Wilson Center's Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia takes stock of US Foreign Policy under President Trump and what it could mean for India-Pakistan dynamic, China's growing economic clout, and the future of the India-US relationship.

Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate, South Asia/ Wilson Center

Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate, South Asia/ Wilson Center

Yash Johri: In a recent interview with Hindustan Times, former UN Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor said that “the Pakistani generals have proved adept at convincing Republicans that they are the best bulwark against Islamist terror,” which is primarily how they get military aid from the US. This aid is largely not in India’s interest. Given that you believe that the US will have a lighter footprint in the Af-Pak region in the years to come, what is your take on these comments? What diplomatic or military means will the present government in India need to adopt to pre-empt such an arrangement with the Pakistanis?

Michael Kugelman: I’d argue that Tharoor is only half right—the Pakistani generals have in fact convinced both Republicans and Democrats that they’re too big to fail. The Obama administration, after all, continued to supply military assistance to Pakistan. If there had been a Hillary Clinton administration, then we could have expected the aid flows to continue as well, even if in smaller amounts.

My sense is that the Trump White House will not pull the plug on Pakistan, even though the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is likely to take on an increasingly scaled-down look. There are certainly some in Washington, particularly those on Capitol Hill, who believe it’s no longer worth engaging at all with a country that has taken arms and money from the U.S. and yet hasn’t sufficiently cracked down on terror groups that threaten U.S. interests and lives. Trump won’t go that far, and frankly, I think that’s a wise plan. We can assume, however, that he’ll be more impatient with the Pakistanis than his predecessor was, and I doubt he’ll want to provide aid without conditions—even if he buys Pakistan’s argument that its military is the best bulwark against Islamist terror.

The bottom line is that Washington believes its interests are better served by having a workable relationship with Pakistan than a non-existent or hostile one. That said, there are trigger points that could shift the calculus completely. For example, a major terror attack on U.S. soil traced back to Pakistan could prompt Washington to cut ties. The Obama administration had stated as much, and you can be sure the Trump administration will feel the same way.

There’s little that New Delhi can do to push Washington away from Pakistan, and I imagine it understands that the U.S., like any other country, has its interests and won’t let other considerations sway it. Still, I imagine that as the U.S.-India relationship grows—and make no mistake, under Trump it will—Washington may find it increasingly difficult to maintain a deep relationship with Islamabad. In fact, the U.S.-India relationship could eventually reach an inflection point where both sides realize that partnership won’t be able to progress any further until Washington scales back its cooperation with the Pakistani security establishment. This isn’t to say that Washington will need to choose one country over the other. But I do think it’s quite clear that the U.S. government—whether run by Obama, Clinton, or Trump—is increasingly inclined to side with India.

Yash Johri: The US under the Obama administration has recognized that India and itself have common priorities in the region. Particularly to balance the rise of China in and around South Asia. Do you believe that President Trump will show signs of wanting to continue strategic engagement along the lines of the rebalance stratagem, that has involved increased naval capability sharing in the IOR as well as support for India at various regional and multilateral fora such as APEC? Or will he choose to embark upon a different, less engaging course?  

Michael Kugelman: There are many unknowns about Trump’s foreign policy, but if there is one sure thing, it is that he will want to continue to strengthen Washington’s relationship with India. Trump will wholeheartedly endorse the main pillars of US-India cooperation—counterterrorism, counterbalancing China, and an Indian-American diaspora that Trump eagerly courted on the campaign trail. I also imagine Trump will get along quite well with Narendra Modi. From their ties to business to their conservatism and tough talk, these two fellows actually have much in common.

Admittedly, there are some questions about the nature of US-India cooperation in India under Trump. The new president is not a robust proponent of the Asia rebalance policy; on the contrary, he’s suggested that he will reexamine Washington’s relationships with its treaty allies in Asia. Trump is also no fan of the Transpacific Partnership accord, and if there’s no TPP, then it’s hard to imagine the United States being able to complete its Asia pivot. So while there’s no doubt in my mind that the US-India relationship will flourish under Trump, I’m less convinced that the Indo-Pacific will be one of the core theaters of cooperation.

