Like all American envoys, the US Ambassador to India Rich Verma has had a difficult job in the past forty-eight hours, as New Delhi gets to grips with the election of Donald Trump. US-India ties, he argued, transcended the ‘friendship of the American President and the Indian Prime Minister’, because they were ‘bipartisan’. This is true, but Trump sits far outside of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in the US, and it remains unclear whether more conservative advisors can tether him to it.
Trump has publicly and repeatedly repudiated this bipartisan consensus on alliances, non-proliferation, and Russia. It is natural to ask whether he might do so in other areas. Over the past fifteen years, New Delhi and Washington have made enormous progress in the bilateral relationship. The Bush Administration delivered a civil nuclear deal which effectively legitimised India’s nuclear program, while the Obama Administration greatly expanded defence cooperation and fostered a shared language around Asian maritime disputes. I have documented that progress, over the years, in this very publication.
Trump fits awkwardly into this picture. India increasingly values a strong, steadying US presence in Asia. ‘If the American trumpet was more certain in this region’, noted India’s foreign secretary last March, ‘it would be helpful’. While two of Trump’s foreign policy advisors have set out a relatively conventional, assertive vision for the US in Asia, the president-elect himself has called this into question as part of a broader disparaging of US allies and their value. To be sure, Indian foreign policy elites share elements of this worldview: they do not subscribe to the notion that a more active America is always good for India. In the Middle East, Trump’s lenient view of the Assad regime is far closer to New Delhi’s position than Clinton’s hawkish stance. In Europe, Indians have complained that sanctions on Russia have pushed Moscow towards China, worsening India’s strategic position. Trump’s well-known affinity for Vladimir Putin, reflected in Russia’s efforts to aid Trump’s campaign through cyber-espionage, may well thaw US-Russia relations; India has reason to welcome this. Moreover, Trump has expressed strong views on countering Islamist terrorism by extreme means, and has criticised Pakistan directly; India will hope that its struggle against Pakistan-backed terrorist groups might benefit as a result.
Yet most Indian policymakers would probably have preferred a Clinton victory, given her long engagement with India. There are now potentially serious risks to India on the horizon. The first of these is simply a disruption of the remarkable momentum in US-India ties that has built up in recent years. A major logistics agreement was signed in August, India is preparing the importation of tens of billions of dollars of US arms, and the Indian Navy has recently indicated its second indigenous aircraft carrier will be nuclear-powered and use electromagnetic launch technology (EMALS), which may require American assistance. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has been a long-time advocate of strengthened US-India ties, but his successor may well be drawn from outside the mainstream of the US foreign policy and defence establishment. If the next administration perceives a lesser threat from China, is more eager to accommodate Chinese preferences in Asia, and is less interested in upholding US primacy, it may have less of a stake in actively supporting India’s rise.
The second risk is broader disruption to the security order in Asia, at a time when great-power competition in the region is at a post-war high. India is increasingly challenging Chinese claims on the South China Sea, pushing back at China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, and deepening ties with South-East Asian states. While there are some articulate, sceptical voices like Srinath Raghavan, who argue India has no reason to support US primacy, it is clear that India-China competition is intensifying and that India considers continued US engagement with Asia, including the pivot, to be in its interests. More broadly, if a US pullback encourages destabilising competition between China, Japan, South Korea, and others then this could disrupt maritime flows, cripple the global economy, and even spill over onto India’s land and maritime periphery. Of course, a lower, more manageable level of competition between China and Asia might actually benefit India, increasing its value as a partner in what Rory Medcalf and Raja Mohan have called ‘middle power coalitions’.
Finally, the third risk that India faces is the impact of heightened economic nationalism in the US. While Trump actively courted the Indian-American vote, gaining support from some right-wing Hindu Americans in particular, his rhetoric also targeted India (among other nations): ‘we’re being ripped off with China, ripped off with Japan, ripped off with Mexico at the border and then trade, ripped off by Vietnam, and by India, and by every country...India is taking our jobs.’ India is presently the fastest growing major economy in the world, but its merchandise exports fell in 20 out of the last 21 months, while year-on-year services exports fell 4.56% in July. Heightened tariffs on India, or a wider trade war, would be seen as a grievous blow. Trump has also expressed opposition to aspects of visa and immigration rules that benefit Indian IT firms; 62% of Indian IT exports go to the US, and visa restrictions could cause considerable disruption too.
Donald Trump is not an unknown quantity (no-one with 34,000 tweets could be described as such) but many of his views on Asia are glib, erratic, or extreme. Many Republican-affiliated officials who played a key role in furthering the US-India relationship, such as Ambassador Robert Blackwill or Ashley Tellis, denounced Trump and backed Clinton, and so could not realistically serve in his administration to guide US-India ties from the inside. The best case scenario for India is that Trump confines himself to modest pressure on North-East Asian allies, ensures continuity in the US-India defence relationship, avoids protectionist measures, and applies greater pressure on Pakistan. But it is also possible that a Trump Administration, guided by a president with no military or political experience, adopts a more reckless and less welcome course.
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