India-US relations and engaging with Trump

Ivanka Trump jointly inaugurated the GES Summit in Hyderabad (November 28-29) along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and she lauded the latter for his phenomenal rise. Modi had invited Ivanka during his US visit in June 2017. The US President’s daughter and Adviser was quick to accept the invite, and tweeted:

Thank you, Prime Minister Modi, for inviting me to lead the U.S. delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India this fall.

During her address, Ivanka also highlighted India’s economic achievements in recent years, while also praising the country’s democratic credentials.

Said Trump:

‘You are celebrating it as the world’s largest democracy, and one of the fastest growing economies on earth…Through your own enterprise, entrepreneurship, and hard work, the people of India have lifted more than 130 million citizens out of poverty – a remarkable improvement, and one I know will continue to grow under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi.’

Why India reached out to Ivanka

By reaching out to Ivanka Trump, India has done the right thing, given the fact that all countries – including China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea – have realized the importance of business interests, as well as personalized diplomacy with Trump.

Every country has to recognize its own interests, and the Trump Administration has been quite vocal on a number of issues including its tough stance on terrorism emanating from Pakistan, as well as a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific. The US President, during his recent visit to Asia used the expression Indo-Pacific on more than one occasion (as opposed to the earlier expression Asia Pacific), while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also spoken for a greater role for India in Asia Pacific. China took strong exception to the usage of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as opposed to Asia Pacific.

It is important however to bear a few points

First of all, while those who support Trump praise him for being a realist, at times what is dubbed as his transactionalism is a bit too simplistic. The US President is also not just unpredictable, but fickle. While some unpredictability is good, there are limits to this. Trump’s approach towards China, as well as other serious issues is a strong reiteration of his fickleness. While during his election campaign he used harsh language for Beijing, said Trump during an election rally in 2016:

‘We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what we’re doing.’

The warm reception he received in China was enough for Trump, to not only praise the Chinese, but even criticize previous US governments. While he lambasted Pakistan in a speech in August, a few weeks later he was all praise for the Pakistan army, after it helped in rescuing an American-Canadian couple who had been kidnapped by the Haqqani terrorist network. While rigidity is not good in diplomacy, and election campaigns do not translate into policy actions, it is important to understand the broad thrust of the US foreign policy.

It is not just policy issues, but even his relations with key members of his cabinet which are important to watch. The latest instance being of Rex Tillerson, the aforementioned Secretary of State who has tried to adopt a more realistic stance on issues like Iran. If Tillerson is changed as is being speculated, other countries who have built a strong rapport with him and sought to understand his orientation will need to now start from scratch.

Second, Trump is more inward looking than earlier Presidents, and that is advantageous for China in the strategic sphere, especially in the context of Asia.

While the Chinese will humor him through sweeteners such as FDI commitment, and this will help in influencing not just Trump, but even some of his key advisers like Jared Kushner, ultimately Beijing will have the last laugh in the strategic sphere, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. A number of countries in ASEAN have already subtly expressed their reservations with regard to Trump’s isolationist approach towards not only Asia but the rest of the world.

Third, unlike his predecessors, including Obama, Trump has no strong convictions with regard to democracy. While it is true that every country should see its own interests, a lot of countries have been more comfortable with the US because of the emphasis it places on democracy and civil liberties. During his recent visit to Myanmar for instance, Tillerson did refer to the Rohingya Issue, and the need for the NLD government to ensure the well being of the Rohingya committee.

Democracy and plural values drive the bilateral relationship between many countries , and in the context of India and the US, these should not be kept out. If Trump is totally indifferent to the nature of regimes, there is not much to distinguish the US from China, and American indifference towards issues such as democracy and civil liberties will only reduce an important component of its Soft Power.

What India needs to do

It is thus important for India to use innovative ways for reaching out to Trump, but also have a clear stand on key foreign policy issues. The Quad alliance (US, Japan, Australia and India), for instance, is important with Japan and Australia taking a clear stance against Chinese expansionist tendencies. While the US is part of this alliance, it is tough to predict whether the Trump Administration will really play a pro-active role, especially if Beijing objects to the alliance.

Similarly, India is doing the correct thing by maintaining an independent stance on Iran given its own strategic and economic interests. The Chabahar Port Project, which India is funding, is India’s gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan, and by going ahead with the project even with the souring of ties between Washington and Tehran it has sent a clear message that it will not blindly tow Washington’s line.

In conclusion, while New Delhi has to see to its own interests, and explore synergies with the Trump Administration, there are likely to be some significant challenges given Trump’s simplistic approach towards complex issues, and the lack of any sort of consistency.

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