Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 18, 2017
Trump Presidency and future of India-US relations

It is more than three months since Donald Trump won the US presidential election and more than three weeks since he was inaugurated to that high office.

Analysts and observers had hoped that Trump would mellow his pronouncements on various national and international issues after his victory in the election. They had expected that President-elect Trump would be more responsible and measured in his declarations than candidate Trump. This did not happen. They anticipated that President Trump would conduct himself with greater decorum than before. Their hopes were again belied.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to make some realistic assumptions on the future course of India-US relations under Trump.

India-US partnership has been one of the few areas that has been non-controversial and a bright spot for the USA on the foreign policy front in recent years. It can be confidently asserted that India-US relations enjoy bipartisan support in the US Congress and across the board among the US citizens. Starting with Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March, 2000, the state of partnership today is the highest ever between the two countries.

The three most recent Presidents viz Clinton, Obama (Democrats) and Bush (Republican) have all worked assiduously to take the relationship to ever newer heights. On the Indian side also, if Prime Minister Vajpayee had characterised the two countries as ''natural allies'' and Prime Minister Modi termed the connect as an ''indispensable partnership,'' Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had staked the survival of his government on the India-US civil nuclear deal and termed this as the biggest achievement of his 10-year rule. President Obama termed India-US ties as the ''defining partnership of the 21st century.''

Over the last decade, India-US bilateral relations have developed into a "global strategic partnership" based on shared democratic values and increasing convergence of interests on bilateral, regional and global issues. Regular exchange of high level political visits has provided sustained momentum to bilateral cooperation while the wide-ranging and ever-expanding dialogue architecture has established a long-term framework for India-U.S. engagement. Today, the India-US bilateral cooperation is broad-based and multi-sectoral, covering trade and investment, defence and security, education, science and technology, cyber security, high-technology, civil nuclear energy, space technology and applications, clean energy, environment, agriculture and health.

Donald Trump has hence inherited a vigorous and vibrant relationship between India and the USA. It is expected that Trump will do all that is necessary to take the bilateral partnership to newer heights. This was clearly evident from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the fifth world leader, after Presidents of Mexico and Egypt and Prime Ministers of Canada and Israel, whom Trump called after his inauguration on January 20, 2017. The Modi-Trump conversation on  January 24 was marked by cordiality and warmth which cannot be said about some other conversations that Trump had with some other leaders. Official statements issued by the two sides did not go into specifics but Trump’s early phone call is evidence of the priority that Trump attaches to Indo-US ties. According to a White House statement, Trump emphasised that Washington considers India a "true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world." Both leaders were said to have discussed opportunities to strengthen their partnership on the economy and defence. They also discussed security in south and central Asia and resolved to "stand shoulder to shoulder in the global fight against terrorism." Modi tweeted that he had a "warm conversation" with the President and said the pair had "agreed to work closely in the coming days to further strengthen our bilateral ties." Both Modi and Trump invited each other for state visits. This telephonic conversation could set the tone for the future of Indo-US relationship under a Republican administration.

Although no specifics or details were provided after the telephonic conversation, it is clear that there was convergence between the two leaders on further strengthening relations in strategic, political, economic and defence areas, particularly in confronting the scourge of terrorism.

In addition to the Modi-Trump telephonic conversation, Indian government and incoming Trump Administration had already established several contacts after Trump’s victory on  November 8, 2016. The first was the congratulatory message and call by PM Modi on  November 9, just hours after the election results declaring Trump as the winner were announced. The second was by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar during his visit to New York in end November, where he is reported to have met a number of advisors and officials in the Trump Transition Team. These were followed by interaction between NSA Ajit Doval and his counterpart Gen Mike Flynn on December 19 in Washington DC. Discussions on ''regional and global issues'' were reported to have taken place. With Flynn’s resignation on  February 14, contact at NSA level would have to be re-established with the new incumbent in due course.

PM Modi is himself reported to have said at a meeting just after the elections that he is looking forward to working with US president-elect Donald Trump with whom he has good relations and feels that the incoming Republican administration will be well inclined towards India.

A perusal of statements made by Trump during his campaigning would demonstrate that he did not make any sharply critical comments about India as he did for many other countries. On the contrary, he by and large made positive and laudatory references to India. He said that if he got elected, India will have a true friend in the White House. He showered encomiums on Prime Minister Modi saying that he is very energetic and that he (Trump) was looking forward to working with him.

The issue of job losses in the United States consistently surfaced as a contentious and divisive issue in this as well as previous US Presidential elections. In the current elections, factory closures and ''stealing'' of American jobs has featured extensively. Trump has mostly targeted China and Mexico for taking away American manufacturing jobs and blamed them for shutdown of industries. Only on a few occasions has he criticised the off-shoring of software and IT jobs to India. Indian companies, particularly in the IT sector like Infosys, WIPRO, TCS etc which are active in the USA, have already started taking corrective measures by increasingly hiring local professionals in view of some comments by Trump, as also Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearings. Irrespective of any immediate action that the US Administration might take to streamline the H1B visa regime, I feel reasonably confident that in the near future, the US government will be persuaded by its industry and will realise that the competitiveness of the US industry is critically dependent on the specialised and technically sophisticated work performed by Indian software engineers etc.

If Trump acts on his promise of bringing down the corporate tax in the USA from 35% to 15%, it could encourage and tempt some US companies currently based in India to relocate to USA. This could have an adverse impact on the Make in India initiative of the Indian government if some companies leave the country.

Trump's relations with Pakistan are also likely to have a significant impact on India. Trump's strong statements against terrorism make it likely that he applies added pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting and providing sanctuary to terrorists. This could be beneficial for India. Trump’s temporary ban on admitting nationals from seven Muslim majority nations has worried Pakistan that it could also be included in this category. This apprehension became even more pronounced when in a White House press briefing, the spokesperson stated in response to a question that entry of Pakistani nationals could also be banned. This prompted Pakistan to quickly put Lashkar-e-Taibe chief Hafiz Saeed under house arrest on January 31 this year to burnish its counter-terrorism credentials in front of the Trump administration. Over the last many years, Trump has made several statements that were highly condemnatory of Pakistan saying that it is no friend of USA as it takes billions of dollars from America while it continued to help its enemies and got US soldiers killed. Trump has also commented adversely against nuclear weapons in Pakistan. He stated at one of his election rallies that he would like to get the help and support of India to deal with the problem of a ''semi-stable, nuclear armed Pakistan.''

In conclusion, it appears highly likely that in strategic, political, security, defence and economic terms, relations between India and the USA will continue their upward trajectory under President Trump. Impact of USA's relations with Pakistan on India is likely to be beneficial and positive. As far as implications for India with respect to USA's evolving relations with China and Russia are concerned, it will be better to wait for further denouements to unfold. Relations between these countries with the USA are complex and multi-faceted. It is too early to speculate how they will evolve and what ramifications they might entail for India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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