My sense is that Trump may want to focus more on the counterterrorism dimensions of cooperation than on the push-back-on-China aspect. That said, if he really values the US-India relationship, then he’ll need to embrace the vast potential for US-India cooperation in Asia. If he doesn’t, he’d be failing to take full advantage of the opportunities of strategic partnership.

Yash Johri: Initiatives such as DTTI (Defense Trade & Technology Initiative) between the two countries involve technology transfer to enable India to enhance its defense technological capabilities. Do you believe that President Trump will support and move ahead with such initiatives given that such agreements are in contravention with his stand on international economic agreements that create jobs and technical know-how outside of the US and not within it?

Michael Kugelman: Tough question. The key here is to ascertain which of Trump’s campaign pledges on foreign policy will actually be translated into policy. I imagine that his vow to oppose TPP will remain in effect, but I can’t imagine he would risk undercutting bilateral relationships he deeply values by categorically refusing to embrace arrangements like DTTI. That said, Trump is, or claims to be, an America-first guy. IF he concludes that DTTI does not bring direct benefits to the United States, then he may grow impatient.

Overall, Trump’s foreign policy will likely seek to strike a balance between upholding the principles of economic populism he espoused on the campaign trail and bowing to the imperatives of geopolitical necessity. How DTTI fits in is unclear. That said, given how much Trump seems to champion the U.S.-India relationship and given the key role DTTI plays in this relationship, I imagine Trump will be inclined to embrace it.

Yash Johri: Alas, do you believe that the US will engage the Pakistanis and exert their influence on them to promote social and economic development in their own region? Given that the war on terror has had a ripple effect in Pakistan and spawned multiple radical outfits. This is very important for South Asia as a whole because a stable Pakistan would mean immense proportions for a stable South Asia.

Michael Kugelman: To be blunt, there’s ultimately very little that the United States can do to get Pakistan to change its ways. Billions of dollars in aid and vast quantities of arms may have helped prompt Pakistan to crack down, and effectively so, against terror groups that target the Pakistani state, but not those groups that target India and Afghanistan (and, at times, Americans in these countries). Pakistan’s military has long seen certain terror groups as a useful tool to be used against India, and I don’t see how the US can shift that calculus. There are certainly ways that the US and Pakistan can cooperate to tackle some terror groups, like the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS—groups that are a threat to both Pakistan and the United States, and to India as well. Still, barring a miraculous peace accord with India that is most certainly not on the cards, I can’t imagine Pakistan deciding to crack down on anti-India terror groups on its soil. They’re simply too much of an asset.

The other issue here is that I doubt Trump will want to invest much political capital on the Pakistan problem. Prevailing on the Pakistanis to change their ways and shift their priorities away from defending against a perceived India threat and more toward economic development and democratization would be an honorable pursuit. But I can’t imagine the Trump White House will set aside the time for it. It will have bigger foreign policy fish to fry.

China, in fact, may be a better candidate to do this hard work. Beijing is increasingly concerned about the instability and militancy in the broader region, particularly as it expands its infrastructure projects across Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, China’s concerns about the security environment may help explain why it agreed to join efforts to spark peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. Also, Beijing’s pressure on Pakistan seems to pay off more than that of Washington—if, that is, we believe the theory that Chinese prodding helped prompt Pakistan to launch its counterterrorism offensive in North Waziristan in 2014.

Another contingency that New Delhi can hope for is that its deepening relationship with Washington helps better equip India to directly combat anti-India threats in Pakistan. Trump certainly won’t oppose any Indian efforts to carry out limited cross-border strikes on Pakistani terrorists. He’ll likely be open to intensifying intelligence sharing mechanisms with India to help New Delhi pinpoint the locations and movements of potential militant targets in Pakistan. And I’m sure he would support the sale of drones to India. There have long been rumors about the possibility of such a deal. If it goes through, it would enhance India’s capacities to carry out covert cross-border counterterrorism activities in a big way.