Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet United States President Donald Trump at the end of this month during his visit to the North American nation. This will be Modi's first major engagement with the new Republican administration, and foreign policy experts contend that it could define the contours of his US policy for the foreseeable future.
What New Delhi will have to deal with is a US regime that has sent mixed signals to India thus far, undermining Modi's pledge during his previous visit to Washington that India-US ties have "overcome the hesitations of history". During the US Presidential election campaign, one of Trump's key stops was an Indian-American conclave organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition, whose support for his candidature was forthcoming. At the event, Trump referred to India as a "key strategic ally", and if voted to the highest political office, India and the US could become the best of friends. What particularly endeared him to sections of foreign policy mandarins in New Delhi during the campaign trail was his seemingly tough stance against Pakistan and Islamist extremism.
Since he assumed office, however, Trump has relayed confusing signals about his administration's priorities in South Asia, which could potentially undermine all the ground work laid out by his predecessor and Prime Minister Modi. Trump's pick for Defence Secretary retired General James N. Mattis had presented the administration's policies in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of growing Chinese expansionism during his Senate confirmation hearings for the post of defence secretary.
At the hearings, Mattis said: "India, Australia, Japan, and several of the Gulf Cooperation Council states are key partners in addressing the security challenges in the region, and it is my view that increasing our security assistance and military-to-military engagement with strategically positioned nations such as these is essential." Despite Trump's tough anti-Pakistan rhetoric, there remains lots of confusion following subsequent events. In a telephonic conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump issued assurances that his administration was ready to aid Islamabad any which way. Of course, no Trump assertion is without its fair share of hyperbole. He referred to Pakistan as "amazing, with tremendous opportunities" and "Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people". What was rather more disconcerting were US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley's reported comments on a resolution of cross-border tensions between India and Pakistan. She said that Washington could play the role of a mediator in resolving the Kashmir issue, although the US State Department did issue a clarification and played down her comments. Pakistan has always sought to 'internationalise' Kashmir to up the ante and vitiate the ground situation, whereas India has studiously maintained a no-intervention policy and insisted on 'bilateralism'.
Another potential sticking point is Trump's decision to stop the United States from fulfilling its commitments laid out in the historic Paris climate accord. The US, which is the country responsible for the highest share of carbon emissions worldwide, will no longer remain a signatory to the agreement. In December 2015, 195 countries signed a deal which promises to keep the rise in global temperatures significantly below 2 degrees Celsius by the turn of the century. If the world gets warmer by more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned of a rise in the number of "extreme climate events". Trump's decision to withdraw from the deal was based on the belief that it would impose a significant economic burden on America and trample on its sovereignty—a patently false assertion.
Contrary to Trump's claims of India making "its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries," New Delhi believes that fully developed countries must share technologies that help decrease carbon emissions. India is not sitting around with a begging bowl. Another charge that Trump laid out against the likes of India is that the deal would allow India to double its coal production by 2020--another false claim. India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj set the record straight, arguing that India's "signature is not out of greed or fear" since her "commitment to the environment is 5,000 years old".
It is also safe to suggest that bilateral economic relations have also come under considerable stress after the Trump administration ordered federal agencies to review the temporary visa programme for high-skilled foreigners to ensure the flow of the "most skilled and highest paid". The US President's executive order makes it impossible for IT firms to bring overseas low-skilled engineers into the US for on-site postings. Indian IT companies, which are the largest applicants for the H1B visa, have the most to lose. This is part of Trump's apparent agenda against economic globalisation, which he believes has hurt the average American worker. China has seemingly made the push to take over the existing global economic order, and with some apparent success, especially after the recent Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.
What is of real concern to New Delhi is the Trump administration's dilly-dallying on the civil war in Afghanistan. There is no clarity on how many US troops will his government send to fight in Afghanistan. More worryingly, however, is the recent statement of US Defence Secretary Jamis Mattis. Addressing the country's senate armed services committee earlier this week, Mattis said "we are not winning" in Afghanistan, and the Taliban is extending its presence through the strife-torn nation. While the US defence establishment is seemingly keen on deploying more US boots on the ground, there are disagreements within its civilian leadership, leading to some level of policy paralysis on the issue. Another major concern for New Delhi is Trump's U-turn on China, which could have serious repercussion for India. Washington no longer considers China as "currency manipulator"—a significant about-turn from the rhetoric he peddled during his bid for the US Presidency.
He backed this stunning assertion with the rationale that it was not as if the Chinese currency is deliberately kept "weak", but that the American dollar is "getting too strong". This major concession is a complete break from the promise Trump had made during his election campaign. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump argues that if the US officially deems China to be a currency manipulator, it would jeopardise any attempt to resolve the threat nuclear-armed North Korea poses. While both sides remain divided on how to deal with North Korea, recent developments indicate that they have arrived at some common ground. One could even argue that issues of US-China trade or the North Korea problem are entirely different from India's concerns over its hostile neighbour and that the Trump administration will deal with these matters separately. It is hard to tell which way the wind will blow.
Harsh V. Pant, a professor of International Relations at King's College London, aptly sums up the challenges Modi faces before his visit. "But now he faces the challenge of building a rapport with an administration which seems intent on retreating to the margins of global politics and of pursuing a transactional agenda. The strategic logic that largely drove George W. Bush and Barack Obama's overtures to India—that India's rise is in America's larger interest—can no longer be the basis of India-US engagement under Trump. There are indeed challenges here as New Delhi has become used to the broader strategic logic and has traditionally been averse to transactional relationships. But there are new opportunities if only Indian policy mandarins remain open to new possibilities. If Modi could convey this message to Trump effectively during his visit, he would have accomplished a whole lot," writes Pant, in a recent column for a leading Indian publication.
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