Predicting to the Unpredictable: Donald Trump’s Policy in South Asia
Prashant Kumar Sharma and Jigme Wangdi
Mr. Donald Trump, a ‘casino owner,’ who does not care about being ‘politically incorrect,’ whose election defied all logics and predictions by astrologers and soothsayers, won the US presidential election “without securing the popular votes,” as Ambassador Rajiv Dogra says, became the 45th President of the United States of America on 20th January 2017. Ambassador Dogra believes that Mr. Trump not only defied the predictions of the soothsayers, he remained firm on what he believed. Ambassador G Parthsarthy opines that the world is going through a tectonic change and witnessing a complex security scenario. The ascendency of Mr. Trump materialized because of this change. For Parthasarthy, it is white disgruntled working class, which voted Trump to power or in other words, he represents the white supremacists.
Before the U.S. presidential election ended, nobody including intellectuals believed that Mr. Trump would ever be President of the United States of America. Even, it is the first time in the American politics when a sitting President Mr. Obama made a comment about Mr. Trump that he does not deserve to be a President of the USA, says Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra. For Mahapatra, the election of Donald Trump is nothing short of a ‘Trump phenomenon’, a wave, which had washed away American politics and society. On 9 January 2017, Policy Perspective Foundation organized a conference for anticipating Trump’s Policy in South Asia in Pak-India-China Matrix, in which Former Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Lalit Mansingh clearly stated that Mr. Trump is an unpredictable person. Nobody has expertise on Mr. Trump and if anyone says he or she does, is nothing short of an open lie. Ambassador Mansingh described Trump as a “rare political animal” in American politics. During his presidential campaigns, he was referred to by many names by the media, they primarily being ‘egoistic’, ‘vulgar’ and jingoistic’. He braved all odds to become the President of the United States of America. Hence, the people of America got a President who is “out of the box” category.
Former Indian diplomat Rajiv Dogra opines that Trump had political ambitions, which became evident with the publication of his book “Art of the Deal” in the year 2000, wherein he had made certain political observations, which were reflective of his ‘convictions.’ These convictions were in full display during the presidential debates in 2016. For Mr. Trump, policy is really a question of deal making and he thinks he is the greatest dealmaker in the world. Mr. Dogra believes that Mr. Trump seems to be putting much more attention on the geo-economic dynamics in such a manner; it has never been used before and it could be used as a potent foreign policy tool to fulfill the aspirations of America and by implications “making the America great again.” Indian Ambassador Lait Mansingh has emphasized on the core and peripheral beliefs of Mr. Trump. In Trump’s core belief, America being the greatest country in the world has been the strongest one. For him, the western civilization is identical to the Christian Civilization, which seems to be in danger in current times and he harps on the need to defend them against the Islamic onslaught particularly Islamic Fundamentalism. As far as his peripheral beliefs are concerned, he considers the military alignment of NATO as being not so profitable for the US government and every member of it should pay for their own expenses.
Again, what makes Mr. Trump unpredictable is that during the election campaign, Mr. Trump had criticized the NATO as “obsolete,” but coming to the power, he has demonstrated a positive sign and promised to support NATO. This is in line with what Prof. Mahapatra observed that candidate Trump and President Trump would be two different things. Mr. Mansingh argues that Trump also wants to do away with the American practice of acting as the moral guardian of democracy everywhere in the world. If this were the case then Mr. Trump would not be much concerned about the democratic nations of South Asia. During the election campaign, Mr. Trump launched a scathing attack on China and Mexico. He accused China of stealing away American jobs and for the problem of illegal immigration in USA, he puts blames on Mexico.
Prof. Mahapatra says that what Mr. Trump is saying and doing now is not a new thing. It has its precedents in the past. For Instance, Mr. Trump’s promises to erect wall along US-Mexico border is not new one. On 26 October 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush had signed the “Secure Fence Act of 2006,” to help protect the people of America and to make the borders more secure. This Act became an important tool towards the immigration reform; and the Senate approved the construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, had asserted, “Fortifying our borders is an integral component of national security. We can’t afford to wait.”
U.S. President Donald Trump moved on to pull the USA out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It was done in accordance with the pledge made to scrap this deal during the presidential election campaign. He denounced it as a “job killer.” For the first time, it was the USA, who took the initiative to promote this deal, which was signed by the 12 countries in 2015. These 12 countries constitute the 40% of the world’s economy. He opined that trade deals such a- TPP and NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) have drained U.S. jobs and hampered its industrial heartlands. Trump seems very much determined to renegotiate the deal on NAFTA with the leaders of Canada and Mexico in the upcoming talks. He already went ahead with his poll promises to curb on the Obama health care reforms. In addition, more executive orders are expected to be in place on immigration and limiting environmental legislation. Moreover, he warned the corporate companies that his administration would impose a “border tax” on goods imported by them that takes job out of the country.
