India has an opportunity, and should seize it, without delay or any hedging. This does not mean going along with whatever President Trump says. If he wishes to pursue an “America First” policy, India pursuing an “India First” policy is a logical response. India, therefore, should build long-lasting coalitions with like-minded nations, such as Japan or UK, without unduly annoying USA.
India does have many major pending issues with its neighbours, especially with Pakistan, which is an ‘ally’ of the US, but none of those issues are of much interest to USA…
The visit of the Secretary of Defence of USA, Ashton Carter, to India – fourth in the recent past, and just before he demitted office – generated many questions and less answers. The frowns of puzzlement gathered furrows on the foreheads of many a strategist, since the Democrats were going out of power and White House was to be occupied by Donald Trump, a predictably unpredictable President. One wonders why the special attention, since India continues to fight shy to be labelled as an US ally, though it is the largest importer of US military equipment. India does have many major pending issues with its neighbours, especially with Pakistan, which is an ‘ally’ of the US, but none of those issues are of much interest to USA; the balance of relations between India and countries of the Middle East, another perpetual trouble spot, also has not created any problems for USA. Why, then, this continuing interest in India, at a time when Carter was the outgoing official, and the world was trying to guess the forthcoming policies of the new government?
One needs to study the relations of ‘estranged democracies’ to comprehend the course that the bilateral relations are following today.
From 1947 to 1999, US-India relations followed a sine curve with many vicissitudes. The Cold War period saw India and USA having widely divergent views about their national security interests. India was never on the US radar for any assistance, except for a short period during the early 1960s. The general distrust of India and Indians continued through the decades with USA trying to fathom the Indian policy of non-alignment, and its affinity towards socialism.
The 1971 Indo-Pak conflict probably marked the lowest point in the Indo-US relations. The recently declassified documents of the Nixon era throw light on some important decisions taken during that period. In the months preceding and during the Indo-Pak war, the US administration supported Pakistan, contrary to advice by its foreign service. Immediately after the war, however, it set about trying to mend its relations with India. The ceasefire and the birth of Bangladesh can, therefore, viewed as a turning point in Indo-US relations.
In the 21st century, Indian foreign policy has sought to leverage India’s strategic autonomy to safeguard own sovereign rights and promote national interests within a multi-polar world.
The process of engaging India once again suffered a setback, after India conducted nuclear tests; the bonhomie picked up steam under President Clinton and accelerated further under George Bush and Barack Obama. India is now firmly on the American radar as a growing regional power. The new stance on the part of USA has not come about overnight. It has evolved after careful studies of the Indian economic growth, the support that India offered on the US declaration of its policy on national missile defence and 9/11. Apart from these reasons, there are other strategic and economic grounds which affect US interests, and rightly so too, for no country would move to support another without having carefully considered the advantages to itself, of such a move.
The Indian foreign policy pundits, with some deft moves, adapted to a uni-polar world after the end of the Cold War. In the 21st century, Indian foreign policy has sought to leverage India’s strategic autonomy to safeguard own sovereign rights and promote national interests within a multi-polar world. USA, under the previous two regimes of Presidents Bush and Obama, recognised India’s core national interests and acknowledged its unresolved issues with neighbours and within the region. This acceptance was heretofore missing, and, hence, well appreciated by the Indian governments, especially under the current dispensation. India and USA continue to differ on a variety of regional issues; India’s cordial relations with Iran and Russia are not well appreciated in American government as also the foreign policy disagreements relating to its neighbours in South Asia; nevertheless, relations between the two nations have continued to grow.
There have been rifts between the two nations on economic issues as well. India criticised President Obama’s decision to limit H-1B (temporary) visas; India’s then Minister of External Affairs, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, (now the President of India) opposed US “protectionism” at various international forums. In May 2009, President Obama reiterated his anti-outsourcing views and criticised the US tax policy “that says you should pay lower taxes if you create a job in Bangalore in India, than if you create one in Buffalo, New York.” Notwithstanding, India and the US share an extensive and expanding cultural, strategic, military, and economic relationship, which is in the phase of implementing confidence building measures (CBM) to overcome the legacy of trust deficit.
President Trump has entered office at a time of dynamic change, not only in US political and economic life, but also in the structure of the international system.
There are apprehensions on the future of Indo-US relations, now that President Obama has handed over the reins of the country. President Trump, in a vitriolic campaign against Ms Hillary Clinton, which ended in his victory, had many a ‘promise’ to further his protectionist ideology, get more jobs for Americans, and ‘make America great again’, being the main theme. Despite his announcements during the campaign, many of his Indian-American supporters believe that the relationship is destined to see better days.
Trump and Indo-US Relations
During the early stage of the Republican primaries when Indian diplomats spoke to senior US administration members or prominent intelligentsia, Donald Trump’s chances to win the party’s nomination were emphatically denied. How wrong were they proven! Trump’s presidential oath on 20 Jan 2017, has marked the beginning of a new era in America’s foreign, economic, and domestic policies. Today, all of President Trump’s executive orders, are being discussed not just in USA, but the world over; people get together and discuss issues, or write reports/opinions, with a seriousness as if the world is coming to an end and it is only their suggestions that can save the world!
President Trump has entered office at a time of dynamic change, not only in US political and economic life, but also in the structure of the international system. At this point, how he plans to manage and channel changes underway within the United States is somewhat clear, at least in its broad strokes. By comparison, how his administration will approach the US foreign policy, following through on some of his less orthodox suggestions, is unknown. Not many concrete policy proposals about the approach to South Asia have been spoken about, though some campaign statements, reports on his telephone calls to the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and of India, do offer a window to his approach. A new foreign policy for the United States with both China and Russia though can help guess what a Trump administration might mean for India.
President Trump has criticized Asian economies like China, Japan, and Korea for cheating America through currency manipulation or bad trade practices; India was one of the few countries that escaped his wrath!
President Barack Obama and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared more of a personal friendship developed through an investment of tremendous amounts of time and political capital to improve the bilateral relationship. There is no reason that Trump and Modi cannot find similar success. Trump has called Modi a “great man” and has repeatedly expressed an interest in working closely with India. He has also emphasised that “there won’t be any relationship more important to us”, than the one with India. President Trump may well prefer maintaining friendship over principle, which could work to India’s liking; there, however, could be bumps along the road.
Pursuance of ‘America for Americans’ policies, as has been indicated by a spate of announcements on the Mexico Wall, H-1B visas, import taxes on US companies and others, would probably raise doubts on the reliability of USA as a partner, under Donald Trump. Similarly, his belligerent telephone calls with the President of Mexico and the PM of Australia, imposing fresh sanctions on Iran after the missile test, and the talk of lifting sanctions against Russia, do give a give an indication of the path of his foreign policy. Some of Trump’s views could directly undermine India’s interests and the cooperation Modi secured with Obama. For instance, climate and energy cooperation were top priorities for both Obama and Modi, about which he has spoken in derogatory terms. What happens to that legacy if Trump backs away from those commitments and rejects the Paris agreement, as is expected?
President Trump has criticized Asian economies like China, Japan, and Korea for cheating America through currency manipulation or bad trade practices; India was one of the few countries that escaped his wrath! However, India will not be able to get away from the negative impacts of the trade policies that he had proposed during his campaign, and if implemented. In 2015, India had a positive trade balance of $23 billion with USA. That number will diminish if fresh US policies erect trade walls. Just as India is on the cusp of gaining benefit from greater integration with the global economy, Trump’s actions could depress already sluggish global trade and growth.