Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2017-02-04 07:45:05 Published on Feb 04, 2017
In an America first world, pursuing an India first policy is a logical response

The Trump disruption is now in full flow and the tectonic plates are shifting under our feet. The fault lines run along the issues of trade, immigration, relations with China and Iran.

In Trump’s America First world, there are no friends and enemies. Trusted friends and allies have been given short shrift as the new President has taken the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). How little the US bothers about loyalty is evident from Donald Trump’s testy conversation with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull last week. Trump’s bullying behaviour towards Mexico indicates that he cares even less about good neighbourliness.

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At first sight, India has little to worry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi says that his conversation with Trump was “warm” and that he had invited the US President to visit India. The two leaders had “discussed security in the region of South and Central Asia” and resolved that the two countries “stand shoulder to shoulder in the global fight against terrorism”. But parsing the sentence could well suggest that the US may want Indian boots on the ground in the quagmire of Afghanistan. Note there is no reference to the flavour of yesterday – the Asia-Pacific aka the Indo-Pacific.

There are actually just two ways of dealing with Trump: Go along with whatever he says and does, or hedge. New Delhi would be well advised to adopt the latter course. Trump is the kind of person who will insist on always holding the steering wheel and maintain that only he knows the direction; complainers will be asked to get off. In an America First world, pursuing an India First policy is the logical response.

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In recent years, India, like many other middle powers like the UK, Germany or Japan, has gotten used to leaning on Uncle Sam who, of course, revelled in the role of global leader. But things have changed and it is time to explore other options. Without much money or military muscle, our India First strategy has to be based on building durable coalitions with like-minded countries without egregiously stepping on American toes.

First, we need to shore up our most vital external area – the Persian Gulf. Obama exempted India from the oil sanctions in 2012. But such accommodation would be out of character in the Trump era, which has just put Iran “on notice” for testing a ballistic missile. Leave alone sanctions, the big worry now is the possibility of a shooting war in the region. Trump has declared that “nothing is off the table”, with regard to Iran.

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India will not escape the collateral damage of a war in Iran. It is the fourth largest supplier of oil to India, and any war against Iran will also hit oil supply from our other partners like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. More than oil, a US-Iran standoff will dent our geopolitical plans centred on the port of Chabahar to link up to Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well as the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) connecting India’s west coast ports through a multi-modal network to Europe, via Iran and the Russian railway system. INSTC is India’s humble but important version of China’s One Belt One Road plan.

Second, we need to guard against instability in the Asia Pacific. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, said in early 2016 that war with China and Iran were real possibilities. In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the US would deny access to the seven artificial islands China had constructed in the South China Sea.

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India would not be directly affected, and may even revel at China being put in its place, but even a short sharp clash between two of the world’s leading powers will, at a minimum, generate severe turbulence in the global economy which cannot but affect our growth.

What we need is an eastern coalition with Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore to rein in China, but also moderate American adventurism. A western coalition with Russia, Persian Gulf states and Japan should aim to calm things down in the Persian Gulf. Russians have a major stake in INSTC, and oil from the Persian Gulf is vital for Japan.

One country is in both lists, Japan, which has emerged as a major economic partner and aid giver to India. Tokyo is enhancing India’s domestic connectivity and has expressed interest in partnering India in Chabahar and the larger connectivity goals in Iran and Central Asia. Strategic coordination between the two middle-powers of Asia would be a big hedge against the vagaries of America First.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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