Ashley Tellis, a Mumbai-born scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is an authoritative voice on India-US ties and is tipped to be Donald Trump’s envoy to New Delhi.
India will hope his appointment will come through, not only because he has been a consistent advocate of close ties but also because he has offered firm public advice to Trump about the need for continuity in policy towards Delhi.
In an article in Asia Policy this month, that largely reads like the statement he may present at (potential) confirmation hearings, Tellis underlines yet again where India’s fits in the American calculus. Going back to George W Bush’s administration, he says “rapprochement with India was premised on the assumption that the principal strategic problem facing both countries consisted of the rise of China and the threat it posed to both US primacy and Indian security.” To tackle this, Washington would remain “the ultimate guarantor of Asian security” building collaborative partnerships in the region – and it would strengthen India’s power “without any expectations of strict reciprocity because New Delhi’s expanding capabilities—insofar as they could help limit Chinese ambitions—advanced the United States’ larger geopolitical objectives in Asia and globally.”
Tellis says that Trump’s views on India are “probably unsettled” but reckons that the new President’s “iconoclastic convictions” about US’ relationship with the world can be a “potential threat” to the continuing transformation of bilateral ties that was seen during the Bush II and Barack Obama’s administrations. Trump is unhappy with the international order, he wants allies to take on more burden sharing in security matters, he wants to renegotiate trade deals as part of his ‘America first strategy’ and seeks to avoid military intervention generally. Tellis writes that US’ allies are currently unable to protect the liberal international order by themselves and if Washington scales back from efforts to balance China then it will undermine its own global primacy. “An Asia in which the United States ceases by choice to behave like a preponderant power is an Asia that will inevitably become a victim of Chinese hegemony,” he warns.
Tellis therefore reiterates that Trump must continue the Bush and Obama administrations’ policies of strengthening Indian powers “sans symmetric reciprocity”. Some Indian analysts would contest that there was no transactional dimension to bilateral ties but Tellis argues that US policy has been guided by a “calculated altruism” exemplified by the nuclear deal, support for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council, expanding access to dual use technologies, and championing India’s membership in the governing institutions of the global non-proliferation regimes. For Trump to shift to a strict transactionalism with India, on say issues like trade, would in his entail losing an opportunity to “preserve an advantageous Asian balance of power”. Tellis says that moving away from Washington’s existing approaches to India can “resuscitate a new version of non-alignment” that could lead either to greater intra-Asian balancing vis-à-vis China or various forms of accommodation with Beijing. As noted, Tellis makes a strong pitch for India’s role in Washington’s strategy to balance China which wants nothing less than “ejecting” the US from its “current position as the hegemonic stabiliser of Asia”.
It will be interesting to see if Trump eventually picks Tellis despite such a clear divergence in approaches. Trump does not like being contradicted but he has glossed over the fact that his Cabinet picks like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have taken positions different from his.
India will hope that US national security bureaucracy will prevail and convince Trump to continue the policy of its predecessors. But Delhi is perhaps also hedging its bets. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was noticeably even-handed in his January 17 address at the Raisina Dialogue. He spoke of the momentum, speed, substance and strength to the entire spectrum of engagement with the US and of his conversation with Trump and their agreement to keep building on gains in the strategic partnership. Modi was arguably more effusive about Russia calling it “an abiding friend” and said “President Putin and I have held long conversations on the challenges that confront the world today. Our trusted and strategic partnership, especially in the field of defence has deepened.”
Modi takes personal diplomacy seriously – and therefore that inflection on Russia may not be without significance. The State Department will be hoping that Tellis’ argument wins in Washington quickly.