India’s relations with the United States moved in a zigzag trajectory for about four decades since India’s independence and then followed an upward trend since the beginning of the 21st century.
This is not to say that there were absolutely no ups and downs, but, by and large, the relationship in the strategic setting of the post-Cold War era became more and more cooperative. The economic ties saw better days of trade and investment cooperation, but the defence and security relationship consistently moved towards strategic partnership on key global issues and culminated during the closing weeks of the Obama administration in a substantive “defence partnership”.
Whenever there is change of guard in the White House, many countries in the world debate about the future course of their relationship with the United States. This is because of the relatively weaker role of political parties in the American political system and a stronger role of the individual under the presidential form of government. Every American president seeks to leave his mark for future historians and plays an assertive role in policy-making, particularly in the arena of foreign and national security policies. And if the individual occupying the Oval Office of the White House happens to be a person of strong personality or charisma, his years in office witness an “imperial presidency”.
Trump Presidency: Global Concerns
There are widespread concerns in the US and around the globe after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. The concerns emanate from new trends in American politics, personal traits of Trump and the kind of people he has selected to be part of his administration.
First of all, Trump happens to be the first candidate to contest and win the presidency without being an integral part of the top leadership of any political party. Secondly, he was successful in defeating about a dozen political heavyweights of the Republican Party during the nomination process, despite his reputation periodically getting a beating in the mainstream national media. Thirdly, he managed to get elected, notwithstanding his unpalatable remarks about women, minorities, neighbouring countries and strategic allies around the world. Finally, Trump turned out to be the sole president-elect who provoked a nation-wide protest march against him soon after the election results were announced.
Americans and non-Americans appear to be united, with a few exceptions, in describing the 2016 presidential outcome as unexpected. Now that the unexpected is a fait accompli, uncertainties about the next four years of Trump presidency have become the debating point everywhere. The Americans are worried about the impact of Trump administration’s policies on the education, environmental, homeland, national security and even social sectors.
All these sectors have direct implications on other countries as well. Trump’s key Cabinet members to head education, environment, energy, commerce, and other departments, including State and Defence departments, have caused consternation and bewilderment.
Trump’s Foreign Policy
The big picture coming out of the Trump Administration’s expected policies in the arena of foreign and national security is indicative of considerable transformation in the way the US has been handling world affairs. While analysing the US-India relations in the coming years, it is imperative to consider the expected approach of the Trump Administration towards regional and global issues.
First of all, the Trump Administration is, most likely, going to make common cause with Russia in handling critical issues in the Eurasian and Mediterranean region. Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will, most likely, develop a good political chemistry, and in the process could alter the very nature of US-Russia relations. The US-Russia relationship can be expected to move from a fiercely competitive mode to selective cooperative model in the near future. The resurgence of Russia as a key player in Eurasia and the inability of the Obama Administration to prevent Russia’s assertive moves in Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria probably will lead to a new approach under the Trump Administration. Washington and Moscow will work towards common goals such as combating radical Islam and nuclear proliferation.
Secondly, Washington’s relations with China will be navigating through considerable political turbulence in the Asia-Pacific region. Trump’s telephonic conversations with Taiwanese President, his complaints against Chinese aggressive activities in the South China Sea, indigestible trade deficit of the US vis-à-vis China due to perceived Chinese unfair trade practices and China’s hesitation to sternly deal with North Korean mulishness will intensify cold confrontation between the declining superpower and a rising superpower.
New War on Terror?
Thirdly, Trump would most likely translate his campaign promises to robustly handle Islamic extremism, and this could lead to some audacious American role in the Middle East/Af-Pak region. Trump has not hidden his disdain for Islamic terrorists. He has gone to the extent of banning Muslim immigration from areas known to be the playground of extremists. In early days of his administration, banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries clearly indicated that what Trump promised during his campaign would not be just rhetoric.
