The Trump Administration: Who’s Watching India?

By Wadhwani Chair Staff —

The White House. Source: Adrian Gray’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Is official Washington organized to respond to China-India border tensions, to an unexpected regional crisis, or to the many bilateral issues, including trade and defense, which are important to the U.S.-India relationship? The answer now has to be tentative: yes, at the working level, but not so much at the political, especially cabinet, level.

Notably, there have been no White House nominations yet for Senate-confirmed India positions. Key among these is the job of Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia (SCA), vacant since Nisha Biswal departed at the end of the Obama administration. Like all the regional bureaus at the State Department, SCA is currently led by a senior foreign service officer, Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells.  Ambassador Wells has served in India, Pakistan, and Central Asia and is well-qualified to lead the bureau, but she has not been (and may not be) nominated on a permanent basis. She is being assisted by an Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Tom Wajda, just back from a tour as consul general in Mumbai.  India will no longer be the primary focus of the bureau, now that Afghanistan and Pakistan have rejoined the fold.  And SCA will not be the State Department’s only player on India; we will watch to see who is appointed to cover India on the Policy Planning Staff, where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has centralized policy making.

Another key job is ambassador to India. A senior foreign service officer, MaryKay Carlson, is filling in as charge d’affaires but lacks the title and consequent gravitas of an ambassador. Ken Juster, a former undersecretary of Commerce, has been identified by the White House as the administration’s choice, but he has not yet been nominated or confirmed. When he does arrive in Delhi, he will be a key participant in US decision-making.

Military/security ties constitute one of the key pillars of the U.S.-India relationship, making the Defense Department another important player. Here too a civil servant is filling a key position, and there is a certain paucity of India specialists. The Acting Assistant Secretary for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs, David Helvey, is a China specialist. His newly appointed Deputy for South and Southeast Asia, Joseph Felter, has no India experience.

This leaves us with the one executive office that does have the potential to lead policy-making: the National Security Council (NSC) staff. The Trump administration has appointed a single senior official focused on India — Lisa Curtis, the NSC’s senior director for South and Central Asia, but she too will be pre-occupied with Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Nevertheless, given the lack of other political appointees, and this administration’s inclination to centralize decision-making in the White House, it is reasonable to assume Curtis  can be the central figure on India at this time. Her office was the key to a successful (and drama-free) visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June. With the recent decision by Secretary Tillerson to lift his hold on State Department detailees to the NSC, Curtis can count on continued assistance from regional experts from State (as well as the military and intelligence agencies).

Congress has traditionally played an important role in the U.S.-India relationship and the India Caucuses in both houses have promoted strong ties. With a dearth of senior policy-makers in the executive branch, the Hill may become a separate power center. Regional experts on the staffs of the foreign relations, appropriations, and armed services committees can be expected to press the administration on policy issues of importance to members of Congress.

It is a truism in U.S.-India ties that the relationship needs a senior, preferably cabinet-level, patron to focus Washington’s attention on India at a time of international crises around the globe. There is no such person now. None of the White House principals  — Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, or Senior Advisor Jared Kushner — has any discernible India connection. With Ivanka Trump traveling to India in November, she could conceivably become the go-to official in the White House. Secretary of State Tillerson has given two ‘state of the globe’ addresses, neither of which mentioned India. Neither Defense Secretary Jim Mattis nor Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has shown any inclination to champion the India relationship. Ambassador-to-be Juster has ties to the White House, which will undoubtedly help, but his physical distance from day-to-day decision-making will lessen his influence. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sits in the cabinet and has a close relationship to the president but is focused on multilateral diplomacy and has in any case shown little inclination to be a champion for the India relationship.

The prognosis for the future, then, is that India policy will not be a high priority in this administration. We can expect continuity with the past, something to be welcomed given the overall positive tenor of the current relationship. It is only when Washington must pay attention, be it to an Indo-Pakistani crisis or the imminent danger of a war in the Himalayas, that the administration’s inexperience and lack of senior policy expertise will be tested.

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