How India needs to handle Donald Trump

Kanwal Sibal
Kanwal SibalOct 22, 2019 | 11:38

How India needs to handle Donald Trump

The US is today our most important partner overall in terms of trade, investment, services and technology, not to mention a growing defence relationship. Our people-to-people ties are the closest taking into account the quality of our diaspora, the number of Indian students and cultural flows.

Volatile Trump

However, that does not make the relationship easy. The US as a global power has foreign policy priorities that differ from ours. The US is more important to us as a partner than India is for the US and, therefore, it can make more demands on us than we can make on it, and apply more pressure points. India's challenge is to successfully manage an unequal relationship. The advent of Donald Trump has made the management even more difficult. He is mercurial. A president, who declares himself as a "stable genius" who possesses "unmatched wisdom", makes foreign policy based on instincts and is obsessed with deal-making, cannot be handled easily.


US President Donald Trump has made it a habit to rock established ties even with allies. (Photo: Reuters)

True, the 'Howdy Modi' event at Houston went off exceedingly well and a fresh personal rapport with Trump was re-established. But then Trump has rocked established ties even with allies, openly supporting Brexit, displaying hostility to the European Union, abandoning his Kurdish allies in northern Syria, countenancing a Turkish invasion of Syria and then threatening to destroy the Turkish economy if it did not halt its military operations.

His letter to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asking him not to go down in history as the slaughterer of Kurds, not be a fool and make a deal breaches all norms of diplomatic communication between heads of state. Therefore, it would be wise not to bank too much on the good personal chemistry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump visible at Houston as a cushion against the US President's erratic behaviour. On India-Pakistan issues he has already created confusion through mediation talk and lauding Modi and Pakistan PM Imran Khan (the unhinged military puppet) equally. On the Kashmir issue, the American liberal press and Pakistani propaganda is conditioning even political thinking, with the US Congress organising a hearing on Kashmir focused on human rights violations. Such American interference can set back the trust building in bilateral ties that has progressed well until now.


Changing tides

Trade issues have become a source of tension in bilateral ties, with concerns that if they remain unresolved a Section 301 investigation could start against India with deleterious consequences. Some lobbies, including domestic, have begun to argue that with the slowdown in India's economic growth the US may lose interest in India, raising the obvious question whether the India-US relationship is strategic or merely a business proposition. If it is strategic, then the lowering of the growth rate from 7 per cent to 6 per cent should not matter in the larger perspective. We have also the challenge of managing our ties with an adversary like China.

Our northern neighbour is an important element in the shaping of our foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region. By accepting the maritime security linkage between the Indian Ocean, which is in our sphere of influence strategically, and the Pacific Ocean — in particular western Pacific — where US power through alliances, bases and positioning of a large number of military personnel on the ground and a formidable naval capacity on sea, we have recognised the need to cooperate to counter China's hegemonic ambitions in Asia for which China is developing a powerful Navy. But we have also seen that US power in the western Pacific has not been able to curtail China's expansionism in the South China Sea. If the US is failing to adequately address the China challenge in an area where its interests are deeply enmeshed with those of its allies, the deterrent value of a strong US-India strategic relationship against China's expansionism in the Indian Ocean becomes relatively uncertain.


Tackling Beijing

This would explain why India needs to keep China engaged. China cannot be ignored, not only by virtue of its global economic role today, but as a contiguous neighbour that presents a direct territorial threat and an indirect one by securing strong political, economic and maritime footholds in the countries around us.

The Wuhan spirit and the Chennai connect are pragmatic ways to handle China's leadership to keep differences under control and communication channels available to avoid a confrontation. If stronger security ties with the US are a hedge against China's disruptive conduct, engagement with China is a hedge against uncertain American deal-making policies under Trump.

With such considerations in mind - of a double hedging - India has modulated its approach to the Indo-Pacific concept by tuning it to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) requirements, as it is ASEAN that connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and the grouping does not want to antagonise China or be forced to take sides. At the same time, India has balanced this by agreeing to raise the Quad to a political level just before President Xi Jinping's India visit so that the messaging to China is clear. In sum, as the external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar thoughtfully said in Washington recently on the future of India-US ties - India seeks convergence in a multi-polar world not congruence, and called for pressing the "refresh" button in India-US ties.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: October 22, 2019 | 11:43
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