Trump unnerves Asia — but India could forge closer US ties

WASHINGTON (AP) — Some Asian nations are watching anxiously as Donald Trump prepares to take up the presidency, but for at least one major power in the region, India, the changing of the guard in Washington could strengthen ties.

During a brutal election campaign, where Trump’s rhetoric on foreign partners was overwhelmingly negative, he was largely positive about India — or at least its Hindu majority — and its nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

When he courted Indian-American voters at a rally in New Jersey in mid-October, he said, “There won’t be any relationship more important to us.” He praised Modi — another populist, savvy in using social media — as a “great man” for championing bureaucratic reforms and economic growth.

There are other hints that Trump is well-disposed toward India.

He has done a lot of business there. A Washington Post analysis of Trump’s pre-election financial disclosure found that of his 111 international business deals, the highest number — 16 — were in India. He stirred controversy last week over potential conflicts of interest by meeting with three Indian business partners who are building a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex in the city of Pune.

On Wednesday he selected South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — the first woman tapped for a Cabinet-level post in his administration. Haley has no foreign policy experience.

It remains a matter of conjecture how any of this will shape the approach taken by a Trump administration when he takes office Jan. 20. But Lisa Curtis at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank said it was “easy to envision” the U.S. and India working closer on counter-terrorism.

India hopes that Trump’s promise to fight radical Islamic militants will mean more American pressure on Pakistan and less aid for India’s historic archrival. Militants based in Pakistan are accused of launching cross-border attacks inside India.

Neelam Deo, who heads the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, said India also would welcome it if Trump builds a working relationship with Russia in fighting the Islamic State group.

But Deo predicted U.S.-India friction if Trump restricts non-immigrant visas for Indians to try to protect American workers. She said that 60 percent of India’s information technology experts who work abroad go to the U.S.

Biswajit Dhar, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said that how Trump approaches immigration is a major concern in India and tough action “is going to rattle quite a lot here.”

Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the U.S., said reactions in India to Trump’s election victory have ranged from vocal support from right-wingers to shock and disappointment among the liberal intelligentsia. He said people had noticed that Trump had attended election campaign events with Hindus rather than the broader Indian-American community.

India is 80 percent Hindu, but 14 percent of its 1.3 billion people are Muslims.

U.S.-India relations have advanced under President Barack Obama, particularly since Modi’s election in 2014. When Modi addressed Congress this June, he described the U.S. as an “indispensable partner” and said together they could anchor stability and prosperity from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.

Staunch U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea, which host American forces and depend on U.S. nuclear deterrence, have been unnerved by Trump’s call for nations to shoulder more of the burden for security in Asia.

But that is less of a concern for India, which is not a formal ally of the U.S. It has expanded its military cooperation with Washington and purchased American hardware as it modernizes its armed forces. But it prizes having an independent foreign policy, as it did during the Cold War.

“India’s interest in taking on a larger role fits in with Mr. Trump’s view of U.S. friends and partners doing more in their own regions,” said C. Raja Mohan, director of the Carnegie India think tank.

Trump plans to take an ax to the main economic element of Obama’s Asia policy — the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He said this week that he will end U.S. participation in the 12-nation trade pact. India is not involved in the agreement.