OPINION | India's Strategic Challenges in the Trump Era
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OPINION | India's Strategic Challenges in the Trump Era

By Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon 
Indian Air Force

Image Attribute: President-elect Donald Trump at a charity concert put on by the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Image Attribute: President-elect Donald Trump at a charity concert put on by the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

America’s historically least popular President-elect, a poor 40% popularity count by latest surveys - is on the verge of his inauguration and there is no dearth of excitement generated by the "Big Tee"s twitter handle, media rambles or other random shooting off his mouth. It is possible that the steel frame of American bureaucracy might prevent altogether drastic turns about in state policy, but in a Presidential system, the incumbent would wield enough clout to make life uncomfortable for many people.

Whilst how the U.S. Presidency actually unfolds is not for us to worry too much about, there are bound to be repercussions on India’s strategic landscape by predicted changes to American public policy or other drastic shifts in its geopolitical strategic domain or just "Trumponomics". The latest quip emanating from Trump HQ  about the "Obsolescence of NATO" is once again something that could impact subcontinental geo-polity willy-nilly, of course, it depends on whether NATO becomes actually redundant. It is generally believed by Indophiles that Republicans have been traditionally more conducive for promoting Indian interests, more so after the tour of Bush Jr. But then even though Trump has substantial opponents even within his own party the quantum upgrade of relations - especially in the military sense and the vital civil nuclear deal achieved during Obama dispensation and most of the military to military ties can be expected to maintain the ongoing healthy momentum, in a truly bi-partisan mode.

Trump's proclaimed gung-ho buddy ship with Putin and expected easing of sanctions against Russia, could augur well for India, making it easier for our policy makers to manage the defense cooperation and other diplomatic issues with both the countries on a more even keel, to our best interests of course. His possibly adversarial stand on the "One China" policy, should it actually follow the overtures to the Taiwanese leadership, would strengthen India’s negotiating stances on border issues with China, our "Look East" policy or our stand on the South China Sea stand-off. Even more agreements with the USA would be called for such as for Naval Communications to monitor Chinese submarine activity for one, to effectively checkmate the China-Pakistan nexus in our strategic space. Besides our burgeoning military ties with countries such as Vietnam, Singapore and other neighbors such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, India would stand to benefit strategically from any U.S. distancing from mainland China. 

Some observers have commented that America’s much touted "Asian Pivot" would be at risk in the Trump regime. Coupled with his latest NATO outburst (which has been wholly seconded by Moscow!), U.S. would have to be even more reliant on India’s strategic wherewithal to manage affairs in our part of the globe. Even for the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Iran, etc. - India could find itself more pressured to take sides in the ongoing or any new strategic hiccup situation. More so with the recent signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), India will have to be careful how it protects its bilateral interests with traditionally friendly nations. Though improved ties between India and America have tended to ameliorate tensions, if any, over erstwhile irksome issues such as Iran and Afghanistan.

What perhaps is most critical in this context is the Pakistan scenario. If one were to go by sound bites alone, Trump appears pro-India in the counter-terror agenda. His Secretary Defence - nominee General James Mattis has clearly stated that he would expect Pakistan to take action against terrorists operating from its soil. From his tone, he appears to be hinting not only at the Haqqani group but also India's bugbears such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Any kind of pressure the U.S. can bring on the Pakistani regime terror-wise would pay dividends for India, especially in light of our pro-active counter-terror stance, evident of late. 

However whether this is a glib talk and U.S. shutting its eye to that country's selective targeting of terrorist entities, remains to be seen. During his campaigning, Trump was vocal enough to say that he wished to take India’s help in reigning in Pakistan’s nukes. This is quite significant, more so in the context of its much touted tactical nukes, possibly whose proliferation has been accelerated by India’s articulated belligerence such as the "Cold Start" or "Surgical Strikes". America assisting India in targeting rogue tactical nukes would alter the strategic landscape altogether in the sub-continent.

Indo-U.S. military cooperation is already progressing well and one can expect more big-ticket deals such as the F-18 to be made in India or even Predator drones. More numbers of C-17 Globe Masters, C-130Js and Apache/Chinook helicopters are in the pipeline. The White House has recently raved about the much-improved counter-terror cooperation between the two countries. The advent of technologies such as that of the Predator drones into the subcontinent would contribute directly to America’s counter-terror agenda, as the jihadi factories themselves are located in Pakistan’s badlands. Trump's emphasis on counter-terror and illegal migration would see India getting even more involved in combating terror groups not only in our domain but also in combating cyber-terror against varied global terror outfits such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.Trump is also expected to have a better relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, once again giving a fillip to India's counter-terror and strategic interests.

There may be more truth to Trump’s latest statement on NATO’s impotence. America’s substantial contribution to its coffers has been seen to be not giving the required military-strategic payoff. Should NATO eventually peter out as a military bloc, U.S. would have to have its own bilateral tie-ups with European nations such as Poland, Norway or Ukraine, this of course to the detriment of Russian interests. European countries would have to look elsewhere for their security needs, either creating smaller defense mechanisms or coordinating their military requirements separately with the U.S. Either way India could leverage its interests smartly in the European theater, increasing military training and equipment opportunities and leveraging these for increased trade and economic cooperation with smaller European nations. Sweden, incidentally, with its Saab Gripen fighter aircraft, is one of the principal bidders in India’s "Make in India" venture. Defense programs exist with countries such as Portugal. U.K. would also be in dire straits as Trump has shown inclinations to walk away from post-war defense arrangements. So, at the same time, India should be looking for new markets for its space technology and defense related software skills. Existing arrangements such as those with Russia for Brahmos and with Israel for Antrix need to be further enhanced.

So, it's not only the expected "Trump Bump" or the reduced U.S. corporate tax rate from 35 % to 15% which would affect India, but perhaps more significantly India’s military posturing and strategic positioning could be impacted by the new American President’s world view and his right of center policies. India needs to appreciate the likely changes in American strategic priorities with the advent of Mr. Donald Trump and tailor its own approach to protecting its national interests optimally.

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon , IAFGroup Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting its tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IndraStra Global.

Cite this Article:

Menon, M. "FEATURED | India's Strategic Challenges in the Trump Era" IndraStra Global Vol. 03, Issue No: 01 (2017) 0052, http://www.indrastra.com/2017/01/OPINION-India-s-Strategic-Challenges-in-Trump-Era-003-01-2017-0052.html | ISSN 2381-3652

AIDN0030120170052 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652