Barack Obama will pass on the baton of the United States Presidency to Donald Trump on Friday. What shape will a Trump Presidency take? On America’s relationship with the rest of the world, there is much unpredictability. As the former celebrity tycoon takes office, he will be confronted with an uncertain world. On the one side, he finds the Middle East mired in turmoil and a Europe struggling with the inflow of immigrants and a vulnerable security apparatus, unable to contain the threat of terrorism. Russia, meanwhile, is flexing its muscles once again and their relation with Washington is probably at its lowest since the Cold War. China is expanding their sphere of influence across the world, both on the trade front and militarily. It is evident that America’s days as the “indispensable power” of the world, where it could create and maintain order, are behind it. In a sharp departure from previous US presidents, Trump is seeking to rewrite the rules of engagement with both allies and foes. For example, he has suggested that if the NATO does not pay more for the overall protection of Europe, the US might leave the alliance. NATO’s focus, he argued, must shift away from Russia towards terrorism and tackle the flow of migrants. The outgoing administration imposed stringent economic sanctions on Russia for the annexations of Crimea from Ukraine. It is no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seeks a lifting of these sanctions. In his speeches, Trump has expressed that it is a possibility, although he will face severe resistance from the US security establishment. Can Trump’s apparent bonhomie with Putin overcome the extreme trust deficit that exists between their respective governments? In fact, Trump has even proposed the idea of an alliance with Russia to help ease tensions in Syria—steps that may bring not only a semblance of stability but also save face. “I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia — from a position of strength only—is possible, absolutely possible,” said Trump. “Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.” Beyond Crimea, the US intelligence establishment has alleged that cyber attacks from Russia played a significant role in Trump’s victory. Of course, the CIA has provided little evidence to back their claim, besides making a big show of it. Trump’s overtures towards Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whom Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called “an abiding friend”, will be welcomed by New Delhi, as it seeks to align its interests with Washington directly. Nonetheless, it is still hard to tell which way Trump will go with Russia, considering the deep suspicions some of his Cabinet members hold.
On China, however, Trump and his team have taken an adversarial position. For decades, both nations have had a complicated relationship, even though their economies are intricately connected to each other. It is imperative to note that the Chinese hold a significant amount of US debt. The incoming President has made it very clear that he wants to change of terms of engagement, especially in bilateral trade. “Mr Trump says he would label China a currency manipulator, crack down on hacking, and threaten the Chinese government with steep tariffs if it doesn’t agree to rewrite trade agreements,” which he believes have taken away jobs from America. “He said he would toughen rules against the theft of intellectual property and combat subsidies China offers to boost exports,” the copy goes on to state, besides opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a vigorous defence of free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday, emphasising Beijing’s desire to play a greater global role as the United States turns inward. World affairs have indeed taken a strange turn when the Chinese seek free trade, while the Americans espouse a protectionist cause. On territorial concerns, however, the incoming US administration seems to have upped the ante. “Everything is under negotiation, including One China,” Trump said last Friday, questioning the decades-old-policy followed by Washington. As per the “Once-China” policy, Taiwan is part of China, and the Communist government in Beijing is China’s sole legitimate government. Can the Trump administration back up such talk with real action? Trump’s pick for Defence Secretary retired General James N. Mattis has laid out the incoming administration’s policies in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of growing Chinese expansionism. At his Senate confirmation hearings for the post of US Defence Secretary, he 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.” For the NDA government in India too, the incoming US Defence Secretary’s recent statements would have been received with great satisfaction. After a promising start, India’s relationship with China entered a downward spiral, culminating in Beijing’s decision to stymie New Delhi’s efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and vote against Pakistan’s use of ‘non-state actors’ (terrorist groups) to fulfil their strategic objectives, across multilateral forums. In the past year, both India and the US have signed a slew of outstanding defence, trade and energy related agreements. Mattis’s statements during his confirmation hearing are in line with one of the key foreign policy initiatives of the outgoing Obama administration—to make India a major player in its “Pivot to Asia” doctrine to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Asia. Modi seems happy to play along, considering China’s recent economic and military concessions to Pakistan.
Without mentioning the country by name, even Indian Prime Minister Modi said that China’s growing military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, particularly the South China Sea, are fomenting security risks. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Trump’s pick for US Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson also said that Beijing’s aggressive push towards reclaiming islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea must be brought to a halt. Under the NDA government’s “Act East” policy, trade linkages with ASEAN countries in the Far-East have received close attention. These regions are set to play a vital role in India’s economic development, especially regarding investments and trade. For example, India’s growing dependence on the Malacca Strait for the flow of goods and services has also compelled New Delhi to take a position. Any potential territorial standoff in the South China Sea would come in direct conflict with India’s interests. New Delhi has legitimate grievances against Beijing. However, it must carefully assess any attempt to embrace a US-led military alliance in Asia entirely. There is little clarity on the gains that may accrue to India’s strategic interests if New Delhi indeed puts its weight behind an Australia-India-Japan-US maritime alliance in the Pacific. In fact, the consequences of taking such a position are pretty clear. As it has done in the South China Sea, such a move would compel the Chinese to escalate tensions along the disputed border with India. There isn’t much the Americans can provide that would deter the Chinese from escalating tensions, besides the odd condemnation on international forums. New Delhi must find a way not to isolate China altogether. It’s a delicate balance. And any measure that disturbs this balance would be inimical to India’s interests.