Commentary | 09 March 2017

India and Australia eye the world according to Trump

There's a momentum towards greater cooperation among India, Japan, and Australia, writes James Curran in CFR's Asia Unbound blog on 9 March. Photo: Flickr/Us State Department

  • James Curran

There's a momentum towards greater cooperation among India, Japan, and Australia, writes James Curran in CFR's Asia Unbound blog on 9 March. Photo: Flickr/Us State Department

  • James Curran

Since Donald Trump's election the very word 'transactional' has sent a shiver up many an allied spine in Europe and Asia. But not in New Delhi.

The Indian reaction to Trump's rise has been somewhat different. Instead of alarm, there has been calm; instead of panic, patience. Amongst the foreign policy elite in New Delhi, there is much to like in Trump's positions on China, his search for a more cooperative relationship with Russia and his revival of a more hard line, 'war on terror', rhetoric. There is hope that he will adopt a tougher stance on Pakistan. And defense cooperation with Washington is unlikely to lose steam in the years ahead.

For Australian analysts and commentators, this more sanguine reaction is striking. Many in Canberra are still reeling from the controversy over the leaking of a private phone conversation between President Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in which the new US leader strongly criticized a refugee deal with Australia that had been struck by the Barack Obama administration.

India certainly has its own issues with Trump on immigration (in particular, his intention to reform H-1B visas) but many in New Delhi counsel the need to avoid allowing the issue to hamstring the relationship so early in Trump's term of office. Here, Turnbull's judgment in raising a contentious issue in his first conversation with Trump is seen as a salutary lesson.

This newly transactional approach suits India just fine for the moment, but it's probably more a case of keeping one's head down as the Trump administration continues to search for a settling point. As such, enduring questions remain in Canberra, and elsewhere in the region, about New Delhi's willingness to adopt more of a strategic role commensurate with its growing economic weight.

Indeed, with President Trump's continuing pressure on allies and partners to do more, repeated in his recent address to Congress, India too will find that the United States and others will look to see whether India starts to spread its strategic wings.

An abiding question remains: just how readily will India seek to play more of a geopolitical role outside its own neighborhood?

Indian confidence abroad is growing. Along with developing what former Australian Foreign Affairs Secretary Peter Varghese calls 'the institutional horsepower of a great power', Prime Minister Modi has been pursuing an active foreign policy, particularly with other regional powers. Some Indian think tanks now even talk of India 'punching above its weight.'

This is good news for New Delhi's partners in Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra as they look to Modi to keep growing his country's Indian Ocean capabilities and to India more generally to help shore up the liberal world order.

And it is clearly backed up by policy momentum. As Japan and India look to further harmonize their respective strategic visions (witness the coming together last November of Modi's 'Act East' policy and Abe's 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy') Australia-India cooperation has also been expanding. Following the elevation of the relationship to a 'strategic partnership' in 2009, bilateral maritime dialogues and exercises have followed, and a civil nuclear cooperation agreement has now entered into force. The two countries have also agreed to hold a '2+2' meeting with their defense and foreign secretaries.

Continuing uncertainty over Trump's Asia policy has only prompted a renewed call for further, deeper cooperation between Australia, India, and Japan, and it should be noted that there is already an annual trilateral meeting of these countries' foreign secretaries. As Australian High Commissioner Harinder Sidhu stresses, 'small group diplomacy will matter more over time in the Indo-Pacific. Small groups, overlapping groups, and so-called ‘minilateralism' are important because every strategic issue we face is different and will engage different countries in different combinations.'

Others are now reviving middle power coalitions as a means of overcoming the constraints imposed by a zero-sum view of US-China regional dynamics. Thus C Raja Mohan and Rory Medcalf have recently argued that such coalitions can not only answer Trump's call for allies and partners to do more, they can help 'shape the regional order and not simply accept the results of US-China competition, collision or collusion'.

Sometimes the premise for more middle power coalitions, however, is based on the assumption of rapid US retrenchment from the region. This view sees in Trump's abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his conflicting statements on the need for US allies to stump up more for their own self-defense the seeds of an Asia without the United States. One Indian analyst even put forward the view that the current American strategic predicament in Asia is akin to that facing UK policymakers in the late 1960s, when the decision was taken to withdraw British military forces from 'East of Suez.' 'One blink,' said this analyst, and 'the US will be gone'. It is a dubious assessment based on a flawed interpretation of history.

The proponents of middle power coalitions can be somewhat defensive, too, on the question of whether these arrangements will be seen as yet another means of containing China. They stress that so long as ministers and officials watch their language carefully, Beijing will come to respect such gatherings, acknowledging that the enlargement of its sphere of interest cannot come at the expense of its neighbors' interests.

Sceptics are not convinced, asking how a middle power coalition that holds security dialogues, shares intelligence, exchanges data on maritime surveillance, and seeks to build military and maritime capabilities throughout the region can avoid being viewed by Beijing as some kind of willful act of containment or encirclement. However suave and smooth the rhetoric, there remains a significant problem of presentation here.

There is also the problem of recent history: namely the fate of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Conceived by Japanese Prime Minister Abe as an 'Asian Arc of Democracy' and formed in 2007, it brought together the United States, Japan, Australia, and India and was accompanied by the collective military exercise entitled 'Malabar'. In recent weeks the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating has caustically dismissed the revival of the quadrilateral proposal as, 'recklessness on an international scale', pointing precisely to the problem of its likely reception in China. The criticism is overblown, but it is not entirely inaccurate. After all, it was former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apparent deference to Chinese sensitivities that lay behind his unilateral abandonment of quadrilateral activities in early 2008.

It is an Australian walkout that Indian officials remember only too well. There is, however, a momentum towards greater cooperation among India, Japan, and Australia—particularly at the official level—that seems difficult to stop, especially in the age of President Trump.