Republican frontrunner Donald Trump delivered a much-anticipated speech on foreign policy last week. The speech didn’t itself carry anything new. Trump reiterated his commitment to isolationism – making allies pay, stepping away from policing the world, and moving the US military out of regions he doesn’t think are important.
None of this might happen, of course, even if Trump does become President. Foreign policy tends to take years to change; years that a president doesn’t have at his disposal. The ‘establishment’ is far more influential in the setting of foreign policy than it is in any other domain of government policy.
Yet, despite the high unlikelihood of Trump’s foreign policy becoming real, it’s worth examining what Donald Trump’s world might do for India and Asia. Writing for Brookings, Thomas Wright argues that Trump’s statements on US allies suggest the end of all of America’s standing alliances in Europe and Asia. “Trump is asking the allies to pay for a significant share of the US defense budget that enables the United States to be militarily present in Europe and Asia … [running into] hundreds of billions of dollars per year,” Wright points out, “Needless to say, America’s allies cannot write a check to cover a significant share of the US defense budget, which means he will then have an excuse to pull out of the alliances.” This proposition is likely to be truer in Asia, where America has much less at stake and allies have far less money to pay him with.
The collapse of America’s alliances will be felt the hardest in East and South East Asia, where conflicts involving China and its neighbors will complicate matters. The power vacuum caused by America’s withdrawal and the end of the Asia Pivot will likely see China standing up and asserting itself more freely. As a result, Donald Trump could well kick off an arms race across the region, particularly around the South China Sea, as countries in the ASEAN (such as the Philippines) scramble to adapt to the new security order.
So what does all this mean for India? America’s withdrawal from the Asia Pacific could provide India with an opportunity to step up and fulfill its role as a regional power. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi has signaled intent to do just that – signing unprecedented defence treaties with the likes of Vietnam, forging a blossoming alliance with Japan and increasing cooperation with the ASEAN.
Given that India has been cautious about entering into commitments with the United States (New Delhi rejected a joint patrol proposal from Washington earlier this year), it shouldn’t really mind Donald Trump’s full-fledged withdrawal from the Asia Pacific. But it’s not quite that simple. Despite its pledged independence, India has stood to benefit from the present world order, and from America’s involvement in the region. Afghanistan shows just how.
Indian diplomats have long opposed America’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan unofficially. New Delhi has invested heavily on numerous development projects in that country and stood to gain from the presence of American troops, who ensured stability and security. As Washington began to call back troops, India saw an increasing incidence of attacks on its diplomatic missions in Afghanistan (in Kabul and Herat) and on infrastructure projects financed and spearheaded by it.
Worse, the power vacuum created by America’s phased withdrawal meant that New Delhi also had to deal with an increasingly assertive Pakistan, even as it fended off attacks from a rejuvenated Taliban. India and Pakistan have been engaged in increased cross-border firing since mid 2014, with Indian soldiers reporting more frequent encounters with terrorists in Kashmir. And India’s inability to find a coherent policy to deal with Pakistan in the midst of all this has greatly dented its power in the region.
If America’s phased withdrawal from Afghanistan turned Pakistan more assertive, America’s total drawdown from the Asia Pacific is certain to make China even more so. For India, this isn’t just a case of having to deal with greater skirmishes along the Himalayas; it would also likely test New Delhi’s new ‘Act East’ policy. The Modi government has invested heavily upon its commitment to keeping international waters across South and South East Asia safe. But its readiness to invest even further on walking the talk and filling Trump’s power vacuum is bound to be stretched, given Modi’s more pressing problems at home in fixing the economy.
New Delhi has thus far been able to carve out a niche for itself, nurture new alliances and establish a nascent footprint in the Indian Ocean and the Far East, because it didn’t have to rush to protect itself. That could change if Trump manages to win and implement his promises, forcing India to shoulder more responsibilities for its own cause before it’s ready.
President Trump could force India to become a superpower. Or he could make it much harder than it would otherwise be.
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