India-US ties in a Trump presidency

Under US president Donald Trump, India-US ties will see both broad policy continuity and a change in direction based on larger geo-economic issues


Donald Trump heads into office positively disposed towards India, and will likely continue to pursue stronger ties with the world’s largest democracy. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Donald Trump heads into office positively disposed towards India, and will likely continue to pursue stronger ties with the world’s largest democracy. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

On 9 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke with US president-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory. In no previous change of administration—either in the US or in India—did India rise to the next-day call list. For that matter, in no previous US election did a major party candidate release a campaign ad in Hindi. Or attend a Bollywood-and-anti-terrorism-themed jubilee in Edison, New Jersey.

The Trump administration thus heads into office positively disposed towards India, and will likely continue to pursue stronger ties with the world’s largest democracy, in keeping with a general bipartisan consensus on India. But Trump has signalled throughout his campaign that he will focus on “America First”. The direction the US takes will affect US-India ties as a result. India will likely benefit from impending geopolitical shifts, but will likely find itself at odds with a balance-sheet approach to trade and economic policies.

From the George W. Bush administration forward, the US has actively supported India’s rise towards great power status and a larger role in the world. While it remains unclear how actively a Trump administration would champion a permanent seat for India in the UN security council—in fact, he has said little about his approach to the UN—it seems clear that in their approach to global security concerns, Trump and Modi will find commonality on the urgent threat Islamist terrorism poses.

The Trump administration will need to develop its approach to the US effort in Afghanistan—its longest war, where the Islamic State has now spread. Based on his promise to crush the IS and to calibrate a limited but strong role for the US military abroad, we can anticipate a more counter-terrorism focused approach to Afghanistan than a larger, full-scope governance and democratization assistance effort.

This has direct implications for Pakistan, provider of safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and other terrorist groups like the Haqqani network, and groups focused on India. The Obama administration and the US Congress have grown weary of Pakistan’s insufficient actions to counter terrorist groups, and we are likely to see a Trump administration flatly tell Pakistan that the American well of patience has run dry. New Delhi will find this firmer approach helpful.

The US and India have dramatically strengthened defence ties over the past decade, and naval cooperation in particular has leaped ahead. Trump has promised to renew and expand the US navy just at the time India is expanding its navy to ensure its role as the pre-eminent Indian Ocean power. Look for this aspect of India-US ties to develop further.

Trump will enter office with a fully de-hyphenated view of India and Pakistan. He has spoken about India as a land of economic opportunity, has pursued property developments in India, and admiringly cited India’s high economic growth rate during the third presidential debate. He has spoken of Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world, and said that only India can “check” Pakistan.

He is suspicious of the net benefits the US derives from traditional alliances in Europe and Asia, believing that US allies do not carry their own weight in American security cooperation. A US foreign policy approach that places less emphasis on traditional alliance relationships, becoming more focused on ties premised on reciprocity, could open more mental space for India (on the other hand, the pursuit of measurable reciprocity could result in low marks for New Delhi). Trump is suspicious of China, particularly its mercantilist interests and island-building in the South China Sea. India has an opportunity by contrast. And Trump’s notable admiration for Vladimir Putin points to a less-adversarial approach to Russia, which may eliminate an occasional source of stress for India.

Trump’s campaign contained a seven-point agenda on trade. He has spoken frequently of the damage trade agreements have done to the American economy, and promised to bring jobs back. He has called for immigration reform to limit and better control who crosses into the US. He has said he would end the H-1B high-skilled worker visa programme—a programme with which India has been dissatisfied (although it is the top recipient of all US H-1B visas issued each year); New Delhi filed a trade dispute on these visas in the World Trade Organization against the US this past year. A Trump administration is likely to push back hard on the dispute and in bilateral conversations about visas.

Trump is likely to seek further economic opening on India’s part, as all previous US administrations have. A Trump administration will likely continue to perceive India’s patent law as insufficiently protective of innovation, so long-running differences, especially over pharmaceutical patents, will likely continue. India can breathe a sigh of relief, however, about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many in India saw as an “anti-India,” exclusionary trade pact. Trump said he will tear it up.

Trump views climate change dimly and has spoken of cancelling the Paris agreement. He has said little about clean energy, likely not a priority. This means that one of the most successful US-India areas of partnership—clean energy research and development—has just lost its American champion. Over the past eight years, clean energy collaboration has quietly become a singularly successful technical partnership between Washington and New Delhi, with billions of dollars mobilized with government seed funding and private sector matching funds. Look to see this shift into low gear for Washington, even as clean energy remains a high priority for India due to its lack of domestic oil and gas resources, its tremendous energy needs, and its ample supply of sunlight.

As the Trump team begins to take shape, more clues about the next US administration’s approach to India will emerge. For now, it seems clear that broad policy continuity with previous administrations will result (a rarity these days), but the Trump approach to larger geopolitical and geo-economic questions will likely pull ties between Washington and New Delhi in new directions.

Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served as US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 2010-13.

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