What Trump’s Presidency Means for South Asia

By: Bharath Gopalaswamy and Ben Polsky

Donald Trump’s presidency is likely to bring about drastic changes in US foreign policy. The impact of these changes on the world and regional orders, particularly in South Asia, could well be dramatic. While it is almost impossible to estimate the full impact of these looming changes, the SAC fellows of the Atlantic Council have attempted to chart out a trajectory based on the limited evidence available. These assessments are by no means comprehensive but rather a speculative attempt to provide a better understanding of the challenges that confront South Asia under the Trump Administration.

The fellows’ country of expertise ranges from Iran to Afghanistan to Pakistan to India, but in their prescriptions and predictions, three common themes emerge. One, undeniable unpredictability lies in Trump’s foreign policy. If Trump’s campaign and post-election, pre-swearing in period provide any indication of the direction of his foreign policy, it is that possible contradiction and rapid shifts could be the norm. From oscillating between conciliatory and confrontational postures toward China, to a bizarrely laudatory call to Pakistan after campaigning and partially implementing a Muslim ban, President Trump seems to be uninhibited by previous statements or articulated policies. To be sure, South Asians are watching anxiously.

Two, American retreat from the world of global affairs and international leadership is expected. In his pulling away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), support for Brexit, and antipathy toward globalization and promotion of America First, Trump seems disinclined to assert American influence around the globe. This retrenchment will have a disproportionate impact on South Asia, where the United States has traditionally played a strong role as a direct actor, mediator of internal conflict, and the most significant trade partner.

Three, in the absence of American leadership, South Asians must fill the void with robust cooperation. Though regional cooperation may be difficult, failing to do so would be a total disaster–to use the new President’s vernacular. It is up to the South Asian States to be creative about sustainable new frameworks to promote regional frameworks. More narrowly, bilateral confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan must continue to develop. Although a US retreat may be unwanted, this vacuum does present a clear opportunity for South Asian leadership.

With these themes in mind, we invite you to take a look at our fellows’ efforts to estimate a trajectory of the US relations with South Asia under this new administration.