Written by Thorsten Wojczewski.

In 2011, the Obama Administration announced its ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, which envisioned a political, economic, and military “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific region by strengthening existing alliances, forging new partnerships and increasing US military presence and its economic engagement in the region. The administration saw India as a “linchpin” in its pivot to Asia and declared that it is “investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States not only raises questions about the future of the US rebalancing strategy but also poses new challenges for Indian foreign policy.

… uncertainties and potential challenges that the Trump administration might pose for India are likely to reignite the debate about the reliability of the United States as a strategic partner and reinforce India’s desire for strategic autonomy in world politics.

Since the end of the cold war, Indo-US relations have gradually developed into a “global strategic partnership” based on common democratic values, a growing convergence of interests and pan-partisan support in both countries. Regular high-level political visits and the establishment of various dialogue mechanisms have provided the bilateral relationship with an institutional framework for sustained and multi-sectoral cooperation in various policy-fields ranging from defence and security to investment, science and technology. A milestone was the 2008 nuclear agreement which de facto recognized India as a nuclear weapons state.

With a powerful appeal to economic nationalism and to put “America First”, Donald Trump questioned main pillars of US foreign policy: the US’ long-standing commitment to a liberal international order based on expansive internationalism, economic globalization, global rule-based regimes, open borders and strategic alliances with regional powers. For example, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement – a key component of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. For America’s allies and partners, a new era of uncertainty has begun, forcing them to reconsider their trust in US commitments. Trump’s first months in office did not bring clarity but rather more confusion. The surprising airstrikes against Syria, which led to a further deterioration in US-Russia relations, the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan, or the hawkish approach to North Korea do not only contradict his election pledges, but also appear to lack a coherent strategy, thereby making the US an unpredictable partner for India.

Trump’s turn to a more nationalist, isolationist and mercantilist foreign policy undermines some of the foundations of Indo-US engagement in the post-Cold War era. Having pursued an economic policy of import substitution in the decades after independence, India gradually opened its economy and embraced the logic of globalization in the post-cold war era and actively sought to attract investments from US corporations by encouraging them to offshore services and manufacturing to India. While seeking access to the markets of the industrialized countries and criticizing their protectionist policies, India resisted US and European pressures for a further liberalization of its economy in order to protect it from international competition. As the US is now – in line with Trump’s motto “buy American, hire American” – turning inward and seeking to strengthen its declining manufacturing sector and reduce the outsourcing of services to India as well as the insourcing of cheap skilled labour from India through the H1B visa system, India’s post-Cold War economic model might be over.

Another driving force of the US-India strategic partnership has been the shared concerns about China’s rise to power and its growing assertiveness in Asia. Though Indian governments neither seek to balance or contain China – nor do they want India to be perceived as a junior partner to the US in Asia – they believed that the strategic partnership with the US would increase India’s room for manoeuvre towards China and serve as a strategic hedge against the uncertainties emanating from China’s rise. This hedging strategy, however, presupposes the military presence of the United States in Asia and a willingness to uphold, and if necessary to defend, the regional order.

By renouncing American internationalism and implicitly threating its allies in Europe and Asia with a withdrawal of the United States, Trump raised doubts about US commitments to defend its allies and to provide global public goods. There are fears among US allies and partners in Asia that China might seek to fill this power vacuum created by the potential retreat of the United States and alter the regional order. While uncertainties regarding the US role in the Asia-Pacific region potentially reduce India’s strategic leverage towards China, Trump’s allegation that US allies took advantage of the US and promoted their own interests at the expense of the United States might also lead to increased pressure on India to share more international responsibility and to show a greater appreciation for US interests.

These uncertainties and potential challenges that the Trump administration might pose for India are likely to reignite the debate about the reliability of the United States as a strategic partner and reinforce India’s desire for strategic autonomy in world politics. Though successive Indian governments have signalled their commitment to a close partnership with the US, they also sought to avoid strategic entanglements and one-sided dependencies which could not only undermine India’s strategic autonomy but also negatively affect its relations with other countries and state groupings. Rather, India pursued a policy of multi-alignment and tried to develop comprehensive strategic partnerships with all major powers.

While some political observers view this policy as a desperate attempt to preserve the notion of non-alignment and urge India to enter into a strategic alignment with the United States, India’s striving for strategic autonomy is rather driven by the conviction that India should hedge its bets and pursue a multi-directional foreign policy in a world order that is characterized by a complex mixture of inter-state competition and cooperation and requires issue- rather than nation-centric partnerships. Against this backdrop, the unexpected election of Trump and his renunciation of established tenets of US foreign policy appears to substantiate the advantages of strategic autonomy than lead ing to a ‘bromance’ between Trump and Modi – who both came to power as self-styled, anti-establishment populists – not the least because two nationalistic leaders, who promise to put their country first, are not necessarily good negotiating partners.     

Dr Thorsten Wojczewski is a teaching fellow and postdoctoral researcher at the India Institute, King’s College London. Image credit CC by President of Mexico/Flickr.  


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