Trump in India: Reinforcing Indo-Pacific Strategy
Salman Bashir
President Trump’s two-day visit to India this week was an extraordinary gesture by an American President in his election year.
Neither domestic political reasons nor US business interests at this point would have warranted the long and hectic trek across the Atlantic. The Indian-American community, though important, is not a big factor in US elections. And India’s economy has started to falter with rather depressing performing indices.
And yet, the politically ignited social turmoil in India and scathing critique of Prime Minister Modi’s divisive politics by mainstream American media and the US Congress did not deter Trump from making his Indian odyssey. By grasping Modi’s hand, Trump was seen as legitimizing a polity that is contrary to traditional American ideals and values. Indeed, the visit was overshadowed by large scale deadly violence against the Muslims in Delhi by the BJP/RSS sponsored Hindutva radical groups. Trump avoided any comment on the situation dismissing it as internal issue. The cost to US as upholder of values and human rights was immense. Democratic Presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were quick to point this out.
The story of the oldest and biggest democracies in the world, the US and India, uniting their efforts for a liberal, pluralistic international order is now far from the truth. In India, the order of the day is xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, use of force in Kashmir and against Indian citizens exercising their democratic right to protest.
The prominent Indian essayist, Pankaj Mishra, recently characterized India as “an inferno of systematic cruelty.” Perhaps Trump is oblivious to the impact his visit will have on regional politics, but by endorsing and elevating India as the chief policeman in the Indian ocean arena, the US is sub-contracting the security of a most populous region to a state that is itself in severe turmoil.
American apologists for India speak about the potential of democracies for self-correction. In this particular case the national mainstreaming of a culture of hate seems incapable of self-correction anytime in the foreseeable future.
American officials also speak of a ‘generational’ friendship with India. This is a deeply set view of the US establishment that is gearing up to its new great power competition with China. India is the lynchpin of the Indo-Pacific strategy and a US-India partnership is thus of vital strategic significance.
But when all is said and done, it is impossible for any major power, albeit a super power, to just expect smaller or medium sized powers to roll over and compromise on their national interests.
It is also extremely difficult to roll back the processes of economic globalization spawned in the first place by the west. Although the quad has been revived and a security cordon is being created to ring China, not everyone in the vast Indo-Pacific region is really convinced of the soundness of the strategy or of the new order that has been proposed.
India as a key-pole of the so-called new order will prove to be a weak pole. It simply does not have the essentials required to be or act as a great power. Defense partnership is likely to be the main focus of Trump’s visit.
President Trump’s positive remarks about Pakistan to a stunned Indian audience were welcomed by Islamabad.
So was his offer to mediate the Kashmir dispute. But the US has to play a more proactive role to stabilize the situation in South Asia, in particular to avert further escalation of tensions between Pakistan and India and to pressurize India to ease change its policies in Kashmir. Pakistan would welcome US role for peace in South Asia.
But it must not fritter away its credentials as a power that places premium on values, human rights and justice. To begin with US Administration should consider articulating a holistic vision for South Asia that offer the promise of peace and prosperity.
The US may steam ahead in wooing India at this juncture, at possibly high cost to its own reputation but it needs to maintain a degree of balance and remain mindful of the implications of its global policies for peace in South Asia. Pakistan desires mutually beneficial relations with the US and is not in competition with India on this score.