by Jon P. Dorschner
Balancing Against China
India has long been obsessed with its rivalry with Pakistan, and for many years India viewed Pakistan as its principal security threat. Pakistan continues to support terrorist attacks directed against India and India-controlled Kashmir, and is continually increasing its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems for nuclear warheads. Despite this, Indians have come to feel more self-assured and no longer see Pakistan as the country’s principal security threat.China now occupies this position. India no longer views itself simply as the predominant regional power in South Asia, but as an aspiring world power and is gearing up for what many in India believe is an inevitable conflict with its neighbor the Peoples Republic of China. India has embarked on an outreach program to solidify friendly ties to other Asian nations that feel threatened by China, and is devoting a lot of attention to the ASEAN states (particularly Viet Nam), Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. There is increasing speculation that this relationship could develop into a formal alliance, especially if the United States becomes less active in Asia.
India’s border with China in the high Himalayas is poorly demarcated and the two countries are involved in a protracted border dispute. This came to a head during the summer of 2017 when Indian and Chinese troops faced off in the disputed area of Doklam, which is claimed by both China and Bhutan. (India has a treaty obligation to defend Bhutan). Although the Doklam confrontation has ended and the troops have pulled back, both countries expect further confrontations in the future. China’s close military and political ties to Pakistan are particularly worrisome to India.
India – Pakistan – and North Korea
The rapid development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems by the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) presents the United States with a difficult and dangerous dilemma. India is also concerned about the DPRK because of its close military ties to Pakistan. The DPRK and Pakistan have worked closely on the development of missile and nuclear technology in the past. India, like the rest of the world, would like to see the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction programs brought under control. This is particularly true because the DPRK could provide assistance to Pakistan.
Indian Assistance to Afghanistan
India has long enjoyed close and friendly ties with Afghanistan. Afghans routinely travel to India for education and medical care, and Indian popular culture (Bollywood) is very popular in Afghanistan. The bilateral relationship is close, with India providing development assistance and serving as one of Afghanistan’s principal trading partners. India would like to cultivate this relationship both to balance against Pakistan and provide access to Iran and Central Asia.
The Trump Administration has indicated that it is prepared to shift US South Asia policy by reducing US support to Pakistan and encouraging India to play an active role in Afghanistan. It is not yet clear whether India would be interested in a high-profile role in a US-led effort in Afghanistan.
India is fully supportive of Afghan government efforts to defeat the Taliban and does not want a Pakistan supported Taliban government to return to power. Despite this, India is well aware of Pakistan’s fear of encirclement, and has no desire to antagonize Pakistan by entering into an active military alliance with Afghanistan. India has stated repeatedly that it will not deploy Indian armed forces to Afghanistan. India does however provide training, logistical assistance and arms to the Afghan armed forces in a low-key manner. Pakistan has responded by using surrogates to conduct attacks against Indian diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan.
India and Iran
India enjoys a close political and economic relationship with Iran, which could antagonize the Trump Administration. Iran provides most of India’s oil imports and is therefore a mainstay of the Indian economy. The business and trade ties and deep and mutually beneficial. Should the US take steps to abrogate the Iran nuclear agreement, India would support Iran and speak out against US policy. India would also object, should the Trump Administration shift US Middle East policy and support actively a Sunni Arab coalition against Iran and Iranian interests.
Donald Trump and Narendra Modi
Analysts have remarked on the apparent parallels between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. Both leaders are nationalistic and right of center. Trump came to power calling for an “America First” policy, that rejects many of the tenets of the liberal international system. Likewise, Modi rejected India’s previous commitment to liberal internationalism and secularism in favor of Hindu nationalism.
The Trump Administration has backed away from previous US commitments to support the spread of Democracy and international human rights standards. Trump has taken a strong anti-immigration stance and his tenure has seen an increase in racial, ethnic and religious tension in the United States.
This mirrors to some extent developments in India. Modi’s strong roots in the Hindu nationalist movement has encouraged a wave of persecution and attacks against Indian religious minorities (particularly Muslims and Christians). While President Trump has called for “America First,” Modi has castigated his opponents as “anti-national.” Repression has increased since Modi came to power. Modi supporters have launched a wave of violent attacks against journalists and others who speak out against Modi and his policies.
India and Climate Change
The Trump Administration has withdrawn the US from the UN agreement on climate change and has ended many Obama Administration policies in this area. Modi’s government has not followed the Trump Administration in this regard. Modi’s India has joined China in strong support for the UN agreement, and India has rapidly stepped up its production of alternative energy and is committed to attaining it carbon reduction targets under the UN Treaty.
Trade and the Economy
Despite his poor human rights record and weak support for democracy, many in the United States supported Modi’s ascent to power because of his stated commitment to economic reform and liberalization. While Modi has promised to remake the Indian economy, and turn India into a dynamic and modern economic power, his performance has been spotty at best.
The Indian economic growth rate remains high and has surpassed that of China. However, the Indian economy remains chaotic and many in India have yet to see the economic benefits of this growth. Indian infrastructural development has been uneven and the country remains plagued by widespread corruption, which undermines economic development.
India has focused on the export of services to provide jobs for its most highly educated citizens. This has brought India into conflict with the Trump Administration over the H1B visa program, which is dominated by Indian engineers and service professionals.
India also takes advantage of the liberal international system with its emphasis on free trade. As China shifts from a manufacturing economy into a service economy, India plans to supplant China as a principal supplier of manufactured goods to the developed world. Indian exports to the United States have increased rapidly and India has developed a healthy trade surplus with the US. This could run headlong into Trump Administration protectionist efforts.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.