How will the election of President Trump affect the configuration of Indian foreign policy? Expecting the U.S. to withdraw from its international obligations, will India ally with Russia and China, as some experts predict? My discussions with two senior policy-makers in New Delhi reflected broad consensus regarding India’s expectations in its relations with the U.S., Russia and China during the Trump administration. India expects growing economic and military ties with both the United States and Russia. With China, although it does not seek military confrontation and desires enhanced trade, India wants to balance its economic relationship and contain Chinese expansionism.
Since its turn toward free-market reforms in 1991, Indo-U.S. trade increased from around US$5 billion that year to US$62 billion in 2016, with an Indian trade surplus of nearly US$23 billion. India and the U.S. are also conducting joint-military exercises, the Indian Air Force has acquired more than US$10 billion of U.S. aircraft, and the U.S. implicitly accepts India as a nuclear power via the “123 Agreement” of 2006. Consequently, India’s international trade and security policy will be affected by the Trump Administration’s aim to change the post-Cold War order by cooperating with Russia against Islamist extremism and accepting its Eastern European and Central Asian spheres of influence, as well as countering China by leveraging Taiwan and containing Chinese influence in the South China Sea.
India enjoys a deep relationship with Russia, as successor to the Soviet Union. India relies on Russia for most of its defense equipment. Aside from maintenance and modernization of Soviet equipment, India’s latest acquisitions extend from Akula-II nuclear submarines and fighter jets like the Sukhoi Su-30MKI to the jointly developed BrahMos cruise missile. In contrast, India fought and lost a war with China in 1962 and has unresolved territorial disputes with it. Although its proximity makes China India’s largest trading partner, India ran a trade deficit of approximately US$53 billion with China in 2015-2016. Most critically, India is in an increasingly unequal military competition because China’s economy is five times as large as India’s, which in 2018 will allow China to spend a projected US$210 billion on defense, compared to India’s US$56.5 billion.
Vijay Chauthaiwale, currently heading the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Foreign Affairs Department, pointing to an article by BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav, stated that India would consider its relationships with U.S. and Russia through a transactional approach: relying less on broad statements of goodwill and more on concrete trade agreements and cooperation in the military realm. However, he expects that Indo-U.S. cooperation would increase under President Trump. Specifically, Trump’s tougher stance against radical Islamic terrorism and his promise to control Chinese economic manipulation and aggressive security posturing are both favorable to Indian economic and security goals, although his later comments indicated that India would also take into account Chinese responses.
With regards to trade relations with China, Mr. Chauthaiwale remarked that India was running a massive trade deficit with China. He claimed that nearly 40 percent of the lower end Indian cell phone market was controlled by Chinese manufacturers and Chinese dumping extended from telecom to steel products. These assertions were corroborated by various news sources. On security issues, he stated that India shared U.S. concerns about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, but was also concerned about China’s increasing economic domination of Pakistan, especially in the volatile province of Balochistan where Chinese workers could soon outnumber locals. Nevertheless, he emphasized that India would adhere to the One China Policy, and not recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, a possibility signaled by Mr. Trump.
About U.S.-Pakistani relations, he stated that India and the U.S. no longer consider their relationship contingent on interactions with Pakistan. India comprehends that segments of the U.S. administration continue to consider Pakistan critical to the “War on Terror” and capable of undertaking nuclear blackmail. However, India currently believes that talks with Pakistan cannot continue in tandem with its sponsorship of terrorist groups in India.
Regarding Indo-Russian relations, Chauthaiwale remarked that although they would benefit from a Russo-American rapprochement, India already enjoys a warm relationship with Russia. He pointed out that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, in charge of defense industries, was attending the Vibrant Gujarat business summit of 2017, heading one of the largest delegations, and would interact with Prime Minister Modi on the summit’s sidelines.
Increasing Indo-U.S. cooperation was also expected by Jairam Ramesh, a Member of Parliament and former Minister of Rural Development (2011-2014) and Environment and Forests (2009-2011) from the Indian National Congress, author of the book “Making Sense of Chindia: Reflections on China and India,” and key negotiator in the U.N. Climate Change Agreement of 2009. He began by declaring that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump could be united by their shared Islamophobia, Sinophobia, and love for Israel (his words). Moreover, President Trump would abstain from imposing climate change agreements, holding India accountable for minority rights, and encouraging nuclear non-proliferation. Such shifts, he added, would be welcomed by the present Indian government.
Regarding India’s relations with Russia and China, he stated that a Russia-Pakistan-China alliance may emerge centered on controlling Afghanistan, in which case India could ally with the U.S. This mirrored Chauthaiwale’s apprehensions about Russia’s recent invitation to China and Pakistan to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials from these countries claim that their joint action seeks to prevent Islamic State affiliates from establishing themselves in Afghanistan. Ramesh also noted that Prime Minister Modi wants to expand Indo-Taiwanese relations, which should overlap with President Trump’s preference.
Apropos possible hurdles confronting Indo-U.S. relations, there was also broad agreement. Chauthaiwale highlighted three areas of concerns. First, actual U.S. policies—distinct from President Trump’s rhetoric—towards China and Pakistan. Second, U.S. immigration policies, particularly regarding the H1B Visas granted to Indian workers in the information technology sector. Third, trade tariffs, intellectual property laws, and agricultural protections. However, Chauthaiwale mentioned that India and U.S. have domestic constituencies demanding particular policies, who must be addressed in the context of democratic electoral politics; subsequently remarking that Indo-U.S. ties now enjoyed bi-partisan support in the U.S. Congress. Similar concerns were also brought up by Ramesh, who attributed Trump’s opposition to granting H1-B Visas to possibly electoral rhetoric.
Editor: Edward White
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