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Hedging bets as Trump scouts for deals

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan   | Photo Credit:

With the U.S. President’s messaging still far from reassuring, India will have to firm up other alliances

Campaign in poetry, govern in prose. This has been an American explanation for Presidents abandoning their campaign rhetoric soon after moving into the White House. But for someone who campaigned in tweets and governs in tweets, that is a not entirely helpful guide. On April 29, Donald Trump will complete 100 days as the 45th President of the U.S. Some analyses based on his campaign rhetoric have become redundant as he has abandoned a part of it. But a composite view of what the U.S. under Mr. Trump stands for is still missing.

Mixed signals

His decisions to bomb Syria and Afghanistan, targeting the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Islamic State, respectively, were interpreted by many as a mark of his new-found willingness to assert America’s role as the sole superpower. He has not opened a trade war with the rest of the world by imposing tariffs on goods from Mexico or China as he had threatened during the campaign; he has abandoned his position that China is a currency manipulator, and he has admitted, concluding a long transition, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is “no longer obsolete”. The Secretaries of State and Defence, and the Vice President have travelled to Europe and Asia, seeking to soothe frayed bonds with traditional allies, raising hopes that the feared convulsions in U.S foreign policy have been averted.

But Mr. Trump’s disruptive streaks have already struck decisive blows. Washington has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade treaty that Barack Obama said would buttress U.S. leadership in the Pacific; and the administration is reviewing withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. A review of U.S. trade ties with partners is underway, with the purpose of bringing down the country’s trade deficit. Another review targets guest worker programmes that allow skilled foreign workers to come to the U.S. temporarily.

The Trump administration has not articulated its views on relations with India, though Indian interlocutors who met with U.S officials in the last three months say there is a “positive view of India”. Political positions in the administration that deal with India remain unfilled, but one appointment to the National Security Council is possibly a pointer to how the new administration’s thinking on South Asia could take shape. Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the NSC, would be a key White House point person for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She has been highly critical of Pakistan’s support for terrorism.

Among other signals relevant for India, Mr. Trump mentioned India, without naming it, in his first address to Congress as one country that imposes 100% duty on Harley-Davidson motorcycles; and a White House official named some Indian IT companies for allegedly gaming the lottery system that selects 85,000 H-1B visa recipients every year. At the UN, American Ambassador Nikki Haley offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, and expressed concern about the region being a potential nuclear flash point. A new document released by the U.S Trade Representative listed out a series of market access and intellectual property related complaints against India. U.S. officials raised the Modi government’s crackdown on Christian charity Compassion International (CI) with Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. India has refused to budge on the issue, and CI has stopped its India operation.

No ‘strategic altruism’

What could India expect in the coming months? The days of “strategic altruism” in America’s approach to India may be over, said strategic affairs expert Ashley J. Tellis at Georgetown University’s India Ideas Conclave last week: “The new administration is likely to ask of India…, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ There is no good answer that India may come up with for that question. And from an Indian perspective, I am not sure whether the U.S. would be ready to provide ready satisfaction on key policies relating to both Pakistan and China.”

Former Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal agrees. “In a meeting with Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi, I fully expect President Trump to ask in a much more blunt fashion than our partners are used to, how are you going to help in Afghanistan? What are you willing to do in fighting the Islamic State?” she says. “What is the piece of the puzzle that you are going to fill in Syria or East Asia?”

India-U.S. relations under Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump will develop under the bilateral and collateral impact of American ties especially with China and Pakistan.

India is keen to maintain the momentum of bilateral relations, but irritants could easily play up, said Mr. Tellis, for three reasons. “One, the U.S.-India relationship is not a relationship between equals. It is a relationship between a mature hegemonic power and a post-colonial state. So even small things have consequences. Two, India has still not made a complete transition to a market economy where it has learnt to separate commercial disagreements from other parts of the relationship. And, if these difficulties arise against a backdrop where there is no U.S. geopolitical assurance towards India, then the salience of these difficulties would only increase. We need to get the architecture right.”

On the western front, America’s relations with Pakistan would be driven by its plans for Afghanistan. U.S. military planners are now talking of extending troop presence in Afghanistan for five to ten years more, and increase the numbers. With the Trump administration heading into confrontation with Iran due to pressure from Saudi Arabia and Israel, and with Russia due to domestic political reasons, its dependence on Pakistan could only increase in the immediate future. In an unusually candid admission during a discussion at the Stimson Center recently, former Special Representative for Af-Pak Richard Olson said the U.S. has limited leverage in shaping Pakistan’s behaviour.

A complex chessboard

Mr. Trump has declared his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping a huge success, saying that all outstanding issues could be easily resolved. Starting from an extraordinarily confrontational position by questioning the ‘One China’ policy, the Trump administration now appears all too willing to please Beijing, leaving even treaty allies Japan and South Korea nervous. But the fear of a U.S.-China embrace leaving out other partners in the region is misplaced, says Ms. Biswal: “There is not a grand bargain out there in which the U.S and China, in their G-2 format, will carve out the region… It is going to be a complex situation, dealing with each state bilaterally. This may not be articulated as a strategic doctrine the way we are used to.”

India has reasons to be concerned, and for now, it may hedge. The representative of a U.S. defence giant at a dinner hosted in honour of Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley in Washington last week did not miss the point that his next stop was Moscow.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 5:51:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/hedging-bets-as-trump-scouts-for-deals/article18209985.ece

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