Donald Trump and India: President-elect's hawkish views on China bode well for us
The question in this part of the world is, how will a Trump presidency affect India?
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections came as a total surprise not just for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, but even many of his supporters. If rumours are to be believed, Trump himself was in a subdued mood the whole evening until Florida turned in his favour. News of his success has been met with what can only be described as a meltdown among his detractors across the political spectrum. To be fair, Trump is certainly not the first unqualified occupant of the Oval Office; he may not even be the least qualified. The reason we feel his victory to be an affront to civilisation is that he is boorish — insouciantly and publicly. Trump is an indication of all that is broken with America, not in just that people would vote for him but that they would be angry enough with the ‘establishment’ to even consider such an obviously unfit character.
Given the United States' military and economic reach, Trump’s victory will undoubtedly affect the world but thankfully less so than ordinary Americans. The question in this part of the world is, how will a Trump presidency affect India?
With its quasi-pivot to Asia, the United States has been heavily involved with several countries in India’s vicinity. Washington’s ties with Delhi have also gone from strength to strength since the George W Bush administration. Despite ebbs and flows, an Indo-US partnership has become a bipartisan issue. Nonetheless, Delhi and Washington have had difficulty seeing eye-to-eye on several points of mutual interest due to differing priorities. There is room for cautious optimism that Indo-US goals will align further under President Trump.
Trump is probably the first tenant of the White House who has had no experience whatsoever in public office, be it as a small town mayor, in the military, or elsewhere. As such, he comes to office with no ideological baggage – one wonders if he has even seriously thought about some of America’s challenges to have definitive views on them. Even during the primaries and campaign, the then presidential candidate's responses to questions could only be described as abstract expressionism. In such an environment, it is difficult to predict what policies Trump will pursue.
There have been, however, a couple of motifs that have been consistent in his messaging. For example, he has repeatedly hinted at mending relations with Russia. According to Trump, the United States has been fighting an old Cold War they understand rather than the new Cold War they are in with China on which they are yet to get a grip. This bodes well for Delhi because it stops Vladimir Putin from being nudged into the embrace of Xi Jinping. Additionally, it allows India greater room in proposing important projects like the International North-South Trade Corridor that need Moscow’s support. A less antagonised Russian bear may even prove to be a useful ally against the Taliban, the ISI, and Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.
On Pakistan, Trump has promised a far tougher stand but he will be the first American president to deliver on such a promise. Despite several scholars disproving the mistaken American belief that the US ‘needs’ Pakistan in that region, influential elements in the US government have been reluctant to jettison Islamabad even after many provocations. While a realistic US appraisal of Pakistan is something to look forward to, its historical probability is low.
There is a concern that the United States will shun their alliance responsibilities under Trump. This has been the indication with not just Nato but also in East Asia. However, the president-elect called the South Korean premier soon after the election results were confirmed to assure her of America’s continued support. In all likelihood, Trump would just like to see America's allies pull their weight a bit more. This is a complaint Washington has had for a long time, though what exactly pulling their weight would entail in terms of increased independence from alliance policies was never clear.
Trump’s hawkish views on China reinforce the belief that he will not abandon US allies in the region. Admittedly, he has veered away from the traditional US course of discouraging independent nuclear arsenals. Yet this would also require willingness from the other side to embark on such an ambitious and politically fraught programme, something both sides may be able to ultimately avoid.
The future of trade pacts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and TPIP are also unsure. They have been on weak legs even before the US election season but the incoming president's hostility to them is well known. He would either let negotiations lapse or at best reopen the technical aspects of the treaty for further discussions, thereby punting the TPP's coming into force down a few years until the end of his term or into his second term. Either way, this is good tidings for India, who would lose billions standing outside the pact. It allows Delhi's mandarins time to strategise a response, be it via joining the trade pact or bracing for the fallout by negotiating free trade agreements of its own.
Another area of concern is Trump’s belief that Iran got off too lightly in the nuclear deal negotiated last year. He has done both, threatened to tear up the agreement and police it closely too. If Iran is baited out of the deal by an obstructionist Trump White House, it is not sure how much support from the world community further sanctions on Iran will have. This could get thorny for India but this is not a purely Trump problem — Republicans have been saying similar things ever since negotiations began. India will have to persuade its American partner of the wisdom of restraint and the favourable ripples it could have in other hotspots such as Syria.
The most visible feature of Indo-US relations — arms sales and joint military exercises — will most certainly not go wanting. Defence stocks are up in the United States after Trump’s victory as the budgetary cuts enacted by his predecessor are thought to be on the chopping block. Foreign sales will make domestic defence spending more affordable and India is keen to modernise its military. Beyond the monetary aspect, it also makes little sense for the United States to plan a more robust policy in East Asia while discouraging local partners to take a more proactive role in what will always primarily be their security. Washington’s most reliable partners will be those most concerned and powerless in the face of China's rise, the states around the Indo-Pacific Ocean rim and warmer relations with Russia will not be of much use here.
Perhaps the greatest tussle will be over the economy, but that is also a mixed bag — while Trump has promised to curb immigration and slash the H1B skilled worker visas, he has also called India a land of economic opportunity and even invested in some real estate in the country. Trump will, like previous administrations, pressure India on opening up its economy further and doing more to protect intellectual property. The question is how much effort he will put into this challenging aspect of Indo-US relations.
All this assumes, of course, a certain modicum of rationality, a desire to deliver on election promises made, and a sound staff probably taken from the Bush years. But Trump is a neophyte to this stage and all bets could be off — in which case much of this speculative exercise could be just gibberish and we are in for a very bumpy ride over the next four years.
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