The range of positions expressed by President Trump during his campaign and in his early days in office on U.S. policy toward China and India present uncertainties for the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Under the previous two U.S. administrations, Washington has worked to strengthen ties with New Delhi as a way to counterbalance a rising China. But Trump has called into question an even more fundamental basis of the U.S.-India relationship—America's continued willingness to uphold the liberal international order that India views as in its benefit.

This panel focused on how potential changes in U.S. global leadership and in its relations with China and India could impact Indo-Pacific dynamics. Panelists discussed the potential for cooperation and competition on issues such as the Belt and Road Initiative, trade, and stability in Afghanistan.

This panel is the third in the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2016-2017. This discussion was off the record.

Discussion Highlights

  • Defining “America First”: Several panelists sought to explain what Trump’s campaign promise means for the Asia-Pacific in practice. While it’s clear that the doctrine signifies that Trump will seek to prioritize domestic issues over foreign engagements, panelists said that the extent to which he might seek to reshuffle the global U.S. military posture is still very uncertain. One panelist stressed that the United States will depart from its tradition of looking at foreign involvements through a liberal internationalist perspective and will instead view international relations as tit-for-tat, with more emphasis placed on short-term, bilateral agreements. 
  • Uncertainty Ahead for the U.S.-India Relationship: Panelists argued that India has historically benefitted greatly from U.S. generosity in the bilateral relationship, where a deep commitment to democracy on both sides has smoothed the way for U.S. support for India in international institutions and the military. But a panelist said that India should prepare for the United States to begin asking for concrete returns for its friendliness. Another panelist expressed his optimism that the U.S.-India relationship will remain strong—even in the absence of U.S. support for liberal internationalism—because a strong partnership with India advances core national security interests for the United States.
  • Growing Friction Between India and China: Panelists underscored a number of challenges that have arisen in the China-India relationship, particularly under the assertive leaderships of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. China’s obstruction of India’s bid to enter the nuclear suppliers group (NSG), negative repercussions of growing trade with China, and a deepening relationship with Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have made New Delhi increasingly skeptical of its relationship with China, one panelist said. The lack of institutionalized dialogues between China and India on important issues, such as nuclear nonproliferation, poses a problem, one panelist added.
  • The Balance of Power Is Under Pressure: Even before Donald Trump’s election threw the status quo into question, the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific was already shifting dramatically, according to one discussant. As South Korea and the Philippines have recently demonstrated, many Southeast Asian countries feel increasingly torn between the great powers of the United States and China. At the same time, a panelist said that China’s increasing militarization of the South China Sea is raising the stakes of the stated U.S. commitment to defend freedom of navigation in the region. Panelists maintained that power in the Asia-Pacific is already being redistributed, even without considering the potential impact from the new leadership in the White House.
  • Maintaining Nuclear Stability: One panelist expressed particular concern about nuclear stability in the Asia-Pacific, arguing that if the United States rescinds its nuclear umbrella over its allies, it would likely result in a destabilizing chain reaction of nuclear investment across China, India, and Pakistan. The panelist also questioned the future of strategic imbalances between India and Pakistan, especially in light of India’s bid to join the NSG. 

Ashley J. Tellis

Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specializing in international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues.

Gu Guoliang

Gu Guoliang is the former director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

C. Raja Mohan

C. Raja Mohan is director of Carnegie India, the foreign affairs columnist for the Indian Express, and a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He is the South Asia chair for the Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia.

Tong Zhao

Tong Zhao is a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.