Why President Trump Should Make India a Top Priority
America will need reliable Asian allies to combat Islamic extremism and the unchecked rise of China
President-Elect Trump has pledged prudently to restore the generous margin of American military superiority that eight years of Obama’s “Dangerous Doctrine” has squandered. This will not suffice, however, to make America safe and secure again. The United States also needs reliable allies in regions vital to America’s national interest, particularly in East Asia, the world’s most important power center for the 21st century. While the Obama administration has slept, an increasingly illiberal, arrogant, and aggressive China has implacably pursued a marathon strategy to achieve hegemony rather than stability compatible with the legitimate interests of the United States and its democratic allies.
American ideals and self-interest also dictate cultivating a decent democratic India assiduously as a strategic and economic partner. India shares with the United States compelling and complementary interests in dealing with the two paramount foreign policy challenges of our time: credibly deterring China dominating East Asia; and defeating Islamic radicalism. No nation other than democratic Israel has lost more to terrorism and Islamic radicalism than India. Nor does any country have a greater incentive and determination than India to prevail against Islamic fascism because of the existential threat it poses to Indian freedom.
The current government of India not only recognizes these gathering dangers, but has demonstrated the political will and strategic clarity to take decisive action. Unlike many of our European allies free-riding on American security umbrella, India increased its defense spending by a robust 14 percent in 2015. India and Japan lack sufficient resources even together to balance Chinese power effectively without the active collaboration of the United States. Nevertheless, both countries constitute essential linchpins to any credible U.S.-led alliance system in East Asia, significantly augmenting American power and resolve.
Likewise, India also would make a much better economic partner for the U.S. in the long term rather than an illiberal, adversarial China. With the fourth-largest economy in the world, India will soon surpass Japan as the third-largest. India also offers the economic as well as political advantages China sorely lacks: a free press, the rule of law, transparency, and a government committed to encouraging free enterprise and foreign investment rather than manipulating terms of trade to America’s disadvantage.
President George W. Bush displayed great foresight by committing the United States to assisting India in becoming a great power. Conversely, President Obama’s neglect of India ranks high in his pantheon of serial strategic blunders. President Trump will come to office with a monumental opportunity to build on the Bush administration’s prescient initiative. Indian Prime Minister Nahendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a huge landslide in May 2014, campaigned on principles that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would have appreciated. Modi champions a pro-business, pro-market agenda emphasizing incentives for wealth creation as the wellspring of social mobility and economic dynamism. Modi advocates investing significantly more to improve India’s primitive infrastructure while significantly lowering the burden of government regulation and taxation.
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Modi proclaims himself dedicated to upholding India’s democratic institutions and holds a strict constructionist view of India’s constitution. During his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi’s trinity of less government, less taxes, and less regulation generated 10 percent growth annually, a rate exceeding China’s. In contrast to the current Chinese regime, Modi has reduced the barriers to foreign direct investment substantially since becoming prime minister. From May 2014 to 2015, foreign direct investment increased by a whopping 61 percent. By September 2015, India had surpassed China and the United States as the top destination for direct foreign investment. So the case for trading more with India and less with China should resonate powerfully with a President Trump who has justifiably complained that this Chinese regime envisages economic relations with the U.S. as a way to wage war by other means.
Modi’s foreign policy and national security strategy meshes well with the logic of a sound American grand strategy. Although envisioning Pakistan as the most immediate threat, the Modi government considers China the paramount long-term strategic threat. Modi has continued to increase Indian defense spending substantially and strives to take strategic cooperation with Japan to new heights. Modi has deepened India’s emerging strategic, economic, and military cooperation with Israel that the end of the Cold War and the surge of Islamist radicalism catalyzed. As an added benefit for American security, the Trump administration can count on India to contain an increasingly volatile, anti-American Pakistan ominously susceptible to Islamist impulses. Correspondingly, Trump’s military buildup will reassure America’s Asia allies — including India — that they can count on the United States credibly remaining the world’s default power rather than enabling Chinese dominance.
Assiduously cultivating the relationship with Modi would inject a heavy dose of moral and strategic clarity into Obama’s heretofore underwhelming Asian pivot, bereft of adequate resources or reliable criteria for identifying friends, foes, threats, and opportunities. It would put the Chinese regime on notice that the Trump administration will not tolerate predatory Chinese behavior economically, politically, or militarily. Making the American-Indian strategic relationship a priority would strike a judicious middle ground between recognizing the value of allies while expecting them to pay — as India and Japan do — their fair share. If President Trump restores American military preeminence, reinvigorates America’s alliance with Japan, and forges a strategic partnership with India, he will leave the United States and the world vastly better off as a consequence.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”