26/09/2016 12:50 PM IST | Updated 27/09/2016 8:06 AM IST

Indian Foreign Policy Pundits Are Upbeat About Trump But Are They Missing The Big Picture?

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

The US elections are less than two months away and the campaign is reaching its pinnacle. Going by some polls, Republican candidate Donald Trump may enjoy a small lead over the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in some of the swing states. With the numbers running neck to neck within the possible margin of error, the only thing that can be predicted is that it will be a tight race. Even as we are close to the election, little is known about the foreign policy positions of the two candidates. Hillary Clinton, having been the Secretary of State during the first term of the Obama administration, is a relatively known entity on foreign policy. Trump's views are a lot less known and therefore it is important to analyze what his foreign policy might look like.

Indian foreign policy pundits are excited that... New Delhi is seen as an actor that should play a greater role in the Asian strategic framework.

Recently, Newsweek magazine did a story on how Trump's business dealings in foreign countries could upset US national security. The story is clearly to take a dig at Trump who has made a big issue of the Clinton Foundation. It was alleged that those who made donations to the Clinton Foundation benefitted from special influence when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State. It is difficult to prove this one way or the other.

The Newsweek story spoke about the Trump Organization's investments in the Indian state of Maharashtra and elsewhere and reported that the organization has engaged in shady deals in Mumbai, Pune and Gurgaon. The article suggests that a Trump presidency, in order to advance his financial interests, could try to please the Indian government by taking decisions that may hurt US national interests. It raised a pointed question, "if Trump takes a hard line with Pakistan, will it be for America's strategic interests or to appease Indian government officials who might jeopardize his profits from Trump Towers Pune?"

The merit of this argument is hard to accept, to say the least. But generally, many foreign policy pundits in India seem happy that Trump has kept a positive tone on India. For instance, the Republican Platform talked of India as a "geopolitical ally and a strategic trade partner" whereas the reference to Pakistan was in terms of securing its nuclear arsenal and in the context of the war on terror. In the larger strategic context, the GOP looks to India to play a larger role in Asian and global affairs. The 58-page Republican platform went on to say that "the dynamism of its [Indian] people and the endurance of their democratic institutions are earning their country a position of leadership not only in Asia but throughout the world."

The fact that China and Pakistan do not stand to benefit a special relationship with the US if Trump were to be elected must be particularly soothing to Indian ears.

It is almost certain that China is not excited about what Trump had to say about Beijing. The GOP platform, for instance, talked about the complacency of the Obama administration and how that has emboldened China to engage in a series of provocative actions such as issuing "threats of intimidation through the South China Sea" and "parading their new missile 'the Guam Killer'." In addition, the platform drew attention to the continuing cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as how the promised autonomy of Hong Kong is stripped off. China as a currency manipulator and its offenses against intellectual property rights were also highlighted. And the list goes on.

Taiwan also figured prominently, with the platform talking about the shared "values of democracy, human rights, a free market economy and the rule of law." The platform went on to say that the bilateral relations with Taipei will continue to be guided by the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, while noting opposition to either side trying to change the status quo. It further added that if China were to use means other than dialogue to force upon a situation on Taiwan, "the United States, in accord with the Taiwan Relations Act, will help Taiwan defend itself." The manifesto also mentioned the need to pursue "timely sale of defensive arms including technology to build diesel submarines." This categorical statement must be reassuring to Taipei in the wake of a strong and mighty China that has unilaterally tried to change the status quo in South China Sea and elsewhere.

Foreign policy dynamics are much more complex and it will be naïve for India to take comfort in these statements alone.

Indian foreign policy pundits are excited that the mention of India, though limited, is in a positive light and that New Delhi is seen as an actor that should play a greater role in the Asian strategic framework, something former President Bush also talked about in his campaign. The fact that China and Pakistan do not stand to benefit a special relationship with the US if Trump were to be elected must be particularly soothing to Indian ears.

Certainly, India has reached a stage where there exists a bipartisan agreement in the US for a strong bilateral strategic partnership with India. Nevertheless, foreign policy dynamics are much more complex and it will be naïve for India to take comfort in these statements alone.

Most importantly, India will be affected by larger US-Asian commitments rather than by bilateral relations alone. India-US relations need to be situated within the larger Asian strategic framework and therefore it is important to see what kind of relations Trump will pursue with US alliance partners in Asia such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. The Republican manifesto has been fairly categorical on China but there was very little on Japan. Some of the statements by Trump during the campaign could be a cause for concern in Tokyo. For instance, he questioned the very basis of the alliance, which makes its future extremely tricky. Trump called the terms of the alliance unfair saying the US has obligations to defend Japan in the case of an attack but not the other way around. This implies far larger consequences for Japan's pacifist constitution. Also that Tokyo has to pay for the stationing of US troops on its soil and that if Japan does not do so, they could be withdrawn— this is not something the Japanese leadership want to hear.

Asia is home to several unresolved territorial disputes and the rising nationalism in many states, including China, Japan and India, adds to the complexities of an already complex Asia. In the backdrop of this, if the US were to pull out the troops, it would mean that Japan has to amend the constitution in the first place, followed by massive military modernization in order to have effective deterrent capabilities. Similarly, if Japan and South Korea were to develop nuclear weapons, it will create new security dynamics in Asia. Indian decision-makers have to understand the strategic consequences of such developments to develop a fuller understanding of a Trump presidency for India.

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