SAM Interviews

‘Trump should consult Modi on Af-Pak’

Marshall M. Bouton, a leading expert on United State-India relations, recently authored a paper for the Asia Society Policy Institute, laying out an agenda for President Donald Trump to build on relations with India, based on the strategic convergence of the two nations.
Jun 8, 2017
Marshall M. Bouton, a leading expert on United State-India relations, recently authored a paper for the Asia Society Policy Institute, laying out an agenda for President Donald Trump to build on relations with India, based on the strategic convergence of the two nations.
The five-point agenda Bouton proposed:
Develop a common strategic view of the U.S.-India relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially as it relates to shared interests in China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Make India a clear strategic and diplomatic priority.
Demonstrate American commitment to India’s expanding role in Asia.
Develop new avenues for U.S.-India cooperation on defence and security.
Manage economic relations, especially on trade and immigration issues, positively while looking for ways to expand ties.
The paper could be the agenda for a meeting between Modi and Trump during the Indian leader's visit to Washington from June 25 to June 28.
Bouton discussed the paper and related developments with New York-based Arul Louis, Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies.
Excerpts from the interview with India Review & Analysis:
Q. What should India be doing with the new Trump administration and what would you single out as a top priority for Trump?
A. The Trump Administration should make itself aware of the real opportunities that exist in a strategic view of India-US relations. That is, not becoming mired in transactionalism, which has afflicted the relationship at times over the last few decades, but should seek to understand and act upon the real opportunities that exist in the relationship, particularly on the security side.
Given the convergence of Indian and US interests there is still a lot to be accomplished. But it is going to take a longer term, larger view of the relationship. 
As far as India is concerned, it is properly in a watching and waiting mode to understand the Trump Administration's emerging foreign policy in general and its approach to India. That is why I put at the at the top of my list of priorities for the two governments to have an earliest possible summit meeting because nothing helps to get a relationship off to a good start than an exchange between two leaders.
Q. The US foreign policy establishment seems to be is in disarray... they don't have a deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, there are no ambassadors and it looks like it has shifted away towards China. 
A. The early decision making and prioritisation in this administration has risen to the top. That is really not that unusual. We are seeing a lot of initiatives and travels, by Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson), by Secretary of Defence (Jim Mattis), now by General (HR) McMaster, the National Security Adviser, and by (Mike Pence) the Vice President.
I am not so worried about where things stand. I think the tone and core policies are going to be set, at least initially, at the top level of the administration and by the National Security Council. What is a challenge, though, is that you have many competing demands on this or any other administration at this stage of the game. I urge that India not be missed because of the extraordinary opportunities it provides.
Q. One of the problems has been the lack of continuity. For example on the quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council, both the Trump Spokesperson Sean Spicer and Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the UN, have been ambivalent about it.
A. It is well known for a long time that Indian membership in the Security Council, while certainly very desirable from the point of view of India and even from the point of view of the United States over the long term, is not about to happen right away. And Indian friend of mine said, “Please don't write us a check that we can't cash.”
Q. But at least the basic idea of endorsing the idea, having a level of continuity
A. That is the kind of thing that comes from the President of the United States and that is not going to happen until there is an exchange of views between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi. That was the context in which it was first spoken of by President (Barack) Obama during his visit to India. And that is a very high level pronouncement on the part of the United States. Giving Security Council membership for anyone other than the current five members is a very fraught endeavour and many parties involved. 
Your paper focuses a lot on the convergence of security interests between India and the US via-a-vis China and Pakistan. China's role seems to have changed with the developments in North Korea and Trump is backtracking on a lot on what he had said about China. 
Q. How do you see that impacting the trajectory that you posit for India-US relations?
A. I certainly agree that there has been a change in the Administration's positions on China, certainly compared to then-candidate Trump's many statements during the campaign. 
North Korea and its nuclear ballistic missile capabilities are probably the single most immediate pressing issue in US Asia policy at this time bar none.
And so if there are tactical shifts in the way Trump Administration has chosen to deal with China in this time frame, they don't necessarily tell us about the longer time view. That said, I think the administration needs to be more considered and what it says about China policy it certainly needs to able to share with other governments, particularly India. Japan and other Asian countries and allies of the United States to have them understand where it is heading.
Certainly when there is a summit meeting between Trump and Modi, one of Modi's objectives is to understand where the Trump Administration is really heading with its China policy.
Q. There seems to be an ambiguity in US relations with Pakistan. In terms of terrorism and other things, Trump himself has been quite ambiguous. In 2011, long before he became a candidate, he talked about taking action against Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and intervening.
A. The candidate Trump's views and pre-candidate Trump's views on Pakistan have been here, there and everywhere.
This is an example of the administration needing to get its act together to develop internally a more consistent way of expressing it. A lot depends on what the administration decides. We are hearing reports of different outcomes of US involvement in Afghanistan. This will be limiting factor or something that will affect how the administration decides to position itself, at least publicly, with respect to Pakistan. (It will be influenced by) whether it is going to put more troops on the ground in Afghanistan, in which case the dependence on Pakistanis for access across their territory and even use of facilities for the war in Afghanistan will continue and perhaps be enlarged.
However the administration, in its private dialogue with Pakistani leaders, is making very clear our strong concern about renewed attacks across the line of control or across the border elsewhere and what the consequences would be.
Most importantly for the near term, I believe the Trump administration needs to act pro-actively to consult India about both Afghanistan and about what is going on in Pakistan.
(The author can be reached at

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