BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The White House recently hosted the Prime Minister of India in what was the first head of state-level meeting between President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Going into the meeting, there was much concern about whether or not the two men would get along. Some were concerned that Trump’s “unpredictability” would be off-putting to Modi, who was looking for strategic reassurance from the Trump Administration. Meanwhile, other Indian foreign policy experts were cautioning observers to prepare for a cooling between the United States and India, given Trump’s supposedly “isolationist” rhetoric. Instead, these experts insisted that Modi look to fellow “middle powers,” such as Germany, to balance the rising China-Russia alliance.
As per usual these days, the so-called experts were mostly wrong in their fears.
Rather than turning Modi off to America, President Trump appears to have thoroughly reassured the Prime Minister. Indeed, the two men bonded over many things–including their unconventional reliance on the popular social media venue, Twitter, as a means of relaying their messages to the people. And, while several others fretted over the fact that President Trump’s campaign rhetoric of “America First” would send India’s Prime Minister running for the hills, it appears to have had the opposite effect. Donald Trump represents the first American president of the post-Cold War era who was openly skeptical of globalization. Of course, India (like so many Developing Countries) has come to rely heavily on globalization as a force for national enrichment and empowerment. Thus, it was assumed that the two men would be at loggerheads.
However, the fact that President Trump expressed a healthy skepticism of globalization during the 2016 presidential campaign does not equate to a categorical dismissal of globalization. Point in fact, the forces of globalization have been with us for some time and it is unlikely that any one president–in such a short amount of time–could ever undo globalization overnight. What Trump’s “America First” principle represents is the desire to craft policies that will be fair and beneficial to Americans beyond the consumer level (which is what most globalists focus on). There is a grotesque misread on the part of the foreign policy establishment as to what, exactly, the budding Trump Doctrine represents.
What many missed was the fact that Prime Minister Modi is, like President Trump, a staunch nationalist and a conservative to boot. When he came to power in India, he campaigned as a man to the Right of his opponents. Modi enacted policies that were far more nationalistic and conservative than most of his predecessors. Indeed, recently, Modi announced his, “Build India” program as a means of encouraging indigenous Indian production and consumption patterns. Even before Trump’s successful rise to the presidency in the United States, the forces for national empowerment–even at the expense of globalization–were in play in India’s politics.
These conservative nationalistic sentiments united the two men. Taking this into account and looking beyond the economic realm to the geostrategic, one can see that the United States and India are natural allies. Writing last week in the Indian Express, C. Raja Mohan, accused the Anglo-Americans of “navel gazing” while China and Russia were on the march throughout Eurasia. Yet, neither America nor Britain are “navel gazing.” Quite the contrary, between the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the Anglo-American world is signaling that it is readying for a new round of international competition in the 21st century.
Despite claims to the contrary, the Trump Administration is not looking for the exits in order to make America an isolationist state again. What is occurring in America is a reassessment of the power dynamics between the United States, its allies, and also its rivals. In that reassessment, the American administration is attempting to ascertain how it can more readily maintain its competitive edge in an increasingly hostile environment. The alliances and institutions that served the United States well during the Cold War and the post-Cold War period may no longer be the best means of projecting American power.
Even those who do support the status quo ante in the American foreign policy establishment, such as Thomas J. Wright, acknowledge that the United States could not even hope to replicate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in Asia, for instance. Why? Because the cultural and political dynamics are distinct from the realities that allowed for the creation of NATO in the first place. A looser, more state-oriented system of alliances between the United States and other powers in the region would be required–and that system of alliances would look nothing like those of the last century. In fact, they might more closely resemble the Great Power systems that dominated the world order until the early 20th century.
With that in mind, let’s look at the Indo-American relationship. First, let us acknowledge that Donald Trump as a candidate did more than most (particularly from the Republican Party’s perspective) to reach out to the Indian-American voters in the United States. In his attempts to curry favor with this large, growing, and mostly unnoticed voting bloc, Trump promised to improve relations with India. He rightly signaled that there was far more in common between the United States and India than there were dissimilarities. His recent meeting with Prime Minister Modi proves just how much President Trump believed these claims.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India is expected to overtake Germany as the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2022. In terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), India is currently the sixth-largest economy in the world–surpassing Britain’s for the first time in 100 years (in absolute terms) this last December, following the Brexit decision. India is also the largest democracy in the world. Further, its position at the base of Eurasia, surrounded on three sides by the increasingly important Indian Ocean, protected to its north by the Himalayan mountain chain which border with China, make India a prime candidate for closer alliance with the United States. What’s more, it’s proximity and hostilities with neighboring Pakistan, make India a vital strategic lever for America in the ongoing Global War on Terror.
Much has been written about the growing China-Russia (“Chussia,” as Peter Navarro refers to it as) alliance. As my regular readers know, I am more skeptical of the longevity of this alliance. History and geopolitical realities seem to be working against the purportedly inevitable Sino-Russia entente cordiale (in much the same way that it did in the last century, during the Cold War). Still, though, the immediate reality is that these two powers are growing closer together. Therefore, the United States will need to take this into account when seeking to operate on the world stage. It must be stressed that Sir Halford Mackinder’s original warnings that whoever comes to dominate the “world-island” of Eurasia would, therefore, dominate the world remain as true today as they did in the 1904 (when Sir Halford made his famous proclamation to Britain’s Royal Geographical Society in London). So, it behooves the United States (and the West overall) to prevent such a Sino-Russian bloc from rising to dominate this vast and fertile territory.
