US Foreign Policy under Trump: India will have to Deal with New Pressure Points
It is not surprising that after an unusual first four weeks of an exceptionally chaotic and often inefficient Trump administration, the world is wondering how it should approach the super power, particularly in view of an unstructured, personality-driven and twitter-enhanced diplomacy.
President Donald Trump’s executive order of travel ban from the seven majority Muslim countries was not only to cause vocal dissent, both within and outside the United States, but was also to face legal obstacles. Challenging the judicial system after a three-judge federal appeals panel unanimously rejected Trump’s bid to reinstate his ban on travel, the US President intensified his attacks on the news media for spreading ‘fake news’ and for being an ‘enemy of the American people’, while he himself made several assertions with little or no supporting evidence, e.g. his recent reference to a terrorist attack in Sweden which never took place.
Not inappropriately, questions are being raised about Trump’s ability to govern given the ongoing turmoil over his executive orders and setbacks in the courts; the apparently considerable friction and infighting among senior staff within the White House (antagonists like Trump’s senior advisor Steve Bannon who echo the President’s anti-Muslim bias and anti-immigrant policies vs the pragmatists like Defense and State Secretaries James Mattis and Rex Tillerson trying to keep the American foreign policy towards China, Russia, Japan and NATO countries closer to its traditional parameters); Trump’s quick fingers tweeting confusing messages about the new administration’s policy issues; and, in the wake of Trump’s National Security Advisor nominee Michael Flynn’s resignation, a rudderless foreign policy-making machine.
No wonder, this past week the President reverted to his most successful tool, a campaign rally in Florida, practising plebiscitary politics and connecting with his base directly and continuing on the path of conflating policy and paranoia. In addition to repeating his campaign promises, among other things, of building a new border wall along the US-Mexico border, putting ‘America First’, reducing regulations and creating jobs and making America great again, he comforted himself by stating that he wanted “to be among my friends and among the people”.
While, some of the world leaders, though not sure of where President Donald Trump stands on key foreign policy questions, have been openly critical of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, tighter immigration and refugee policies, and the protectionist trade policies putting America First, India’s Narendra Modi government has followed a judicious path — remaining quiet and adopting a wait-and-watch approach.
Other than raising the issue of H1-B visas, designed to attract educated, specialised workers to the United States which would affect India’s IT industries (19 per cent of Tech Mahindra employees are located in the US., 13 per cent of Infosys and 10 per cent each of Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services), a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump after Trump’s victory, and a planned visit by Modi to the United States in June, there has not been much discussion forthcoming from the official Indian foreign policy circles about Indian foreign policy and its pursuance in the new political environment.
At this juncture of a chaotic, undefined and ad hoc American foreign policy, the Modi government faces several pressure points in the pursuance of the foreign policy which it has carefully constructed over the last almost three years. Not only have Modi and his team moved Indian foreign policy away from its traditional cognitive script of non-alignment toward multilevel alignment (pursuing a diversity of interests in diverse settings with diverse powers), they have also put the foreign policy agenda on the front burner by asserting that the government’s domestic agenda is closely related to and even contingent upon the success of a pro-active and strategically oriented foreign policy.
Consequently, India has engaged with a multiplicity of actors in a varied range of arenas and has successfully straddled what can be contradictory partners. Through largely transactional bilateral, multilateral and regional agreements on infrastructural investment, defence and civil-nuclear energy cooperation, it has continued to build strategic partnerships, for example, with the United States with whom it shares liberal democratic traditions as well as common strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region, and on the other hand, finding common ground with Russia and China where India’s interests diverge from those of the Western liberal democratic countries.
However, most significantly, the Modi government has worked hard to gain credibility abroad. The government clearly understands that India’s possibility of advancing, to quote Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, its ‘own great power prospects’ and becoming a credible leading power also means convincing other global powers, particularly China and the United States, that India can fill such a role.
To ensure consistency in its foreign policy, the Modi government will have to pay attention to three major points of pressure — its policies on terrorism, on China and on Iran.
To begin with, it cannot borrow from the Trump book an anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Modi government has persistently put forward India’s concerns about the export of terrorism, particularly from Pakistan, as a significant global agenda item in both the multilateral and bilateral contexts. Without mentioning Pakistan, Modi has been able to get several global powers (such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, Russia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore) to agree to combating terrorism as one of the major areas of cooperation between India and other countries. But India cannot be perceived in absolute terms to equate terrorism with Islam in what is widely seen to be the spirit of Trump’s own interpretation.
An encouraging piece of news from Indian official circles has been the Modi government’s open opposition to the Independent Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s bill in the Rajya Sabha to impose legal, economic and travel sanctions on citizens of countries which promote terror and to declare countries such as Pakistan a terror state. The Home Ministry very wisely pointed out that India is bound by international norms and that such a bill jeopardises international relations under the Geneva Convention.
This is a wise move not only from the international angle but this might also soften the government’s image within the domestic sector where the new proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to incorporate into law a religious test as the basis of inclusion and exclusion for refugees (the proposed Bill makes special provisions for “minority-religious individuals” — specifically Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians — from “Muslim-dominated countries” to have direct access to Indian citizenship).
With regard to the second pressure point mentioned above, India will have to make sure that it stays on track with regard to its China policy. The Trump administration, which includes several policy hawks on China with much harder line against Beijing on issues such as trade and the South China Sea, quickly made a 180 degree turn by agreeing to adhere to the One China policy. This comes after Trump had infuriated Beijing by questioning the United States’ commitment to the “One China” policy and by holding an unprecedented phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.
While the Modi government has established as one of its major foreign policy priorities the recovering of both the diplomatic and security space in its own neighbourhood which India had, over the years, voluntarily abandoned to China, it has been careful not to join Washington or any other power in a campaign to confront China militarily. While recognising it as soon-to-be the world’s leading economic power, India perceives China to be the most significant and difficult challenge within its economic and strategic policy agenda.
In order to counter China’s influence, it has successfully avoided playing a zero-sum game and devised a foreign policy strategy which could lead to a positive-sum outcome. It has actively pursued a robust pattern of military containment in the Himalayas and in the Indian Ocean and has continued to play tough with China on the border issue in order to respond to Chinese border incursions, and yet it has pursued strong diplomatic and economic engagements with China.
The third pressure point on the Modi government is strengthening India-Iran relations, particularly keeping on track the development of the Chabahar port and the triangular connectivity and energy relationship between India, Afghanistan and Iran. The Chabahar agreement has allowed India to create a strategic partnership with Iran, giving India a trade, investment and maritime foothold in the region, including Central Asian countries, and brings into play the triad of Afghanistan, Iran and India as an offset to Pakistan.
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Iran which, it said, were just initial steps and has been suggesting that more concrete action could follow if Iran does not curb its ballistic missile programme and continues support in regional proxy conflicts. To the extent that this turns out to be the case, it is bad news for India. The Modi government will have to work out an independent course for itself.