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Daily Editorial : Indo-US Relations – Engaging Trump

Introduction to Trump’s personality

Donald Trump’s personality has two parts — the transactional and the ideological.


Right after Donald Trump took oath, he raised the slogan “We… are issuing a new decree to be heard… in every foreign capital… From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

This means.

  • Trump discards the ideology of free trade.
  • Restricts in-sourcing of labour into America and outsourcing of jobs, and
  • Builds new walls along America’s borders.
  • Discards Climate change agreement.

Trump believes that all international relations are based on give and take, that there is something to be gained or lost from each individual interaction with a global partner. He doesn’t want to pursue goals such as promotion of democracy, free market or human rights or even disguised American involvement with the world for several decades now.


Trump sees the world as one in which Islam is threatening the existence of the Judeo-Christian civilisation.

No measure is too extreme in pursuing that objective of countering Islamism, as demonstrated by the attempted ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

Where India can engage Trump?

The US was helping India expand in power and prosperity as it served the highest geopolitical interests of the United States in Asia and globally — namely, maintaining a balance of power that advantaged the liberal democracies. But it doesn’t hold water with the coming of Trump.

So, what India must be mindful of what terms and on what issues Trump would be open to dealing with India.

On the ideological front

  • At the ideological level, the defeat of radical Islamism could be a common ground between President Trump and PM Modi, but Indian government’s crackdown on U.S.-based Christian charities operating in India could be a problem as evangelical groups have far higher influence in the current White House.
  • However, fighting terrorism could be common ground for negotiations – unresolved conflict in Afghanistan, continued militancy in Pakistan, looming danger of ISIS.

Trump is also anti-China.

  • China has a massive trade relationship (annual turnover of nearly $600 billion in 2015) with America.
  • Trump has focused his ire on the huge trade deficit with China, of nearly $400 billion. He has accused Beijing of stealing American jobs and has threatened to impose a 45 per cent tariff on imports from China.
  • To put some additional political pressure on Beijing, Trump has put Taiwan and Tibet back in political play
  • On this front, India could be engaged in the long pending demand that India sign the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) that would enhance joint surveillance of Chinese vessels.
  • If the Trump administration pressures regional powers to do more to counter China, he could continue with Obama’s Pivot to Asia and continue to help build India as a balancer against China.

Indo-Pak Issues

  • In terms of Indo-Pak relations Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan media has claimed that Trump expressed a willingness to sort out Indo-Pak differences. However most people think it is unlikely.
  • During the campaign Trump called Pakistan “the most dangerous country in the world today and the only country that can check Pakistan is India”, this also reflected in statements of Defence Secy James Mattis who apparently said – US needs to stay engaged with world’s only nuclear armed Islamic Country.
  • That tougher stand can be good news for India. But it is not sure yet, if Trump’s administration will involve itself in the Kashmir issue.

Afghanistan Angle

  • The new Defence Secretary, James Mattisand National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are both Afghanistan-Pakistan veterans.
  • India’s consistent demand that the U.S. bring more pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorist groups could be met with another demand from the Trump team — for Indian soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.
  • In an effort to move closer to the U.S., the Vajpayee government had considered sending troops to Iraq in 2003, but aborted the move after domestic opposition.
  • India should be mindful on getting involved militarily in the middle-east or Afghanistan.

Transactional level

  • Trump administration could be willing to go a step further and favourably look at India’s pending request for Avenger armed drones and other defence technology.
  • After being designated a major defence partner by the Obama administration, India’s requests for high technology are now considered with a ‘presumption of approval’ as opposed to ‘presumption of denial’ earlier with Trump’s orientation to sell American.


At present India is not top of the mind for the new administration. As Trump opens multiple battlefronts domestically and internationally, the onus would be more on India to catch the attention of the new administration. Or perhaps, to stay low-key for a while, as bilateral cooperation continues on autopilot in numerous areas such as cyber security, intelligence sharing, space, disease control, maritime surveillance, agriculture, education and climate change.

  • We need to view longer term is to devise a policy framework that fully utilises India’s manpower advantages, leverages the size of its market and facilitates rapid growth in the nation’s technological capabilities through indigenous innovation and international partnerships.
  • An India that grows its domestic capabilities will be in a better position to address American concerns about jobs at home and benefit in turn from the current US lead in most advanced technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

Many watchers of India-US relations think that the pragmatism of Trump and Modi will prevail over their ideological streaks and will make them good partners. Modi’s Make in India approach and Trump’s Buy American, Hire American can go together.


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