However, Trump would need cooperation from moderate Islamic countries in the fight against extremism. He would also most likely befriend some Sunni Muslim countries to implement his tough policy toward the Iranian nuclear programme.
Moreover, about one-fifth of the 98 banned terrorist organisations have turned the Af-Pak region into their habitat. How Trump would combat the growing ISIS presence in the region and the resilient Taliban would directly impact India.
Fourthly, the US’ relations with strategic allies will move into uncharted waters in view of Trump’s desire to extract more money from them, in exchange of providing security. When Trump emphasised during the campaign that NATO is not equipped to fight the present day enemy, the US should not provide security to Japan and South Korea on the cheap and that Tokyo and Seoul could develop their own nuclear weapons to fend for their security, the world was aghast. While President Trump has distanced himself to a certain extent on these issues and has assured allies continuity in the broad US engagement with them, the apprehension in the allied countries about the uncertainty of the US strategic umbrella over them, has not disappeared.
Trump apparently is not in favour of his country playing the role of a global policeman. If so, America’s relations with traditional alliance partners will change its course. His team of advisors understands that China does not have military parity with the US and that Russia still retains the capability to pose an existential threat to the US. Befriending Russia would thus be safer, and containing Chinese aggressiveness could be managed without resorting to traditional alliance politics.
Geopolitics of Trade Deals
Fifth, the Trump Administration would most likely walk out of major sub-regional and multilateral trade deals. Trump has already issued an executive order, withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Other changes, as a result, can be expected in the global economic governance and US foreign economic policies. The withdrawal of the US from TPP has apparently pleased the Chinese, but it has raised questions about the level of the US engagement in the Asia-Pacific. Likewise, Trump would not back similar trade deals, attempted by his predecessor, with Trans-Atlantic partners. His remarks on the EU, support for Brexit and his administration’s protectionist economic policies have already indicated turbulence in Trans-Atlantic relations. The EU leaders, particularly France and Germany, have started preparations to keep the EU united and devise a new defence and security policy for the region in the light of signals emanating from the Trump administration. Trump’s unhappiness with NAFTA, determination to build a wall along the US-Mexican border and political differences with the Mexican government are indicative of an alternative approach by Trump towards the neighbouring countries.
Last but not least, the Trump administration would do little to implement the climate initiatives taken by the Obama Administration. Trump is expected to give priority to US industrial growth, even at the cost of environment. His support to coal miners, his approach towards the Wall Street, immigration policy, steps against outsourcing companies, and financial deregulations signal that the new administration would compromise on climate issues and focus on economic growth and job creation.
Trump & India What to Expect
All these big foreign policy issues will certainly have direct and indirect implications for India-US relations during the course of the Trump administration. There are many areas of global commons where the position of India and the US have converged in recent years. If the Trump Administration seeks to alter the US’ position on such issues, as for example, the climate issue and the broad agreement arrived at the last Paris meet, how India would react is to be seen. Will India itself withdraw from its commitment made on carbon emission and clean energy generation? Will India team up with stakeholders and support the idea of going ahead with the Paris Agreement with or without the US participation? These are questions whose answers are too early to predict.
While the India-US relations have come a long way from the difficult decades of the Cold War and reached an advanced level of strategic partnership in the last 15 years or so, the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s possible policy moves on economic, trade, national security and diplomatic areas have sparked an intense debate in the strategic community in India. The key issues that will have a bearing on the trajectory of the India-US relationship under the Trump administration, from New Delhi’s point of view, can be summarised as follows:
Make in India
Will Trump lend his support to the Modi government’s signature initiative, ‘Make in India’? While Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE systems are keen to take advantage of participating in “co-production and co-development” of military equipment and locate facilities in India to boost the “Make in India” initiative, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, if implemented in letter and spirit, could pose a roadblock.
