Donald Trump’s presidency and its implications for India

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The assumption of office by US president-elect Donald Trump on Friday and his penchant for pursuing a disruptive agenda has aroused both interest and concern globally. Some of the more recent Trump tweets that have elicited sharp responses include his characterization of NATO as ‘obsolete’ and the candid opinion he has voiced apropos German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, which he described as a “catastrophic mistake.”

Earlier there was a revisionist reference to the sanctity of the ‘one China’ policy much to Beijing’s ire and in an extraordinary development, some sections of the official media in China even referred to the possibility of a nuclear war! The Trump phase of US politics promises to be turbulent globally and bilaterally .

India, like other major powers, will have to carefully monitor how the Obama legacy morphs into the Trump inheritance and the degree to which there will be continuity in past policies and where the reset button is likely to be hit.

In the absence of a cogent policy document, one can outline broad and likely Trump policy indicators and their relevance for India. The three levels at which the impact of the Trump presidency can be reviewed are bilateral, regional and global.

At the bilateral level, some of the senior members of the Trump team who are awaiting confirmation have indicated that India will continue to be seen as a significant strategic partner of the US. The introduction of an India-specific law during the last lap of the Obama administration that enables greater defence cooperation will be nurtured, they have said.

There is anxiety that the Trump policy apropos H1-B visas for all foreign citizens seeking employment in the US will adversely impact Indian information technology professionals. The fine print of this policy change will be awaited with both anxiety and interest globally given the magnet that the world’s largest economy is for employment.

The sub-text of the US relationship with India since the nuclear rapprochement of late 2008 has been the strategic underpinning to the bilateral relationship and this is where the manner in which the Trump team defines its Asian policy will be critical for India. Here the global and geo-political regional strands coalesce and the linkages, though complex by way of the detail that envelops the country in question, are seamless in relation to the lattice they are located in. This is best illustrated in the Iran example.

Will President Trump accept ownership and build on the Obama legacy over Iran and its nuclear capability or will he completely overturn it and start anew–as he had threatened to do during the campaign?

The latter exigency will have strong regional implications that will adversely impact the current security texture and the global strategic framework. The Iran nuclear agreement–which is tenuous, impacts west and southern Asia in a complex manner and by extension has implications for the global nuclear order– or lack thereof.

Furthermore, the Iran nuclear agreement led by the US also involves the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany–interlocutors whose feathers have been differently ruffled by the Trump tweets. Linked to this is the issue of terrorism and its more visible jihadi variant as espoused by the Islamic State (IS) and the remnants of the al-Qaida which some experts say is dormant but re-grouping.

The Trump policy towards the scourge of jihadi-inspired terror will have very significant implications not just for domestic US policies (for eg. the status of US citizens of Islamic faith and the manner in which this faith is manifest—whether by way of wearing the burqa or praying in public places), but for the world at large and west/southern Asia, including Syria, in particular.

India and the US have log differed on their respective national policies towards Rawalpindi–headquarters of the Pakistan military and the locus of the latter institution in supporting terror groups against India and Afghanistan. The Obama policy was one of muted acceptance of a fait-acompli that Rawalpindi is both the problem (US troops being killed by US taxpayers’ money given as aid to the Pakistani military) and the solution–to ensure the safety of US troops stationed in Afghanistan and its periphery.

Will the Trump team led by retired general James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis radically alter the Obama orientation towards Pakistan? My sense is that this is unlikely given the depth and resilience of the US-Pakistan relationship and the linkages to China. This is the seamless aspect alluded to earlier, wherein one policy links to another in the prevailing geo-strategic lattice which is akin to a honeycomb.

The Trump policy towards China and Russia has global strategic implications with considerable relevance for India. The quadrangular relationship between Washington, Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi went through an innovative trapeze during the Cold War. Despite the zero-sum binary of the US versus the former USSR and the ‘containment of communism’, the US and China were able to forge a strategic relationship, the communist identity of Beijing notwithstanding; and a non-aligned India could tango with the former USSR to protect its core interests.

The US, Russia, China and India are now grappling with the contradictory compulsions of 21st century globalization and the Trump advocacy of ‘make America great’ will be carefully studied. Is the US likely to retreat and adopt an isolationist economic and trade policy and is this a viable option? Will the US-Russia bilateral relationship become more accommodative of Moscow’s strategic anxiety? And what of climate change? Will this also be jettisoned?

The answers to these questions will point to the contours of opportunities and challenges of what the Trump presidency will mean for India. Uncertainty is in the air.

(This article was first published at Mint and IPCS Website)