President Donald Trump made a pledge to India even before he was elected, declaring he was going to be the “Best Friend” New Delhi ever had in the Oval Office. Putting aside the hyperbole, India came out quite well through 2017 compared to other U.S. allies and enemies, and in light of the unprecedented domestic political and social divide in this country.
Things were good even before Trump came into the White House. The arc of U.S.-India relations was on the upswing characterized also by an extraordinary bonhomie between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expanding bilateral relations in the backdrop of India’s “Looking-East” policy with America’s leaning toward Asia-Pacific build-up to counter China’s aggressive attempts at colonizing the South China Sea.
After President Trump came to the Oval Office, his administration’s policy toward India played out on parallel tracks that insinuated a gap between word and deed. A “100 Year Vision” for India outlined by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, played side-by-side with the administration’s threats to cut skilled worker visas, and “chain migration.”
Policy toward India, on trade, national security, and geopolitics in 2017, was shaped by the U.S. domestic political scene and a presidency that has questioned existing tenets and tried to bring back old ones, playing with isolationism, alongside engaging in a war of words with North Korea, praising then blackballing China, and putting European and other allies on tenterhooks.
Ignoring The Noise
However, India has come out well through the first year of the Trump administration if one looks at the bottom line and ignores the noise both on social media and on the ground.
Back in March, News India Times ran predictions by South Asia and India experts on what could transpire over the year. Their assessment was that counterterrorism and economic deals would be the cornerstones of the relationship between the Trump and Modi administrations going forward, as both leaders strengthened their positions domestically, and Washington put its diplomatic ducks in a row for dealing with the Subcontinent. They also predicted a hardening of policy toward Pakistan; that H1-B visa concerns would rise as protecting American jobs (America First) were top on President Trump’s slogans. So was Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India.”
However, while Trump’s arrival has shaken European countries and allies around the world, India is one of the few countries that has had it good, according to C. Raja Mohan, director of Carnegie India. As the year progressed, Washington took a tougher line on Pakistan, issuing a warning in August that Islamabad put paid to terrorist bastions within its borders, or else.
“U.S. has gone one step further than the previous administration which acknowledged these groups existed but did not do anything much,” Raja Mohan told News India Times.
Before she joined the Trump administration as an advisor on South Asia, Lisa Curtis, who was with a Washington think-tank, told News India Times in March that counterterrorism would have to drive Trump’s policy toward Pakistan. “They will have to toughen the demand that Pakistan crack down on terrorists,” She was right. “Pakistan is part of the global terrorism problem,” said Curtis who is now a Trump insider.
Wider Role for India
Before the year was out, Secretary of State Tillerson spoke of a “100 Year Vision” for India as a rising global power, laying down an expanded role for India not just in South Asia, but also East Asia, before he visited that country.
Among the best things President Trump has done since he came to office is naming an “Indo Pacific” region, says Marc Thiessen, writing in the Washington Post Dec. 27. “Trump … renamed the “Asia-Pacific” the “Indo-Pacific” to include India in the larger task of preventing Chinese hegemony in Asia,” Thiessen notes. Putting ‘India’ front and center in the East Asia policy is a first, Raja Mohan added.
The President’s initial mixed messages on China, and the continuing uncertainty about China’s strategic goals for dominance of Asia, and sharpening differences between Washington and Beijing, have in the process, been a windfall of sorts for India, agreed Raja Mohan.
Trade policy on the other hand, has remained predictably tough on India, largely because in President Trump’s assessment, bilateral trade must be balanced, and India had the advantage. Indian policymakers are well aware of the problem and are working to equalize trade by increasing oil and gas imports and making weapons deals, Raja Mohan contends. The Trump administration had taken a “sharp turn” on trade issues, noted Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, an expert on economic, political, security and risk management trends in India and Pakistan, and founder of South Asia Hand.
By the same token, Schaffer had said, U.S. exporters, importers and the business community are in a hurry to negotiate with India, she said especially as Modi goes forward with reforms and the GST regulations get implemented in a way that helps foreign investors.
Bumps On The Road
So also, visa issues and high skilled labor have compounded bilateral relations, not least because of pressures Indian companies face operating in the U.S., and the long-held view in India that America was the land of opportunity. But this is a matter India and Indian companies have to work more with the U.S. Congress.
The specter of cutting H1-B visas, ending chain migration that has long been the ‘family reunification’ favorite of Indian-Americans, continues to hang and will be seeing changes in the coming year, according to most analysts and observers. By year end, the hype around H1-B, the fate of Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and chain migration hung in the air.
So far as H1-B visa is concerned, Raja Mohan says Indian companies have to deal directly with U.S. lawmakers, which they are already doing. New Delhi recognizes that, but has also shown a sensitivity toward those affected and has rightly taken a low key approach to it, experts say. The door is far from shut however. “The National Security Strategy both countries signed on to clearly spells out that the U.S. will remain open to high skilled people,” Raja Mohan noted.
In the galloping technological progress, the phase when low-skilled workers could come to America in large numbers from India is over, he adds.
On the domestic front, a number of hate crimes against Indians in America has brought a studied diplomatic response from New Delhi, and a recognition of the problem by the White House.
The Trump administration has also placed numerous Indian-Americans in high-level positions, expanding their influence in strategic areas of domestic and foreign policy, including United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, the first ever Cabinet -level Indian-American; Administrator of Medicare and Medicaid Service Seema Verma; Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah, a position never before held by an Indian-American; and Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Manisha Singh, another unprecedented position for an Indian-American.
A Good Wicket
“India is quite happy. It is on a good wicket,” said Raja Mohan. In the upcoming year, New Delhi must be alive to the volatility in U.S. domestic politics where the debate on the country’s role on domestic and foreign policy issues roils. “So India has to build on the positives, mitigate on issues like trade, and find ways to deal with the international fallout of U.S. policies,” he added.