The following article originally appeared in Mint on January 10, 2017.
It’s a parlour game played in many capitals around the world: Who is to get what senior position in government? And what can the backgrounds and viewpoints of those appointed tell us about changes in policy? Nowhere is this more relevant than during a presidential transition in the US, a massive undertaking in which more than 2,000 senior government positions and many more subordinate ones change hands. The economic and military importance of the US naturally increases global interest and speculation about those elected or selected to senior leadership positions.
Indian interest in US president-elect Donald Trump and his team is therefore natural. India-US ties are never problem-free even at the best of times, but the US is nonetheless India’s most important global partner. Ever since Trump’s election to the presidency in November, US officials have been at pains to emphasize the bipartisan nature of recent American engagement with India, implying that individuals will matter little to the overall trajectory of bilateral relations. This is only partly true. If Trump’s election has shown one thing, it is that personalities matter.
The first one to consider will be Trump himself: He famously stated last year that on foreign policy he is his own top advisor. He has already shown himself to be unpredictable, voicing his views on social media without necessarily indicating whether these are reflective of his administration’s policies. He is also evidently a man of strong likes and dislikes. Thus, his initial interactions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and their personal dynamic will be very important for the short-term relationship with India.
A second individual who matters is Mike Pence, who could very well turn out to be one of the most powerful vice-presidents in American history. Pence has already met with Indian officials following his election and in 2008 voted in favour of the India-US civilian nuclear agreement while a member of the House of Representatives. All this suggests that he is generally positively disposed to the relationship with India.
Trump’s expected national security advisor, retired lieutenant-general Mike Flynn, comes from an intelligence background, much like his Indian counterpart. While Flynn has made waves for his inflammatory rhetoric, there are hints of a natural meeting of minds with Indian officials. In his book The Field Of Fight: How We Can Win The Global War Against Radical Islam And Its Allies, Flynn critically details Pakistani perfidy on terrorism, an issue about which he had first-hand knowledge as head of intelligence for US forces in Afghanistan and later as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The likely nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is among the biggest surprises among Trump’s cabinet picks. Tillerson, till recently the head of energy giant ExxonMobil, forged his reputation on a successful deal with Russia’s state-owned Rosneft for the Sakhalin-I oil and gas project. India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd bought a 20% stake in the project, although not without some delays and complications. Tillerson has a good reputation as a manager, but how much sway he will have on policy at the top levels is uncertain.
Then there is James Mattis, a legendary Marine commander and highly respected scholar-warrior, who is expected to be Trump’s secretary of defence. Mattis’ background has involved working in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and overseeing the US Central Command, which covers Afghanistan and Pakistan but not India. As such, his exposure to Indian views has been limited. Compared to the outgoing Ashton Carter, Mattis is less likely to play a guiding role in India policy. But among other things, he will have to get up to speed on the maritime dynamics of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where India is uniquely positioned to play a burden-sharing role.
Finally, Peter Navarro, an economist, is expected to help manage trade policy in the Trump administration. Navarro is the author of the book Death By China: Confronting The Dragon—A Global Call To Action, which describes the threat to US economic primacy posed by China. In this context, India—as an investor in the US economy and a net importer of goods from the US—is well placed to advocate an enhanced and balanced economic partnership.
Although no one—not even senior members of the US government—has a clear idea of the directions policy will take under Trump, we can already get glimpses of positives, negatives, and uncertainties from India’s point of view. On the positive side, an expected thawing of US relations with Russia under Trump and the likely withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be welcomed in New Delhi. We can also expect counter-terrorism cooperation to increase. By contrast, Trump’s public criticism of overseas investments by US corporations will conflict with Modi’s campaign to attract US companies to “Make In India”, while the new administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric—including on H-1B visas—could hurt Indian information technology companies.
The uncertainties for India will concern four broad areas. One will involve the nature of US-China relations. India could leverage a more competitive relationship to its benefit, in terms of commercial opportunities and military technologies. But equally, a return to a notion of realms of influence or the exploration of a modus vivendi between Washington and Beijing could put India at a disadvantage. A second area of uncertainty concerns Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will Trump’s generals be persuaded, initially, by Rawalpindi? Or will a strong counter-terrorism instinct prevail? Third, can win-win economic and trade solutions be found in an increasingly protectionist political environment? And finally, what approach will the Trump administration take on multilateral affairs and global governance?
Whatever the outcomes, there will be growing pains, and those taking over at the helm of US government will have to be familiarized with Indian views on a wide range of issues, including on terrorism, trade, immigration, and military technologies. Like any new administration, it will take time to get settled. But in each area, and with each personality, there are clear opportunities for India to seize.