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India should guard its interests in Trump era: Policy experts at JLF

India needs to move prudently to counter growing Chinese influence if the United States withdraws from the global stage under President Donald Trump, a clutch of policy experts said on Sunday, insisting that the Indo-American relations had enough momentum to not be disrupted.

Speaking on the penultimate day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, the discussants also suggested that New Delhi needed to understand that it wasn’t on Trump’s priority list and needed to keep working on its national interest silently. “Trump has said he will work on his national interest. We should work with ours,” said academic C Rajamohan. “Our skills of policy construction will be tested.”

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The session – coming two days after Trump’s inauguration – touched on the impact of the tumultuous election on the 3.5 million-strong Indian-American community, the impact of Trump on global order and whether his avowed policy of global disengagement would bring peace to strife-torn West Asia. There was frequent disagreement but all experts agreed on one thing – that speculating on Trump’s presidency was just guesswork.

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“If there is weakening of the global American alliance, Chinese pressure will grow. This is bad for India,” said former US ambassador Robert Blackwill.

(L to R) Jyoti Malhotra, C Raja Mohan, Hardeep Singh, Shivshankar Menon, Devesh Kapur and Robert Blackwill speak at Passage to America session at the Jaipur Literature Fest 2017 in Jaipur on Thursday. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

Former security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon suggested “strategic patience”, saying that support for India in the US was bipartisan. “Can we trust the US? You can trust them to follow their self interest. We should do the same for India. And we can negotiate.”

Blackwill said Trump’s presidency could weaken four key things – the current world order, the global American alliance, the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the anti-climate change initiatives. “Trump is the first president to have neither served in government or military. So, he will use his business skills to drive global deal making or it will be like sending a businessman to do brain surgery. Either way, it is the biggest living experiment.”

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Rajamohan sounded a sobering note, reminding the audience that China’s GDP was five times that of India and military four times larger. “There’s no parity. If the US withdraws, China’s ability to influence the Indian Ocean and Eurasia will increase. On our own, we cannot deal with them.”

Menon agreed, saying India needed to deal with the reality of rising Chinese power. “Either there will be a China-US deal or the relationship will deteriorate but we cannot predict. Either way, there is no reason to tie ourselves to one policy.” All panelists recalled Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he portrayed China as a “rock of stability”.

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Former permanent representative to the United Nations Hardeep Puri said if Trump could dissociate US foreign policy from its fixation with regime change, the ensuing change might halt violence in Syria. “The country standing in India’s way is China and we need to work on it.”

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Puri also said that Indian-origin Nikki Haley’s appointment as the US ambassador to the UN wouldn’t tilt the scales in New Delhi’s favour. “She might be sensitive to India till a point but she is working as part of a set-up. But her views on Israel and Russia are more nuanced than Trump’s. We don’t know if it is a good-cop-bad-cop routine.”

Academic Devesh Puri said the Indian American community was somewhat apprehensive – especially over fears of visa curbs and anti-immigration sentiment. “But most of them are democrats, live in democratic states and their lives are shaped by local government.” He also blamed political parties in India for destroying the higher-education system and handing the advantage to China.

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India should guard its interests in Trump era: Policy experts at JLF