Mr. Trump making good on his campaign promises to ban the entry of refugee into the U.S. especially vetting of Muslims has stated, “All visa application from countries that deemed a terrorist threat- Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen-will be halted for 30 days”. Furthermore, he asserted, “his plan to limit the entry of people from Muslim countries was necessary because the world is a total mess.” He says that the ban is not on the Muslim; rather it is on the countries that have tremendous terror from where people come in and triggers tremendous problems. The hardline attitude of Mr. Trump towards the “radical Islamic terrorism” was one of the most controversial themes of his election campaign. He vowed to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from face of the earth that proved popular with U.S. voters.
Mr. Trump believes in doing the smart deal with rest of the world. It became very much evident based on the top officials he has appointed, that what kinds of policies he would be taking forward. Appointment of Rex Tillerson, as a new Secretary of State who is known to be a dealmaker and having a strong links with Russia, might be an indication of him being a potential dealmaker for America’s energy interests. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has been associated with a number of intelligence agencies in the United States. Nevertheless, if media reports are to go by, he has been accused of giving away secret military information (particularly the information on Haqqani network) to countries like Australia and some secret intelligence to Pakistan. Although, he came out acquitted, one wonders what would be his take on important matters of national security, opines Mansingh. Trump’s talks with the Taiwanese President are an indicator of the fact that he might be shifting away from the ‘One China’ policy. Mr. Trump has been very vocal about China and he intends to impose 45% duty on China. Thereby, He affirms his views on China as an economic and a strategic threat.
Mr. Trump does not regard Russia as its enemy because of religious linkages such as Christianity. In his views, Russia is a partner and not an adversary. The camaraderie between the USA and Russia would be favorable to India. Moscow might wean away from Beijing and Islamabad, which would be a positive development for India. Parthasarthy argues that apart from the factor of economics, the Indian establishment should leverage the strong Indian community in America as well as cultivate strong ties with Russia. Parthsarthy fears that in the years to come, China might not provide any strategic space to India. For Parthasarthy, the recent specter of Russia, China and Pakistan does not bode well for India and before things spiral out of control, India should leverage everything in its power to balance the changing scenario in its favor. For Mahapatra, one should not assume that Mr. Trump would make bad choices as far as his foreign policy is concerned. Mr. Trump’s closeness with Russia might be a pressure tactic over China. Why China is worried about is because of the Trump’s team, wherein it finds that everything is happening in favor of Mr. Trump and what he wants. Moreover, the recent proclivity of Mr. Trump over South China Sea and Chinese currency manipulation could be fathomed as an indication that things are not going to be the business as usual.
Mansingh gauged that there is no deal to be made in South Asian region given the horrific experiences on the part of USA, as “Mr. Trump would be the third President dealing with the Afghanistan- the longest war in the American history” Ambassador Dogra states. However, one worrying thing according to Mansingh had been Trump’s complete silence on the AF-PAK region.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, America knows that Pakistanis are not her true friends. However, it has been a utility to keep Pakistan in the box. We should not underestimate Pakistan’s influence. Mr. Trump is a dealmaker; and even Pakistan is said to be a dealmaker as it has been engaged in the spoiling activities. How to contain the Pakistan’s disruptive activities would be a matter of great concern for Trump’s administration. At one hand, Trump seems to be tough on Radical Islam and wants its obliteration from face of the earth; on the other hand, its’ one of the team members has been involved reportedly in passing on information to Pakistan that in turn also helping radical terrorism…then in this situation what could be anticipated? We need to look into. USA will set up a “Tactical Security Operation Centre” in Pakistan and Afghanistan that is not set up anywhere in the world. Mr. Trump is a man of business. Thereby, it is visible that he is not going to spend much time on India except some smart deal making. If the business of America is a business, then India should also learn to cut the business with USA before they cut their business with India.
If USA’s policy of “Buy America and Hire America” comes into practice, then India would have to think about its “Make in India” policy. Trump’s visa policy might affect to the IT industry of Indian companies. Mr. Parthsarthy considers that Balancing China is one of the major factors for USA; and USA’s East Policy might be continued. Hence, Indians would have a good context. U.S. President Mr. Trump has invited Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi to visit the United States sometime later this year. These leaders have pledged during a phone call to stand “shoulder to shoulder” in a global fight against terrorism. Mr. Trump has considered India a “true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world.” This shows that Mr. Trump would not deviate from the policies established vis. a vis. India during his predecessors’ tenure. The White House did not expose elaborately on the precise nature of the discussion between the two leaders. The discussion centered on “strengthening the partnership…in broad areas such as the economy and defence.” However, it is gauged that there would be lot more on the table when the two sides meet and that would be much different from what was on the table during the Bush-Obama administrations. Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump are business oriented and right wing politicians. Thereby, the possibility of “Modi-Trump Bhai Bhai” could not be ruled out.
However, India needs to be wary in its every stride to be taken forward. India knows well the upshot of the climax of its camaraderie with China when “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” was at its peak. Recently, China has welcomed the Russian call for USA-Russia-China partnership. Simultaneously, the feasibility of “USA-Russia-India (URI)” trilateral partnership could not be denied in the years to come given the contemporary American regime’s propensity towards the Russia.
Mr. Prashant Kumar Sharma is a PhD Research Scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
Mr. Jigme Wangdi is also a PhD Research Scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
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