For eight years, the United States has been “pivoting” to the East. Vladimir Putin in Russia has also yearned to reassert Russian dominion over its ailing Far Eastern territories, seeing the vast, resource-rich, yet underpopulated environment, as the vital engine to Russian revitalization. Meanwhile, as China has sought to expand its presence in the East, it has also, in the words of preeminent international relations scholar, Vali Nasr, begun “pivoting West.” Even as China increasingly asserts itself in the South China Sea and East Asia, it is now expanding its presence into the Indian Ocean basin and seeking to unite all of Eurasia together through its history-making one belt, one road concept. China has also intensified its relations with Africa, turning Africa into what many scholars have dubbed as “China’s Second Continent.” Also, China has maintained its support for the Castro regime in Cuba, it continues to suborn the flailing Chavismo regime in Venezuela with cushy loans, and it has yet to abandon its desire to build a rival waterway to the Panama Canalzone in Nicaragua.
These three forces are meeting geopolitically in bizarre and unexpected ways. India being along China’s southern periphery (at least as the Chinese view it) means that they have a front-row seat to exactly how dangerous China’s rise, if left unchecked, can be. While India is the sixth-largest economy in GDP terms, it is the third-largest economy in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. China is the largest economy in PPP, and the second-largest in GDP terms. So, while Sino-Indian trade can be beneficial for both countries, their geostrategic rivalry will likely place these two states in an increasingly competitive relationship. Plus, the political differences between the two countries also makes it more likely that conflict and competition, as opposed to coordination and cooperation, will be the norm between these two states.
China and India have had a tense relationship overall. The relationship has been defined by chilly diplomatic contact and marred by the ferocious 1962 Sino-Indian War, in which Communist Chinese forces attempted to take a part of India’s territory along their Himalayan border. Ultimately, the war ended, but there have been tensions over India’s northern Himalayan border ever since. In 2011, Chinese troops illegally occupied a section of Indian territory in the mountains. They left some months later. They repeated this in 2014. However, yet again, China has announced that they’ve closed their side of the Sino-Indian border down due to another border dispute with India.
Then, of course, there is China’s increasing level of support for India’s long-time geopolitical rival, Pakistan. These twin issues of Chinese revanchism along their Himalayan border with India, as well as China’s insistence on supporting Pakistan at the geopolitical level, have sent India running into the reassuring arms of the United States.
Their ongoing land disputes in the Himalayas notwithstanding, it is at sea that India and China will have some of their fiercest rivalry in the coming years.
“Indian reports said the People’s Liberation Army had crossed the border into Indian territory and destroyed bunkers, while the PLA late on Monday accused India of “provoking trouble” at the border by reportedly stopping a Chinese road construction.
Early on Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has confirmed that it was this border incident that led to Nathu La’s closure.”
China is a budding naval power. But, so too is India. China yearns to expand its naval presence in not only the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, but also in the Indian Ocean. India, on the other hand, has a vested interest in counterbalancing with China’s attempts to break into the Indian Ocean. After all, the Indian Ocean is India’s front yard, so to speak. Allowing another, rival, regional power to lay claim to it–or to even have a significant stake there–would be foolish on their part. However, India cannot do it alone.
Over the last decade, India has steadily increased its military ties with United States. In 2007, for instance, it purchased the soon-to-be-decomissioned U.S.S. Trenton from the United States Navy. Since then, it has taken an increasingly proactive role in developing its navy. It has called upon American expertise to assist their development efforts. This is a significant development, since the closer ties that India forges with the United States, the less likely it will seek to act in ways that undermine the American led-regional order. Meanwhile, empowering fellow democracies, like India, means that America can systematically shift the burden of responsibility in the region away from itself to that of the Indians. And, since India has ostensibly bought into the U.S.-led order, it will act as a status quo as opposed to a revanchist power. Also, the greater capabilities and linkages that are forged between the United States and India, the greater the chance that America can take a less proactive role from the region without worrying that its national interests will be threatened.
The United States can return to that of an offshore balancer.
Rather than looking for fellow “middle powers,” as several commentators urged going into his meeting with President Trump, Prime Minister Modi saw that he had a partner in the Oval Office. Instead of reaching for countries like Germany, India is reaching for the last remaining Superpower. With Trump and Modi at the helm, I’d expect to see greater coordination of interests and a consolidation between the two powers. With the Trump Administration’s commitment of “America First” and Modi’s dedication to “Made in India,” the two countries can finally move forward together; building its military-to-military relations, increasing trade wherever it can (so long as both sides benefit), and balancing against any potential Sino-Russian alliance (which will be fleeting compared to the budding Indian-American relationship).
Then, of course, there are the issues of overlap vis-a-vis terrorism. Like the United States, India is threatened by the wave of jihadist terrorism that is sweeping across the arc of the Muslim world. Sitting between two predominantly Islamic states, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the majority Hindu state of India is increasingly threatened by the same forces as the United States and its allies are. The rise of Islamic radicalism has been especially pronounced in contested regions on the subcontinent, such as Kashmir. It has also, less well known, become a serious problem in India’s smaller neighbor of Bangladesh, as both the Islamic State and al Qaeda have slowly increased their presence in that country.
Walking out of his meeting with President Trump, Prime Minister Modi allowed for the establishment of closer intelligence-sharing between India’s intelligence arm and the United States intelligence community. It is likely that our ties will only become closer, as the threats of instability in Pakistan, the rise of jihadist terror on the subcontinent, and the threat of a rising China become more pronounced over the next decade.
Make no mistake: India and America are shaping up to build the next great geopolitical alliance.