PM Narendra's Modi's U.S tour

Modi can shape Trump’s views on Pakistan: New colours of the White House

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to meet President Donald Trump for the first time, today in Washington, there is a sense that the favourable winds that carried the India-U.S. relationship over the past 10 to 15 years may be changing. In its first six months, the Trump administration’s radical and nationalistic approach to international affairs has already touched India in important areas, from visas for skilled workers, to climate change, to Iran policy. After an era in which successive American Presidents were persuaded to forego short-term pay-offs for longer-term economic and diplomatic investment in India, we now have an incumbent whose foreign policy imperative is to secure a pound of flesh — and to do so in the here and now. “The world is not a “global community’,” noted two of Trump’s advisers in a Wall Street Journal oped this month, summarising the President’s worldview, declaring that they embraced “this elemental nature of international affairs”. This undoubtedly throws up new challenges for India. Yet there are three important things to keep in mind when looking at the path ahead.

Three indications

First, the India-U.S. relationship has its own mass and momentum. While the grand gestures of the past decade may be more difficult to achieve, the relationship is likely to remain robust. While the whims of the President and his most radical advisers will buffet particular areas — such as trade, immigration, and climate change — more pragmatic cabinet ministers are not without influence. Most significant here is the so-called Axis of Adults, comprising Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.


While this trio has been undercut more than once — sometimes quite brutally, as when Mr. Trump removed a crucial reference to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s collective defence clause from a major speech — they continue to exercise power over their own domains, on issues that do not necessarily rise to presidential attention. This is especially true of the Pentagon, which is vested with considerable executive authority, but also of weaker departments. The State Department’s decision to authorise the $2 billion sale of nearly two dozen predator drones to India, significantly augmenting the Indian Navy’s unmanned aerial capability, is an important signal in this regard. Such a sensitive platform might have been used as leverage to secure Indian concessions in areas where the administration was seeking a change in India’s behaviour — say, Iran — but the positive trend in defence sales looks set to continue. Progress in the joint working group in aircraft carrier technology, which involves much more far-reaching technology transfer, will be an important test of this over the medium term.

The record so far

Second, there is now a template for how foreign leaders can manipulate Mr. Trump to their own ends. We have two useful illustrations of this: China and Saudi Arabia. China, criticised in vituperative terms by Mr. Trump on the campaign trail, persuaded the President not only to swallow the bowdlerised history that Korea “used to be a part of China”, but also that Beijing was making every effort to address North Korea’s nuclear programme. In doing so, it induced Mr. Trump to soft-pedal on the South China Sea — the administration blocked at least three requests by the U.S. military’s Pacific Command to conduct freedom of navigation operations, before the first one was allowed to go ahead in late May — and delay arms sales to Taiwan. On June 20, the President declared that this policy of relying on China “has not worked out”, but expressed gratitude to Beijing for trying. It’s too early to conclude that the Chinese approach to Mr. Trump has entirely succeeded, because a sixth North Korean nuclear test could clearly upend this détente. However, China has managed to dramatically moderate Mr. Trump’s hostility and buy a period of calm. Another, even more stark, example comes from West Asia. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have persuaded Mr. Trump to enthusiastically tweet his support for their economic and diplomatic assault on Qatar, a country which hosts more than 10,000 American troops and the forward headquarters of Central Command, over its policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. Mr. Trump was persuaded of this despite the State Department’s urging that the dispute be settled quickly and amicably, and the risk to disruption of U.S.-led military operations against the Islamic State at a crucial time in the battle.

These two cases have a few things in common. For one thing, they involve foreign leaders personally cultivating Mr. Trump. “After listening for 10 minutes,” Mr. Trump declared following his April meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on North Korea, “I realised that it’s not so easy.” Mr. Xi achieved the best of both worlds: persuading Mr. Trump that Chinese influence was limited, thereby insulating China from the consequences of failure, but also securing Mr. Trump’s goodwill for his efforts. Mr. Trump’s meetings with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in May were also likely to have been important in winning his subsequent backing for the campaign against Qatar.

Mr. Trump is credulous, impressionable, and narcissistic. China and Saudi Arabia succeeded in framing their behaviour as being, first and foremost, an effort to address one of the President’s personal priorities — North Korea in the first instance, and terrorism in the second. By contrast, the U.S.’s allies in Europe and Japan have struggled to craft a similar narrative.

The South Asian matrix

Third, more important than what President Trump does for India may be what he does not do. The Qatar crisis has shown that he cares little for shibboleths such as regional stability, mutual restraint, and dispute resolution. He respects power and those who wield it, oftentimes regardless of the end result. For better or worse, this may open up new space for India’s posture towards Pakistan, which has over the past year evolved in a significantly more coercive and risk-acceptant direction. The Obama administration’s sympathetic approach to last year’s so-called surgical strikes showed that U.S. policy was anyway shifting in the direction of giving greater latitude to New Delhi. As the ceasefire on the Line of Control collapses and the Kulbhushan Jadhav crisis festers, the prospect of a militarised Indian response to another terrorist attack rises.

It’s by no means certain that Mr. Trump will take a hands-off stance in such a scenario. After all, Israeli leaders have been unpleasantly surprised by the interest that he has taken in the Israel-Palestine dispute, despite his broadly pro-Israel stance. But Mr. Modi will have an opportunity to shape Mr. Trump’s basic views on Pakistan, and at a formative moment for his administration’s Afghan policy. This may well be where Mr. Modi chooses to focus his efforts, leaving thornier subjects for the coming years.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2020 11:43:41 PM |

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