, uncertainty and unpredictability. These disparate worries and apprehensions can be coalesced and crystallised in the Trump Anxiety Index (TIA), which will rise and decrease in proportion to the policy and postures his presidency will adopt towards major cross-cutting issues.
Negatively, Trump has become synonymous with populism, nationalism, isolationism, signalling the ascendance of alt-right forces not just in America, but across large swathes of the world. In the new lexicon of Trump-phobia, Trump has come to mean anti-immigrants, anti-Muslims, anti-trade and anti-military alliances. Positively, Trump is hailed as anti-radical Islam, anti-terror and anti-IS.
There was hardly any significant statement in Trump’s Jan 20 inauguration speech on America’s leadership in the world, except some terse remarks about reinforcing old alliances and forming new ones; and his clarion call for eradicating Radical Islamic Terrorism from the face of the earth. But this is only going to fuel more speculation as the world’s most powerful nation hardly has any luxury to disengage. The Trump anxiety has been especially acute in the arena of foreign policy and the implications of his presidency for the global geopolitical and economic order. Right now, it’s all speculation and there are more questions than answers.
Why India isn’t worried?
The questions are proliferating by the day, but the Trump anxiety is more pronounced in some countries and regions of the world. On a scale of 1 to 10 on Trump Anxiety Index, China, Mexico and Pakistan will score high, maybe 7-8. By contrast, India scores low, maybe 3-4.
Why India is not so much worried about the Trump presidency? The answer to this all-important question is not all that esoteric. While there is some speculation about a possible reset in India-US relations in some areas, the picture is largely positive and optimistic, and it won’t be an exaggeration to say that there will be more continuity than disruption and potential subversion.
India’s confidence emanates from the dramatic transformation of the India-US relationship in the last 12 years since the summer of 2005 when the trailblazing nuclear deal, in one masterstroke, turned estranged democracies into engaged democracies. This transformation has not been personality-driven (although George Bush Jr played a starring role, and Barack Obama sustained the momentum, calling the India-US relationship the defining partnership of the 21st century), but has enjoyed a robust bipartisan consensus. There has been a steady and calibrated acceleration in India-US relations across the spectrum. India-US bilateral trade has scaled up to $108 billion, with agricultural trade alone accounting for $6 billion. People-to-people ties are on an upswing, with the US issuing 1.1 million visas to Indians last year. The US and India engage on just about every issue and area under the sun, with more than 35 dialogue mechanisms. The 365-member India Caucus is the single largest such grouping in the US Congress, which is dedicated to developing the India-US relations.
The legacy, in so far as the India-US relations is concerned, which Trump inherits from his predecessors is therefore rock-solid and variegated, and there does not seem to be any provocation to alter this edifice, except to make it stronger.
The View from Washington
The initial messaging from Trump and his key Cabinet nominees has also been largely positive. In his campaign speeches, if there is one country Trump had spoken favourably about it was India. Christening himself as “a big fan of India,” Trump said in a speech on October 16, 2016: “I look forward to working with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has been very energetic in reforming India’s bureaucracy. Great man. I applaud him…” In the same speech, he famously said: “If I’m elected President, the Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House. That I can guarantee you.” Ahead of the presidential inauguration, Trump’s nominee for Defence Secretary’s post, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis struck an upbeat note on scaling up defence relations, a crucial area that saw a dramatic acceleration in the last year of the Obama presidency with the US designating India as a “Major Defence Partner.” Gen (retd) Mattis has identified building stronger ties with India as of “utmost importance,” and underlined that if confirmed, he would identify areas where India and the US could further bolster their defence ties. “The US policy should continue to pursue a long-term strategic relationship with India based on a convergence of our interests and our shared democratic values,” he said.
These are reassuring signals that the India-US relations will broadly continue on an upward trajectory under the Trump presidency. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his part, remains resolutely optimistic. “With the United States, our actions have brought speed, substance and strength to the entire spectrum of economic, business, commercial, and security engagement,” he said at an international conference in New Delhi recently. “In my conversation with President-elect Donald Trump, we agreed to keep building on these gains in our strategic partnership,” he said.
This optimism has, however, to be tempered by possible recalibration in areas of crucial interest to India. The uncertainty is primarily in the economic arena – India’s IT industry will suffer adversely if Trump goes ahead with his campaign pronouncements of scrapping or dramatically reducing H1 B visas. The fear of rising protectionism under Trump’s watch is a source of worry among India Inc. Trump, the master of the art of the deal, could also be more transactional and demand more concessions in areas of market access and intellectual property rights. There are signals that the Trump administration may offer a bilateral trade deal, and if Indian negotiators play it well, it could turn out to be win-win.
India, US and the world
The big-ticket game is, however, going to unfold in the geopolitical and geostrategic arena, with spiralling anxiety about the Trump administration’s postures on the Iran nuclear deal and the Asia-Pacific strategy.
The China Factor: There has been some loose talk of Trump rolling back Obama’s Asia pivot strategy and reducing its military footprint in the Asia-Pacific region and around South China Sea. But the latest statements from Trump’s key Cabinet nominees suggest otherwise. Trump’s phone call to Taiwan’s President was not an innocuous one, but a well-thought out strategy to rile China and indicated that the incoming administration will play hardball on One-China policy, with an eye on extracting concessions from Beijing in the realm of trade and market access. There is a lot of speculation about a possible trade war with China, but they seem to be vastly exaggerated as the economies of the US and China remain incestuously interlocked. It’s possible that if the US-China relations worsen, India could gain as the world’s two largest economies court the world’s fastest growing economy with more ardour. There is a window of opportunity here if India plays its cards well, and position itself as a major power in some kind of G3 – it’s a fraught gamble, but worth a try.
Iran deal: India has some legitimate worries if the Trump administration scraps the Iran deal or put it in a limbo as such a move will jeopardise its ambitious plans for recalibrating India-Iran ties and enhanced access to Central Asia and Afghanistan through Chabahar port.
Pakistan & terrorism: For New Delhi, enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation remains a top priority. India will be carefully watching the Trump administration’s stance on Pakistan and Pakistan-origin terrorism. Trump is expected to be tough on terrorism, Islamic radicalism and the Islamic State, as underlined in his inauguration speech in which he has vowed to unite the civilized world to eliminate radical Islamic extremism from the face of the earth. But New Delhi will be carefully watching if the same zeal will be applied to tacking Pakistan-origin terrorism and whether the Trump administration will continue with the failed policy of providing aid to Pakistan, which has been brazenly misused for bolstering anti-India terrorism infrastructure.
US-Russia reset: On the positive side, the much-discussed US-Russia reset works for India as it gives it more room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis its two leading strategic partners without getting into zero sum games.
Making America & India Great Again?
Looking ahead, the picture for India-US relations is largely optimistic, albeit the road ahead is fraught with some challenges and imponderables. Both George Bush Junior and President Obama had raised the bar for what the latter has called “the defining partnership of the 21st century,” and it is now up to President Trump to seize the initiative and leave his indelible imprimatur on this important relationship. Trump’s dream of Making America Again should blend with continued support for India’s rise, the ongoing project of making India great again. The hesitations of history, as PM Modi famously said, are well behind us, and it’s time for the world’s largest democracies to compose a new symphony amid challenges, uncertainty and free-floating anxiety.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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