New Delhi: Last week, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson exited President Donald Trump’s team after being fired following months of speculation. And if news reports are to be believed, another high-profile exit from Trump’s team is on the cards—that of national security advisor H.R. McMaster.
News reports in Washington Post newspaper and news website politico.com said McMaster has “never clicked" with the President. The politico.com report said that “as with the secretary of state, the president decided months ago amid disagreements over his Afghanistan strategy that McMaster wouldn’t be a permanent fixture in his administration".
The US national security advisor was the first high-level visitor from the Trump team to visit India in April last year—three months after Trump took office. It was a time when New Delhi was trying to gauge whether there would be any major change in policy towards India and South Asia from the Trump administration. But he emphasized the importance of the US-India strategic relationship and reaffirmed India’s designation as a major defence partner.
Should McMaster leave the Trump cabinet, what would it mean for India—which has figured quite prominently in recent US foreign policy statements—whether it be the South Asia policy unveiled in September, the Indo-Pacific policy outlined in October or the US national defence strategy outlined late last year?
Analysts seem divided in their assessment.
Tillerson’s exit and McMaster’s possible departure “introduces an element of uncertainty for India and the world", said former Indian ambassador to the US Arun Singh. This, he said, would continue till the “new constellation (of officials) settles down."
Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College, agreed.
“Any uncertainty is bad for India. The Trump administration has been chaotic. In the past, there has been mixed signalling from the Trump administration on issues and confused messaging. This does not inspire confidence in the administration, there is ample scope for apprehensions," he said.
According to Sadanand Dhume, an expert with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, “the real thing India needs to be concerned about is whether Trump’s foreign policy will now become notably Trumpian."
Tillerson and McMaster were seen as people as having a “moderating" effect on Trump’s “extreme nationalistic economic policies," he said. Tillerson’s exit and McMaster’s possible departure could mean Trump emphasises more on fair trade and creates a rupture" in strategic ties with India, Dhume said.
But former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal was of the view that given the bipartisan support for a stronger India-US relationship, India would continue to be seen as a key partner and the departure of Tillerson and possible exit of McMaster wouldn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things.
The immediate fallout of Tillerson’s sacking on India has been the postponement of the inaugural “2+2" dialogue between the defence and foreign ministers of the two countries. The dialogue was to have held in Washington on 18 April. With Tillerson’s successor, CIA director Mike Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearings only expected in April, the India-US dialogue “2+2" dialogue seems to have been put off indefinitely.
Other consequences for India could show in areas like the South Asia policy.
Tillerson, McMaster and US defence secretary James Mattis were seen as the main architects of this policy unveiled in August. It had given India a central role in stabilising Afghanistan, something previous administrations were wary of given Pakistan’s concerns about India’s involvement in Afghanistan. Trump had also came down hard on Pakistan sheltering militants and terrorist groups active in Afghanistan and other parts of South Asia.
Another key US foreign policy formulation with India having a central role in it was the Indo-Pacific strategy outlined by Tillerson in October.
In a speech to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Tillerson spoke of US’s desire to “dramatically deepen" ties with India. Comparing a rising India with its giant neighbour China, he had said: “China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly."
Officials of India, US, Japan and Australia had also met in Manila in November to discuss cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The “quadrilateral" as it is called was seen as a grouping of democracies and seemingly sharing concerns about China’s looming presence in the region.
With Tillerson out of the picture, the question is whether the new incumbent will focus as much attention on India as before.