External Affairs

What Lies Ahead for India-US Ties Under President Trump

The five main areas for India to look out for in the new administration.

During the early stage of the Republican primaries when Indian diplomats spoke to senior US administration members or prominent intelligentsia, they were emphatically told that Donald Trump would never win the party’s nomination. They soon learned how wrong most analysts in the beltway bubble were.

The dawning realisation that a Trump Presidency was highly probable prevailed in the US embassy’s lawns, festooned with red and white balloons and the focus of every one’s attention – a giant screen broadcasting CNN. The guests had started to trickle in from 7 a.m. on Wednesday, even as county after county were showing Hillary Clinton underperforming even among Democratic voters. The Urban votes, which would favour Clinton, will be counted at the end and spike her into the lead, assured one. Michigan would soon go blue, hoped another. The omens were, however, not on Hillary’s side.

The viewing party was scheduled to end by 11 a.m., but as the results were not called at half past noon, the hosts decided that it was time to pack-up. Even as Trump still had to add a couple more seats to get a majority in the electoral college, the US ambassador to India, Richard Verma took the podium to sing peans about strength of American democracy, but also to provide assurance that the bilateral relationship will not face a rocky road ahead.

“The ties that bind our two countries together are built on our shared democratic values, and go beyond the friendship of the American President and the Indian Prime Minister. They go beyond the economic and people-to-people ties. The U.S.-India relationship is vitally important, it is bipartisan, and it is only growing stronger. Here’s to another four years of robust U.S.-India Dosti,” he said.

After the new US President-elect Donal Trump made his victory speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to send congratulations using his favourite social-media platform.

He also reminded Trump about his courting of the Hindu-American vote, which included attending an event organised by Republican Hindu Council. At the Oct 16 function in New Jersey, he had described himself as a “big fan of Hindu” and an admirer of Modi.

By late evening, Modi was one of the first world leaders to speak on the phone with Donald Trump, avowing to take relations to new highs.

For India, these are five main policy areas that could be impacted by a Trump administration. Indian government officials will have to be on the look-out for how to deal with these challenges:

  • The strategic partnership between India the US is justified, in large parts, because of the convergence of the ‘Act East’ policy and the ‘pivot to Asia’. New Delhi will be concerned if the new administration adopts a more transactional approach to international security in the Asia-Pacific region. During his campaign, Trump had said that the US’s closest allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, should pay more for the US troops on their soil. Similarly, he said that both countries should have nuclear weapons. If the US under Trump adopts a more isolationist policy and withdraws substantial support from key US allies, it will certainly impact Washington’s position in the Asia-Pacific – and therefore put a strain on the premise of a strategic partnership between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.
  • An immediate concern for India would be Trump’s campaign platform to reform the H1B system and pause the issuance ‘green cards’ – which will keep Indian IT firms and their lobbyists burning the midnight oil over the next four years. Silicon valley had overwhelming come out against Trump and therefore it remains to be seen if they will have any influence on the new administration. But, at the same time, he may be persuaded by his own party members who would be concerned if US companies lose their competitive edge. Trump began his presidential campaign by targeting illegal immigration. While he has repeatedly talked of Mexicans, the fact is the illegal immigration from Mexico has been falling. In fact, latest figures show that the growth of illegal immigration has been the fastest in recent years.
  • After the March bomb blast in Lahore, Trump tweeted that he “alone can solve” the issue of terrorism, presumably. However, as with his announcement regarding combating ISIS, Trump did not bother to outline any plan. He did say that Pakistan was a “problem” due to its nuclear weapons. On relations between India and Pakistan, he has been rather vague – as with most other issues. During one TV appearance, he had even offered to mediate between the two south asian neighbours. It is also true that no US President would be able to take any initiative to reach out to Islamabad by offering sops with the mood in US Congress has been rather hostile towards Pakistan. While there has been a perception among the Indian-American supporters of Trump that Trump would go hard against Islamist terrorism and therefore, Pakistan, it is difficult to predict the administration’s capacity to stave off Islamabad’s talent of influencing Washington’s strategic community – especially in the absence of any serious foreign policy experts on his team.
  • Relations with China may see a deterioration if Trump follows through on his campaign promises. He had talked of reforming trade relations, designating China as a ‘currency manipulator‘ and cracking down on IPR theft. An antagonistic relationship between the US and China will impact India, but it is not clear whether it will lead Beijing to reach out to New Delhi. India will also depending on US to conduct deft diplomacy with China so that its long-standing aspiration to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group would get fulfilled. But in an antagonistic relationship between China and US, India’s desire to play a more global role – and leverage it to attain critical diplomatic goals – may get road-blocked at various levels by Beijing.
  • Trump, who claimed once that Climate Change was a Chinese conspiracy, had promised to withdraw from the landmark Climate change agreement forged at Paris. India has a contrary view on both these issues, with Modi having personally intervened after a request from President Obama and clearing the way for the treaty. Similarly, Modi will find it hard going to convince Trump to give special preference to renewable energy, which did not even get a mention in his Energy Plan issued in May this year.

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