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Why India may matter less in world politics during a Trump presidency

To increase its wiggle room, Delhi needs to find ways to express its strategic autonomy in ways that suits India’s interests while ensuring that US, Russia and China do not perceive its moves as being (too) opportunistic.

analysis Updated: Jan 03, 2017 13:05 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times
Trump presidency,Donald Trump,India-US relations
In this Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, stands with Shall Kumar, chairman of the Republican Hindu Coalition, after delivering remarks in Edison, New Jersey.(AP)

The reality of a Donald Trump presidency is unnerving many capitals. European leaders are unsure if the US will stick to Nato treaty commitments and hold firm if Russia destabilises the Baltics states, for instance. Japan wonders if Trump’s talk of greater financial burden-sharing on security will impact its own preparedness in the wake of threats from China and North Korea.

India too has plenty reason to be uncertain. This has less to do with Trump’s rhetoric about outsourcing and the number of H1-B visas granted – although that is politically important for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The real danger of a Trump presidency for India is in the unsettling of the international order that it promises, and the changed power equations between Russia, China and US which potentially work to Delhi’s disadvantage.

Read | Why a Trump presidency is bad news for the US and world

To get a sense of the wholly different situation India finds itself in, consider the context India operated in during Barack Obama’s presidency. The Asian theatre was marked in recent years by US-China tensions owing to Beijing’s belligerence in the South China Sea. The US countered this through a set of revitalised strategic partnerships, including with India. Modi’s enthusiasm led him to sign the India-US joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean – that explicitly spoke of ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region. Modi went one step further and signed a logistics agreement that enables US military’s access to Indian bases for repair and supplies.

The diplomatic cover afforded by the Obama administration allowed the Modi government to focus its energies on isolating Pakistan internationally and get away with a heavy-handed policy in Kashmir – both policies that served to bolster the BJP domestically. Russia and China were relatively marginal to India’s diplomatic considerations, even though Delhi valued Moscow as a source of weapons and energy while the enhanced trade with China created a measure of interdependence that managed tensions. Delhi could choose not to participate in China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructural initiative because the US, Western powers and Japan were envisaged as the primary sources of security, legitimacy and resources for India.

Read | Modi’s US policy: Can India shape an Asian Century without China?

This entire calculus now stands upended. Trump is keen on dismantling the pillars of US foreign policy in a manner that makes the US’ political and bureaucratic machinery deeply uncomfortable. He wants to scale back American commitments abroad, he’d like to focus on an ‘America first’ policy and is expected to be explicitly transactional in his dealings with other countries. He has chosen a pro-Russian figure in Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State and picked China hawk Peter Navarro to head the National Trade Council, leading many to anticipate serious tensions with China on trade issues.

Some in Delhi may believe that an aggressive US that counters an assertive China works for India. But policymakers will know that it is one thing to play geopolitical chess in peace time, i.e. strengthen regional partnerships to counter a rising power, and quite another being on the cusp of a US-China conflict in Asia and having to choose sides. It’s not clear if such developments will materialise soon, but the scene of global politics will move to great power dynamics between US, Russia and China. India will be peripheral to the concerns of all three for different reasons.

As far as the US is concerned, it is not clear how much attention Trump will devote to India while he is preoccupied with the inevitable domestic turbulence his presidency will generate and the resetting of ties with Russia and China. India’s leverage abroad now appears to depend on the Washington security establishment’s ability to normalise Trump and make him aware of Delhi’s utility to American strategy in Asia. But that establishment itself will take time recovering and coping with the changes he wants and India as a priority could slip in the process. Trump did not mention India in his foreign policy speech on April 27, 2016 and it is not clear if he has any definite ideas as to what to do with the relationship.

Read | Caution, optimism: What a Trump administration could mean for India

Russia and China, meanwhile, understand India’s importance as a trade partner but neither are particularly predisposed to do India any favours. The rhetoric of India-Russia joint statements remains solemn and upbeat but Vladimir Putin – known not to forget insults – will be aware of the extent to which India’s foreign policy and its cultural elite has gravitated to the United States in recent years. As if to make its point Russia conducted a military exercise in September with Pakistan, the country which armed and trained mujahedin fighters to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. China, meanwhile, remains critical of Modi’s pro-US slant.

Moscow and China will now act in concert to enhance their international influence, take positions that undermine the US, strengthen key partnerships and pursue regional agendas while Washington sorts out its foreign purposes. Beijing will press ahead with the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Russia, China and Pakistan will coordinate strategies on Afghanistan – they recently announced their readiness for flexible approaches including delisting Taliban figures from UN sanctions list as part of efforts to promote dialogue between Kabul and the insurgents. Russia and Iran are also reported to have improved ties with the Taliban which they see as a counter to growing influence of Islamic State in the country. Iran has close ties with both Russia and China.

India appears adrift amid all this. As noted, its ties with the US are moving into unchartered waters. Russia and China will be key players in the neighbourhood and their interests don’t necessarily align with India’s. Their reach out to the Taliban is a serious setback to India which has long opposed its return to the political mainstream. India may have got its South Asian neighbours to boycott the SAARC summit but Islamabad is no longer as isolated as it was a couple of months ago (the incoming US Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis has good links with Pakistan’s military leadership).

Read | Donald Trump: If he’s bad for the US, he’s bad for us

China will imperiously extend its geographic footprint through OBOR while India stays away and limits itself to scoring rhetorical points on Pakistan and watches its relations with Nepal and Sri Lanka fluctuate with domestic changes. Overall, India looks confined to South Asia while the great powers look to carve up spheres of influence across the world.

Some would contend that this is overwrought. They will argue that India remains a major economy, a mass market the world is still keen on cultivating. Yes, India will be a major weapons importer and still offer attractive trade deals but there too the news isn’t great. The country’s economic prospects have been dealt a severe self-inflicted blow through demonetisation, which has done great damage to India’s reputation abroad. The criticism of economists like Lawrence Summers matters as does the credit rating agency Moody’s reported refusal to upgrade India’s rating, despite Delhi’s lobbying. The characterisation of demonetisation as “sickening and immoral” by Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes, will reinforce doubts about the Indian economy. Former PM Manmohan Singh’s view that demonetisation can threaten GDP growth by 2% also carries weight and India’s poor indicators on higher education, skills and job creation add to the welter of unhelpful perceptions abroad.

So as it braces for a Trump presidency, India finds itself both geopolitically outflanked and economically bereft. The reason for the former is that the Modi government abandoned ‘strategic autonomy’ and tilted towards the US in ways that aggravated Russia and China – leaving Delhi unprepared for a scenario where Washington’s priorities itself change with the election of a maverick figure.

Read | What Trump presidency would mean for India, the world: Shashi Tharoor explains

What then can India do in changed circumstances? Some will say nothing – for things may turn out fine; Washington can tame Trump and he may turn out to be a predictable figure who will not hurt India much. American soft power and its public institutions will endure; bureaucratic and people-to-people contact will continue and help weather new political currents. India could also try and strike a set of deals with Trump that appeals to his transactional instincts, vanity or both. There’s no guarantee that such methods will work over time with a temperamental politician. As a coping strategy, Delhi will need to accept that a Trump presidency threatens to shrink India’s influence by the effects it promises to generate in world politics. To increase its wiggle room, Delhi needs to find ways to express its strategic autonomy in ways that suits India’s interests while ensuring that US, Russia and China do not perceive its moves as being (too) opportunistic.

That’s way easier said than done.

The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @SushilAaron

First Published: Jan 03, 2017 13:04 IST