Will Trump address India's concerns?

High tariff on foreign-made products by US would impact 'Make in India,' which aims to increase exports.

Ever since US President Donald Trump assumed office on January 20, his administration has made several statements and initiatives to make a radical shift in the established principles of US foreign policy.

In particular, Trump’s soft attitude towards Russia, his saying that the two-state solution is not the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his strong stand on issues of H1B visa and immigration have equally sent shock waves to both allies and foes of the US.

India, which has significantly transformed its ties with the US over the last two decades, is also keenly observing the foreign policy orientations of the US under the Trump administration. There is an increasing sense in the Indian strategic community that India and the US would continue to deepen the relationship under the Trump administration.

One reason for this assessment is the fact that during his election campaigns, Trump had praised India and Indian-origin people in the US. A large number of Indian-Americans also voted for Trump in the presidential election. His call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has further underscored his desire to enhance engagement with India. During the telephonic conversation, trump described India as a “true friend” of the US, and invited Modi to visit the US later this year.

Trump’s focus on eradicating the menace of Islamist terrorism is an encouraging sign for India, given the fact that Islamist terrorism is a major threat to India. Trump’s commitment to fight terrorism is also an indication of the fact that his administration would continue to keep US forces posted in Afghanistan and would also enhance pressure on Pakistan to rein in terrorist organisations operating from its soil.

President Trump has taken the toughest stance on China. The new US administration has not only accused China of indulging in unfair trade practices, he has also questioned the US’ “0ne China Policy”.

This in turn clearly suggests that he would follow the containment policy against China more aggressively than his predecessor did. Consequently, it is in the strategic interests of the US to continue expanding security ties with India, which has the historical border disputes with China.

In the recent times, the Modi government has explicitly expressed the desire to work with the US to contain the rising clout of China, especially in the South China Sea. It was in this context that the telephonic conversation between Defence Secretary James Mattis and then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar assumed huge significance. Mattis expressed the desire to build upon tremendous progress made in bilateral relations.

But, Trump’s reaffirmation of his election promise to tighten the use of the H1B as a cheap labour programme, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration programme has the potential to significantly reduce the India IT sector’s revenue.

This is evident from the fact the IT sector in India generated 60% of its revenues last year from the US and two-thirds of the H1B visas issued by the US in 2015 were granted to Indians. If the new bill on the H1B visa issue proposed by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren in the House of Representatives seeking to double the minimum wage of H1B visa holders to $130,000 gets passed, the legislation would make it very difficult for Indian IT professionals to work in the US.

Industrial jobs

At the same time, the US administration has focused on bringing back industrial jobs to the US especially from China and Mexico. It says that Trump would charge China a 35% tax on every car and every truck and every part manufactured in their plants that come to the US.

High tariff would also hit the Indian automobile industry, since several foreign car manufacturing companies including Nissan, Ford, Hyundai and others have their units in India and export their products to the US. This policy would also impact India’s Make in India program­me, whose main aim is to increase exports from the country.

There is a rise of ultra nationalism in the US since the new administration came to power, causing the killing of an Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in the Kansas state of the US. This in turn would minimise the influential role of Indian diaspora and damage India-US relations.

Thus, before the feeling of ultra nationalism can show its ugliest form in the US, the Trump administration needs to bring the killer of Kuchibhotla to justice and ensure the safety and security of the people of other countries living there.

While the Trump administration has reasons to continue security engagement with India, it should also address India’s concerns regarding the issue of H1B visa. More importantly, the future of the relationship would depend on how Modi’s “Make in India” programme reconciles with Trump’s America’s focus on bringing jobs back under “America First” Policy.

(The writer is with UGC Centre for Southern Asia Studies, Pondicherry University)

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