India: How the elephant got its Trump

Picture of Professor Rory Medcalf

Professor Rory Medcalf

Dr Anthony Bergin, Dr David Brewster and Professor Rory Medcalf

Picture of Dr Anthony BerginDr Anthony Bergin

Any simple narrative that the Trump Presidency is bad for Asia, and that Asians universally think so, faces an awkwardly large stumbling block: India. The fact is, India’s strategic elite takes a pragmatic view of Donald Trump and of their country’s strategic partnership with the United States. In terms of a rising India’s interests, what they see is not all bad.

India overwhelmingly sees its security problems as relating to terrorism, Pakistan and China, and looks to the United States to strengthen its hand in managing them. Indians see, under Trump, a United States fixated on great power politics, on jihadist terrorism and on transactional international relations.

They see none of the righteous US-led multilateralism of which India has fallen foul in the past on nuclear non-proliferation or climate change. Certainly, there are potential downsides to watch for, such as a possible mishandling of US-China relations or Indians being unduly affected by US restrictions on skilled migration. But on balance, Modi’s India seems to calculate it can do quite well out of Trump’s America.

For all the abhorrence with which liberal democrats the world over might greet the Trump ascendancy, in India it is a recognisable and tolerable phenomenon. Both Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are ‘strongman’ figures from outside their respective national political traditions.

Trump’s story – complete with dynastic privilege, real estate wealth, questionable business practices, dubious associates, lurid showbiz and spectacular entry into politics – would not be out of place in, say, Mumbai.

Picture of Dr David BrewsterDr David Brewster

Moreover, those who pay little attention to the spectacle of the world’s largest democracy would perhaps not realise that in some ways Trump’s 2016 election success was anticipated by that of Narendra Modi in 2014. Modi’s campaign mixed cutting-edge manipulation of social media messaging with huge public rallies that crudely mobilised mass disenchantment.

Indeed, Modi’s winning message was an illuminating half-way marker for the shifting mood in American electoral politics: it combined the hope of Obama with the anger of Trump.

Much now will depend on the personal chemistry between Modi and Trump. Modi’s diplomacy seems to rest heavily on personal rapport and top-down direction to officials to make big things happen. Witness his warmth and ambition in working with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom India is genuinely recasting a major-power relationship, or, in 2014, with Australia’s then PM Tony Abbott (with whom he abruptly set a 12-month deadline for a bilateral free trade agreement; we are still waiting). Modi prefers hugs to handshakes; that may work with Trump.

A detour slightly further back in history also helps explain why Indians – or at least their strategic policy elites - seem largely all right with Trump. India has been on the receiving end of United States power more than once, not least through Washington’s long military support for Pakistan, which India sees as the world’s greatest source of terrorism.

That has led Delhi to take an unsentimental view of the United States as a power that is hugely important, but also one that needs to be approached with a clear understanding of one’s own national interests.

New Delhi is steadily increasing its military capabilities and strategic influence, but also clearly understands that there’ll be no substitute for United States military power for a long time. Even as New Delhi understands the importance of a strong United States presence in the region, Indians seem relatively unfazed by Trump and what he may mean for the United States-India relationship.

India realises that it needs to work productively with the United States in balancing interests against China. And India’s leadership is also keenly aware of how much the United States needs India as part of a broader set of balancing arrangements. India and the United States are pressing ahead with greater defence cooperation, which so far seems largely to involve the United States making special deals to transfer defence technology to India. Trump may have fewer qualms than his predecessors in bolstering a friendly India with such key capabilities as missile defences.

It could be argued that, ever since Washington tilted towards India from the start of their civil nuclear deal negotiations in 2005, the logic of American policy was transactional – only, over a very long timeframe. Informed India-watchers were well aware that it could be many years, perhaps a generation, before America and its allies would reap the full benefit of an India that was confident and capable enough to seriously complicate China’s calculations in the Indo-Pacific.

New Delhi does not seem particularly unhappy with Trump’s overtures towards Moscow: India has had a time-tested relationship with Russia. The notion of a closer US-Russia relationship to make life uncomfortable for China would be no great surprise to Indian policymakers, previous generations of whom took comfort in close India-Soviet relations at times of India-China hostility and India-US mistrust.

Nor is Trump’s apparently unconstrained support for Israel a cause of concern in India. Nervousness about dealing openly with Israel, for fear of alienating India’s large Muslim minority or many fellow non-aligned countries, is for Modi’s India a thing of the past.

Modi’s government and India’s security forces tend to admire Israel’s single-minded focus on the national interest and its effectiveness in counter-terrorism and national resilience. Israel has sold India considerable amounts of military equipment. There has been serious cooperation between the military industries and the intelligence services of the two states. Modi is expected to visit Israel later this year.

Indians also feel less moral outrage than others at Trump’s border protection stance. Although India has absorbed and accommodated vast numbers of migrants and refugees throughout much of its modern history, notably from Bangladesh, India has also at times run out of patience on border issues, and its border guards have sometimes applied a shoot-to-kill policy. In any case, India is no stranger to building fences and fortifications to seal its frontiers.

Trump’s crudely unrelenting stance on terrorism and Islam goes down well with much of the population of a country that has waged a decades-long struggle with many terrorist entities. President Trump has made it clear that a central focus of his tenure will be, in his own words, to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth.” Although India is home to some 170 million Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom support Indian sovereignty and communal harmony, the country is also a target of frequent cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistani soil.

It is likely that Indian policymakers can see some of their own preferences in Trump’s idea of an America that is entirely self-interested, less involved in nation-building or the spread of democratic values yet more willing to strike back against threats. Modi’s India is already moving away from Indian traditions of strategic restraint, with special forces raids against insurgents in Myanmar and terrorists across the Pakistan side of the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Trump’s apparent tough-on-China stance plays well with many Indians who have come to regard China as India’s biggest long-term threat. Indian strategists have become concerned that the United States hasn’t been doing enough to stand up to China’s expanding military footprint in the Indian Ocean and Asia. They saw President Obama’s prevarication on Chinese island-building in the South China Sea as giving China the green light for assertiveness elsewhere in the region, including on India’s disputed border with China.

Both countries are also concerned that China’s Belt and Road initiative and the associated China Pakistan Economic Corridor are not only about infrastructure, but about expanding China’s security footprint and influence. Certainly, some in India’s defence and foreign policy community will quietly welcome the fact that a more unpredictable America will deprive China of some of the strategic initiative it has seized in recent years – as long as this uncertainty does not spill into outright crisis.

Of course, it will not all be plain sailing. A fundamental problem for India would arise if Trump moved away from the long-term transactionalism of Bush and Obama, and demanded India overtly take sides in a near-term confrontation with China or Iran. Or India’s equanimity might fall away for other reasons: cutting back US work visas to Indian IT specialists could harm economic ties and political trust. Ramping up United States support for Pakistan, or doing a deal with China, could also upset the equation.

Even so, for others in the region, such as Australia, there are some intriguing lessons from India’s approach. That includes not being too sentimental about the relationship and assessing how best to leverage advantages. Canberra will need to play its cards smartly during the Trump administration to maximise Australia’s position, alongside India’s, in an Indo-Pacific region that has potential to become more multipolar.

This includes diversifying our regional security relationships, strengthening ties with other ‘middle players’: fellow US allies and partners. Indeed, Australia, India and Japan (an Asian power that has responded to the Trump factor with particularly strategic diplomacy) can form the core of new arrangements of regional mutual self-help. These could serve as partial insurance against both Chinese assertiveness and the unpredictability of Trump’s America.

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team