No Change in US’ South Asia Plan

Donald Trump calling Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen suggests continuity of Obama’s hawkish agenda against China and boost alliances with India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam

Picture: Donald Trump with US NSA-designate Michael Flynn; US Secretary of State designate Rex Tillerson with Vladimir Putin

By Mridu Kumari

A few days after Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had telephonic talks with US President- elect, Donald Trump, Islamabad sent Tariq Fatemi, who is serving as special assistant on foreign affairs to the country’s Prime Minister, to the US to meet and familiarize with new team members of Trump.  Despite staying 10 days in the US, the Pakistan Prime Minister’s special envoy could not get an opportunity to meet any member of the US President-elect’s team; he came back empty-handed.  But Pakistani media and people singed in frustration when they saw Donald Trump’s blue eyed boy and National Security Adviser-designate, Michael Flynn, inviting Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval for talks. Last year, in the third week of December, Doval and Flynn, who like Indian NSA, has also a background in intelligence, held detailed talks on South Asia’s security situation. Obviously, these two top security officials would not have held their talks on issues like atmosphere, rain or flood during their meeting in Washington, rather as the common sense suggests, they might have held negotiations on terrorism, Pakistan and Afghanistan situation.

If that was the case, it means the Trump administration would keep Pakistan under a tight leash on two factors: One, on terrorism and another, on its proximity with China. But to say that Trump would prove to be radically different from Barack Obama or his predecessor George W Bush in making South Asia one of the key cogs of his foreign policy would be too early to analyze, given that Trump is erratic and he lacks consistency in his opinion and move. However, it would be a good development indeed if Washington’s planned move to replace the current US ambassador to India, Richard Verma with Ashley J Tellis, an Indian-American and a formidable expert on India, becomes true. Some experts say that as Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, doesn’t share good opinion on Trump, it is hard to believe that he would accept the proposal to become US ambassador under the Trump administration.

But then in America, one’s personalized opinion against another is not cared much unless it is too offensive or abusive. If the President elect’s transition team is really betting on Tellis for India or it wants to further cement US-Taiwan ties, it hints categorically that the US would carry on much of the Obama administration’s strategy on Asia.  Strangely in the case of Taiwan, Trump showed that he could be more assertive than his predecessors. Since 1979, not a single US President or President-elect ever spoke to a Taiwanese President. On December 2, 2016, self-imposed restrictions by American leaders were broken by Trump when he made a call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. “This was clearly intended as a short across Beijing’s bow,” Foreign Policy magazine maintained in its recent article.

That means it would not restrict US’ current hawkish agenda against China nor would weaken on-going effort to bolster alliances with India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam. Yet what would interest New Delhi or foreign watchers altogether is the on-going India-US defense engagement, which under the Obama administration flourished. The two countries which signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) a few months ago, where in militaries of both sides will now use each other’s assets and bases for repair and replenishment of supplies, became important allies after President Obama, during last days of his tenure, signed a legislation codifying India as a “Major Defense Partner.”

It has been termed as a distinctly unique definition which the US doesn’t use for any other country of the world. Experts say that since the legislation has a bipartisan support in the US, it is less likely that Trump would try to bring a change into it. Yet a fear prevails in India about Trump who has promised to stimulate US’ economic situation by bringing big cuts in taxes, restricting flow of jobs outside America and controlling immigration. These moves, starkly opposite to the Obama administration’s stand, would impact the India-US trade on implementation. India’s software industry would be a major victim of Trump’s whims.

His statement, during the presidential campaign that “foreign workers were brought in to replace them (Americans).We won’t let this happen anymore,” has sent chills down the software companies in India. It is apprehended that once Trump is inside from January 20 onwards, the US may raise the fees of H-1B visas. Making the President-elect’s task a bit easy, two US Congressmen have already reintroduced a bill to curb the use of H-1B visas. To this effect, apart from seeking hike in H-1B visa’s fees from $60,000 currently to minimum $100,000, the bill has also sought to remove the Master’s degree exemption.

The fact that the bill has come after companies like Disney and Southern California Edison have come under fire for outsourcing their IT operations to Bangaluru-based companies, is not seen as a welcome development. Despite some barriers that India would face on its trade and commerce front from America, there is nothing as such that could upset New Delhi’s plan to make Trump a trump card for the country. Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson as America’s next Secretary of State.

Though he is an unfamiliar face for diplomats around the world, Tillerson is a known face among top business tycoons and heads of state. As a former CEO of ExxonMobil, his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has triggered controversy, particularly in the light of the revelations about Putin’s business dealings in the Panama papers.  In 2014, he had strongly opposed the sanctions against Russia. A man of keen business sense, Tillerson is not unknown to Indians either. It is said that he had played an instrumental role in pushing ONGC-Videsh in striking a deal with Russian oil company Rosneft for the Sakhalin-1 offshore project. In this background, Tillerson’s new inning as a top diplomat of the US would be a keenly watched affair across the world. Nevertheless, for India, the next four years of Trump regime would not be without its share of uncertainty and abruptness.