H-1B visa: India is watching…
Indian IT companies such as Infosys, Wipro and TCS have been operating in the American market successfully for years. The H1B visa policy planned by Trump threatens to shrink the scope and extent of this market, adversely affecting the Indian companies that have invested huge amount of money in the US, and have also created thousands of jobs in that country. The proposal to raise the minimum wage of workers holding H1B visa is aimed at discouraging companies from hiring foreign workers and facilitating job creation at home. Will this very seriously impact Indian IT companies to an extent that would force the Indian government to intervene? And if so, will H1B visa issue become a serious irritant in India-US relations? The maiden speech by Trump to the US Congress, in which he spoke about merit-based immigration, indicates that some mid-way solution can be found.
Trade and Investment
While Trump has expressed his liking for India, and has made critical remarks about Pakistan and China, this needs to be translated into action. Any policy initiatives, based on a protectionist paradigm, can obstruct the expansion of trade and investment ties between India and the US. While the Obama Administration spoke about raising the Indo-US trade to $500 billion, there are reports about the Trump administration aiming at raising this to $300 billion in the next four years. All these would, however, remain on paper if the “Make in India” initiative of the current government faces unacceptable hurdles due to protectionist US policies.
Curbing Terror & Pakistan
How Trump translates his promises to fight terrorism would greatly impact the India-US relations in the defence and security sectors of cooperation. The Modi government has made combating terrorism a top priority and Trump has also promised to do so. This could actually boost strategic trust and cooperation between the two countries to a very high level, if only the existing counter-terror cooperation is scaled up and results in new concrete initiatives. In this connection, Trump’s telephonic conversation with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif initially raised questions in India. Islamabad will certainly try to play into the US vulnerabilities in Afghanistan and seek the US’ intervention on the Kashmir issue. If Pakistan succeeds in doing that, it would spell high risk for India and its relationship with the US.
However, the telephonic conversation between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi has raised hopes of continuing trustful ties between India and the US. What it adds up to is that the Trump administration would stay away from raising the Kashmir issue, despite Islamabad’s hardsell. There is least likelihood of Trump dumping Pakistan due to compulsions in Afghanistan, but the level of US-Pakistan cooperation along that front would certainly influence the level of trust between Washington and New Delhi on counter-terrorism cooperation.
The China Factor
Trump’s China policy will certainly impact all the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, and its impact on India need to be carefully monitored. Many argue that Trump, the businessman and the dealmaker, would ultimately settle for profit and refrain from quarreling with China on critical issues such as South China Sea. But critics may actually go wrong. There is a large possibility of US-China relations frequently getting into rough weather in the coming years. Trump wants to make America great again. China is the main rival that aspires to bring the US position in the world down and push itself into the top of the hierarchy. If Trump gives priority to his principal campaign agenda, the US-China tension over a host of economic, security and political issues simply cannot be brushed aside.
Trump’s complaint against high tariff imposed by China on imports, reclamation of land and construction of military facilities in South China Sea, his conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and more recently standing by the US-Japan alliance treaty to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the wake of conflict with China are early pointers to difficult times ahead.
The challenge for India, then, would be to carefully navigate in the turbulent waters of Sino-US relations.
The Road Ahead
So far, Trump has made many positive remarks about India, has made several complaints against the Chinese policies and has shown his determination to crush Islamic extremism.
Since about 20 percent of organisations, designated as terrorist organisations by the US, happen to be located in the Af-Pak region, the US-Pakistan relations cannot be trouble-free.
The strategic scenario in the region provides a fertile ground for India-US ties to flourish, but Washington and New Delhi need to tread carefully, keeping in mind each other’s concerns.
It is significant to note that Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s envoy Tariq Fatimi spent many days in the US recently, but failed to get an audience with the Trump team. On the other hand, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval succeeded in meeting key figures of the Trump transition team within weeks of Trump’s election victory. Current signals indicate that the Indo-US ties under the Trump Administration will face no major difficulties galvanising the emerging strategic partnership between the two countries. But it is better to wait and watch in view of the paradigm change, expected in the ways the US engages the world under the Trump Presidency.
(Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra is Rector of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University)
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