Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.
Brookings India hosted a private roundtable discussion on “India and the Trump Administration” featuring Dr. Tanvi Madan, Fellow and Director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. The discussion was moderated by Dhruva Jaishankar, Fellow for Foreign Policy at Brookings India. The discussion broadly focused on some of the issues in the India-U.S. bilateral relationship, global political and economic issues with implications for India, and questions about the future direction of the relationship.
The Indo-U.S. relationship continues to enjoy bipartisan support in the U.S. and appears to be on a stable footing. President Trump’s campaign rhetoric on India has been largely positive and since his inauguration, the initial set of engagements between the two countries’ officials have also been positive. The Indo-U.S. relationship is also now far broader than just a White House-South Block relationship, as it was a few years ago. There is greater engagement between U.S. Congress and their Indian counterparts, more state-led engagement and private partnerships, as well as a better working level institutional relationship.
While there are no major issues between India and the U.S. on the bilateral side that need immediate attention, broader geopolitical issues are likely to have an impact on the Indo-U.S. relationship. To India’s east, the Trump administration’s position on China is still unclear. While Trump advocated a hawkish stance on China during the campaign, that stance has mellowed since then on both strategic and trade fronts. To India’s west, there are three main areas where the new administration’s approach will have consequences for India. Trump’s position on the war in Afghanistan and the role of Pakistan in this prism will be critical for India. Related to the issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan is the administration’s approach to counter-terrorism in South Asia. A comprehensive strategy to tackle all forms of terrorism in South Asia will be in Indian interests while a selective approach by the Trump administration will be detrimental to India’s role in the region. Further, given the likelihood of a more transactional relationship with the U.S., India’s efforts at fighting the Islamic State in the broader region might be drawn into sharper focus. Also, the Trump administration’s approach to Iran will have important consequences for India because of significant Indian strategic and economic interests in Iran.
On the economic side, there is less clarity and certainty than on the strategic and political side. With the scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, revival of the Bilateral Investment Treaty is worth exploring. It is also unclear how the ideologies of Make in India and Make in America declared by Prime Minister Modi and President Trump respectively will coexist and further cooperation between the two countries. On the issue of immigration, the economic aspect will largely focus on the H1B visa program and Optional Practical Training (OPT) visas for Indian students in the U.S. As for the social aspect of immigration, safety and security of Indian citizens in the U.S. will be a priority for the Indian government. On the energy side, the commitments made under the Paris Agreement might be in jeopardy since India’s Paris commitments are largely contingent not only on the transfer of technology from the U.S. but also on assistance in mobilising financing for clean energy. Therefore, President Trump’s renunciation of support for climate change initiatives and multilateral funding commitments might be an irritant in the Indo-U.S. relationship.
Finally, there is some uncertainty over the long-term trajectory of the relationship between India and the U.S. It is still unclear what the Trump administration’s strategic view on India might look like. Past administrations have considered a strong and prosperous India, in the long term, as an asset to U.S. interests in the region and abroad. However, the Trump administration might demand a more transactional relationship than what India has been used to traditionally. This will require certain adjustments on both sides with regard to their respective interests. Also important is the question of priority for India in the new administration. President Trump’s personnel appointments in the next few months will convey the level of priority accorded to India by the new administration. Changes are also expected in the bureaucratic functioning of the State Department and the National Security Council which could combine India, Pakistan and Afghanistan for administrative purposes. Whether there is a separate vision for India, outside the prism of South Asia, will have important consequences for the bilateral relationship. In conclusion, given the slightly uncertain nature of the Trump administration’s policy on India, it would be in Indian interests to diversity relationships with other like-minded countries in the region and around the world.
The views are of the author(s).