Kochi: 2016 planted the seeds for some fundamental changes around the globe—a Donald Trump Presidency, Brexit, demonetisation, migration waves in Europe, a Chinese military base in Djibouti, the retaking of Aleppo, the failed Turkish “coup”, and more.
2017 is the year we start to see what those seeds are likely to grow into. There will be touchstone events, like the French and German elections and the once every five years Chinese Communist Party Congress. They will hint at deeper trends. And the situation is so dynamic, major “unpredictable” events are also likely. So the question is, will 2017 be a good year for India? In terms of foreign relations, very likely yes.
To begin with the obvious, Donald Trump as American President has the potential to completely reshape US foreign policy. The Washington ecosystem is already trying to anticipate and adapt. For example, the DC think tank centre of gravity has shifted from the Clinton-linked Center for American Progress to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Similarly, for years the traditional US media powerhouses sidelined conservative voices, shunting them to talk radio, the internet and cable TV. There they built a completely separate following, one that showed its size and power on voting day. Now mainstream American newspapers are playing catch up, trying to find “respectable” conservative columnists to make them seem relevant to Trump’s America.
The general tone of these (re)emerging poles of public debate is pro-India. There is much less of the preaching on Indian domestic issues that tended to come out of the “academic left”, and much more of an appreciation for India as a friendly, compatible and pivotal power.
The shift in public tone brings to the surface the ground level fact that, even before the election, US-India relations were on the upswing. In the past few years, the momentum, particularly on defence, has greatly deepened. For example, the Pentagon has a unit dedicated solely to building and smoothing cooperation with India. It’s the only country-specific node in the Pentagon. That cooperation is only going to accelerate under President Trump.
During the bruising Presidential campaign, Indo-Americans were among Trump’s early, vocal, and devoted supporters. Trump made a point of addressing a predominantly Indo-American rally in New Jersey, released a campaign video in which he spoke Hindi, and members of his family attended Diwali celebrations. Trump has shown himself to be a loyal friend with a long memory. He will not forget the early support of Indo-Americans.
Soon after winning the election, Trump met with Hindu-American Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (even though she is a Democrat), and announced he will nominate Indo-American Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley for the post of American ambassador to the United Nations.
Apart from the personal warmth and bonds, there are highly compatible policy priorities, including fighting terror. And President Trump is much less likely to involve himself in the domestic challenges of other countries, including India, than some previous US administrations.
Another common concern is China. President Trump will not just talk the talk on China. And, of course, Trump wants Delhi to be an ally in any face-off with Beijing. This could accelerate the already growing India-Japan ties, with help from Washington. Trump and his team also understand India’s operational realities. China will always be India’s neighbour. And, while Trump will turn up the volume on Iran, there have been few murmurs of complaint about the Iran-India port project, etc.
Beijing knows all this, and so is likely to court India as much as it can (while still trying to maintain control over its near-colony Pakistan). So, on the China front as well, India may end up with more manoeuvring room.
As far as Europe is concerned, bluntly put, the more terror attacks, the greater the swing to the right, the more economic problems, and the less European unity, the more likely it is that European countries seek out any and every cooperation with India.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, Brexit is unquestionably good for India. The UK needs new partners and India is one of its top priorities. It will be looking for a range of engagements, from Indian investment in the UK (which is already very politically important to London), to skilled English-speaking workers to plug the gap once the flow from continental Europe is slowed, to Free Trade Agreements.
Should the US and UK tracks both accelerate, then 2017 might also see an “Anglosphere” bloc start to take shape, with India as a fulcrum. This could include South Africa, Singapore, Canada and other English-capable, democratic, like-minded countries.
Even under these best possible circumstances scenarios, 2017 is unlikely to be all unicorns and rainbows for India. There are some major new India-friendly players, but there are also a lot of moving parts and old players still have tendrils interlaced with the evolving systems. Additionally, while India has myriad opportunities, Delhi may decide that some are much less appealing than others. Whatever happens, it will take very deft handling by India to take advantage, or at least stay ahead, of the massive changes we are going to see in 2017.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.