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What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for India?

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The Pulse

What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for India?

How will the next U.S. president treat India?

What Does a Trump Presidency Mean for India?
Credit: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the U.S. presidential elections Tuesday will introduce an element of uncertainty into U.S. bilateral and multilateral engagements with major powers, allies, and adversaries alike. Combined with the Republican Party’s successes in key Senate races and its current majority in the House of Representatives, Trump’s win ensures Republican control over both Congress and the presidency for the first time since 2007.

But Republican control over Congress does not automatically guarantee Trump’s ability to push through some of the more contentious of his electoral promises without opposition from his party.  Trump and the Republican leaders have butted heads on more than one occasion during the lengthy election season, with Trump publicly rebuking them as he did Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.

Trump successfully tapped into anti-establishment sentiment that appeared to resonate with voters in many parts of the country.  He attacked the country’s current leadership, including President Barack Obama, calling them incompetent and weak, promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), took a much tougher stand on illegal immigration, and committed himself to spurring job growth in the country.

Trump is an establishment outsider, and with that comes a level of uncertainty and unpredictability over what shape his domestic and international policies might take.  However, some themes emerge from his and the Republican establishment’s commentary that might offer clues on the new government’s foreign policy priorities.

Trump is a vocal critic of his country’s current policies in the Middle East.  Trump’s ascendency will likely see a reversal of U.S. foreign policy in that troubled region, with the U.S. doubling down on Israel and its Gulf Arab allies, but not without new conditions of engagement. U.S.-Iran relations will probably suffer, with a likely attempt by Trump and congressional Republicans to quash the Iran nuclear deal.  The impact of any such attempt on Iran’s self-imposed restraint in going overtly nuclear will need to be assessed before a decision is made to walk away from deal.

Trump’s ascendance will come as a shock to U.S. treaty allies, who have come in for criticism from the president-elect for not pulling their weight on areas of mutual interest. While much has been written about Trump’s apparent coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the 2016 Republican Platform promises a significantly tougher stance on Russia (“We will meet the return of Russian belligerence with the same resolve that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union…”) and increased assistance to Russia’s smaller neighbors.

U.S.-China relations, complicated in the best of times, are likely to remain difficult, with Trump promising to levy a 45 percent tariff on imported Chinese goods and seeking to challenge Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea. Admittedly, Trump appears to have focused more of his attention on the Middle East than on Asia, but a continued commitment to challenge Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea will be music to the ears of the United States’ Asian allies.

On India, the 2016 Republican Platform, like its predecessor in 2012, described the country as a U.S. “geopolitical ally and… strategic trading partner” (as against the 2016 Democratic Platform that committed to a “long-term strategic partnership with India” and described the country as “an important Pacific power.”)

Trump will arrive in office on January 20, 2017 having to address several key global security issues, from the war in Syria and the campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) to challenges posed by a resurgent China and an aggressive Russia. However, for India-U.S. relations to continue on their current upward trajectory, the incoming U.S. administration should guard against the notion that India is an important country, but one that isn’t a pressing priority given multiple global crises.

With Trump being a relative outsider and his cabinet yet to take shape, it will undoubtedly take time for India and the new U.S. administration to get a feel for each other, but engagement early and often is key if both countries are to realize the potential of their strategic partnership.  Indeed, some level of this early engagement may have already occurred (Trump alluded to having met with “high representatives of India” during the third presidential debate).

India today finds itself in a good position to leverage support structures across both political parties to advance the bilateral relationship. As an example, the Hindu Republican Coalition (which seeks a strong U.S.-India relationship, but whose advocacy includes troublingly anti-Islamic rhetoric) turned out to be a mega-donor for Trump’s presidential campaign.

Under Trump’s leadership, India is likely to benefit from the United States reinforcing its commitment to traditional Asian allies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in order to counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. This could lead to greater U.S. assistance in Indian capacity building, particularly as it relates to enhancing the Indian Navy’s capabilities.

Trade and investment could potentially become a bone of contention between the two countries. Trump is quite likely to pressure India for more market access, particularly as it relates to defense trade, while also implementing protectionist measures at home that will likely antagonize India. These protectionist measure could impact the Indian outsourcing industry by making it harder for U.S. companies to move or maintain service functions overseas, while also constraining the ability of U.S. and Indian companies to bring skilled foreign labor into the United States.

The likely possibility of a further deterioration of U.S.-Iran relations could also negatively impact India.  For one, Iran remains an important supplier of crude oil to India. Additional sanctions against Iran will impact India’s ability to import oil from that country. Second, increased sanctions against Iran could also impede cooperation and progress between India and Iran on Chabahar Port, a project that should ironically be in line with U.S. interests as it seeks to promote Afghanistan’s economic independence by providing it a passage to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

From India’s perspective, an “unknown-known” (to borrow a Donald Rumsfeld aphorism) relates to the new U.S. government’s commitment to India’s quest for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.  The Indian government, with the Obama administration’s support, has lobbied hard for membership, but has had to contend with opposition from a group of countries, led by China. If India does not succeed in obtaining NSG members’ approval this month in Vienna (and it appears unlikely that it will), the issue might well be relegated to the backburner.

India is likely to find encouragement from the Trump administration to increase aid – both military and non-military – to assist Afghanistan in meeting its many challenges. Whether or not India is able to rise to the occasion to meet Afghanistan’s needs, particularly on the military front, where India’s own military is battling significant shortages and obsolescence of equipment, remains to be seen.

Concurrence on Pakistan could potentially be more of a challenge than most think it might be. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is likely to remain largely transactional, which will suit India. Trump has, in the past, referred to Pakistan as “not friends of ours” and threatened to curtail aid unless Islamabad gave up its nuclear weapons.

However, the Republican Platform sees the downward U.S.-Pakistani relationship as a consequence of the larger war on terror and hopes to rebuild that relationship. Pakistan, as is its wont, will undoubtedly utilize these opportunities to correct the U.S.-Pakistan relationship by seeking U.S. pressure on New Delhi over its litany of complaints against India.

Terrorism could also counterintuitively prove to be a mixed bag. While Trump has at length committed to acting against ISIS and the Taliban, where he stands vis-à-vis anti-India groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed remains to be seen.

While it may yet be early days, the U.S.-India relationship will likely continue on a positive trajectory under the Trump administration. India continues to enjoy strong bipartisan support in the U.S., where the country is seen as an emerging power, a strategic and economic partner, and a counterweight to China. India itself appears to be in good shape to leverage its support structures in the U.S. in general, and the Republican establishment in particular, to further its key objectives.