Amid uncertainty, India braces for a challenging Trump era

Amid uncertainty, India braces for a challenging Trump era
Soon after Donald Trump was elected  the next American president, India’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, was on a visit to the United States. It was a visit apparently aimed at engaging with the key aides of the president-elect and to open a channel of communication with people who are likely to hold important positions in the Trump administration.

“There will be change in terms of US engagement with the world,” Jaishankar said in a seminar at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi on his return from Washington DC. “What can be safely predicted is that the Trump administration will have different priorities.”

Trump challenged many bipartisan consensuses on US foreign policy during his campaign. And, on November 8, when he finally won the race to the White House, the possibility of major changes in US enga­gements with Europe and Asia indeed see­med real. His “America First” foreign policy, his admiration for Russian President Vla­dimir Putin even after European Union accused Moscow of occupation of Crimea in Ukraine and his dismissive comments about the Nato put US allies in Europe at unease.

He also called into question the value of America’s alliances in Asia and suggested that if countries like Japan and South Korea could not “reimburse” the US for ensuring their security, they should be defending themselves, be it from a rising China, or from the rogue North Korea. Trump also vowed to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was signed on February 4 by 12 Pacific Rim countries, notably excluding China.

India is not an ally of the US, but the bilateral strategic partnership grew steadily since the signing of the landmark nuclear agreement in 2008. And, with Narendra Modi at the helm of affairs in Delhi since 2014, India appeared to be entering into a closer emb­race with the US over the past two-and-a-half years. So much so that some critics questioned if the Modi government was compro­mising India’s strategic autonomy to build closer security and defence ties with the US.

Modi and US President Barack Obama issued an India-US “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” from New Delhi on January 26, 2015. An India-US-Japan trilateral dialogue among senior diplomats was elevated to the level of foreign ministers. The annual India-US Malabar naval exercise was turned into a trilateral drill with Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force joining it. Beijing, of course, was not amused and perceived all these as efforts to contain China. What also raised hackles in Beijing was India’s position on China’s territorial disputes with its maritime neighbours, as it was almost akin to the stand taken by the US and Japan.

The year 2016 also saw India dropping its decade-long hesitance and finally inking with the US the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement or LEMOA, which would provide the militaries of both countries’ access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repairs. The year ended with Obama signing into law a legislation designating India as a “major defence partner” of the US.

As India moved into closer relations with the US, its ties with China soured. Beijing blocked New Delhi’s bids to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as to get United Nations’ sanctions imposed on Pakistan-based Masood Azhar. New Delhi – wary of China’s “string of pearls” strategic assets encircling India – remained opposed to One-Belt-One-Road initiative of the communist country. India opposed the OBOR, not only because it perceived the move as an attempt to spread China’s influence in the region, but also because the initiative included the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is proposed to pass through areas it accuses Pakistan of illegally occupying in Kashmir. There has not been any progress in India-China negotiations to resolve the long-pending boundary dispute, too.

So New Delhi, undoubtedly, has reasons to worry, as Trump’s election to succeed Obama cast a shadow of uncertainty over the fate of “US pivot to Asia” – a major foreign policy initiative of the outgoing administration in Washington DC for strategic rebalance of America's diplomatic and military resources to the continent.

Underwater drone issue
Trump’s talks with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen over phone and his strong criticism of China after the communist country seized a US underwater drone in international waters signalled that Uncle Sam’s hostility with the Middle Kingdom may intensify after he succeeds Obama in the Oval Office. But will America with Trump at its helm come to the aid of its allies (and “major defence partners”) in Asia-Pacific, if China reacts to US hostility more aggressively and turns into a security nightmare in the region?

New Delhi had some engagements with Team Trump over the past two months. The interlocutors got a rather clear signal that President Trump will seek to pursue the “transactional approach” that Candidate Trump advocated in managing its relations with allies and partners in Asia.

So, India must be prepared to respond to what the new reality of President Trump’s America would mean to Asia after January 20. It, in fact, has already started doing so. Just weeks after the US elections results were out, India launched trilateral talks with China and Russia on Asia-Pacific affairs – a move apparently aimed at creating space for policy manoeuvring to respond to changes in the US approach to the region.

The Asia-Pacific talks saw senior diplom­ats of the three countries noting that China, Russia and India had “extensive common interests and close views” on many regional issues. They also agreed that the trilateral consultations would continue as they would “contribute to strengthening practical coordination on regional and global issues”.

“In an evolving global order, India needs to engage with a multiplicity of actors in a multi-polar world,” Jaishankar, who served as New Delhi’s envoy to both Beijing and Washington, said after his first visit to the US after Trump’s election as the 45th president of the US. However, he was quick to acknowledge that it would be a challenge for New Delhi to position itself optimally in its engagements with US, China and Russia.
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