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Michael Kugelman

The Donald Trump administration won’t be itching to engage with South Asia. Still, there’s good reason to believe that Trump cabinet members will view South Asian countries favorably and engage with them cordially.

If there’s been one constant theme in the messaging of Donald Trump, from his campaign-trail proclamations to his promises as president-elect, it’s this: Lighten the U.S. footprint abroad and focus more on the home front. “Make America Great Again” means nation-building at home, not abroad.

Offering predictions about the biggest wildcard presidency in U.S. history is risky business. Still, this much is clear: The Trump administration won’t be itching to engage with the world — including South Asia.

And yet, there’s good reason to believe that Trump cabinet members will view South Asian countries favorably and engage with them cordially.

Secretary Of State: Rex Tillerson

More than a decade ago, speaking at a conference for energy executives in Goa, ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson made a big impression on his Indian hosts and received a three-minute standing ovation. India also made a big impression on Tillerson, now Trump’s secretary of state choice, who called for deeper bilateral cooperation.

Tillerson will likely support U.S.-India energy cooperation.
In Goa, Tillerson called on Indian companies to focus their search for hydrocarbons abroad instead of at home. This suggests he may support exporting American natural gas to India — admittedly a remote prospect for now, given the lack of a free trade agreement between the United States and India.

Additionally, clean energy and climate change cooperation — which made major progress under Obama — isn’t as imperiled as Tillerson’s disaffinity for renewables may suggest. Tillerson engineered major policy shifts at ExxonMobil. The company stopped denying climate change, started backing carbon tax initiatives, and ended funding to groups that reject scientific data about climate change.

Furthermore, Tillerson supports Indian policies that made the Obama administration queasy. These include New Delhi’s warm relations with Russia, to which Tillerson has close ties, and with Iran, with which ExxonMobil did business during the U.S. sanctions regime.


Tillerson supports Indian policies that made the Obama administration queasy. These include New Delhi’s warm relations with Russia, to which Tillerson has close ties, and with Iran, with which ExxonMobil did business during the U.S. sanctions regime.

More broadly, given Tillerson’s belief in energy corridors, he will likely support energy-focused connectivity projects proliferating across South Asia — including the India-Afghanistan-Iran transport corridor, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Defense Secretary: James Mattis

Defense secretary-designate James Mattis — the Trump cabinet pick with the most experience in South Asia — holds views about the region that are similar to those of the Obama administration. His written responses provided in advance of his Senate confirmation hearings described India as a key U.S. partner in Asia and called for more progress toward consummating a strategic partnership.

He was a vocal supporter when he headed Central Command between 2010 and 2013, and he has often lavished praise on the Pakistani military.

His written responses advocated support for an Afghanistan-led reconciliation process with the Taliban. They also singled out the importance of U.S.-Pakistan counter-terrorism cooperation.

Additionally, Mattis called on the United States and Pakistan to reduce mutual mistrust in order to strengthen bilateral relations. Mattis has been consistently pro-Pakistan. He was a vocal supporter when he headed Central Command between 2010 and 2013, and he has often lavished praise on the Pakistani military.

Commerce Secretary: Wilbur Ross

Commerce secretary pick Wilbur Ross is no stranger to India. In 2006, he created a $300 million fund focused on India and bought the textile company OMC India Ltd. In 2008, he bought $80 million in convertible bonds issued by the discount airline SpiceJet. More recently, his vehicle interiors firm, IAC Group, has sought to expand into India, with an eye toward acquiring a company there.

Ross has eschewed the very protectionism that Trump encourages. He saved failing American companies by eliminating U.S.-based jobs and moving production overseas.
In 2012, he laid off nearly 600 U.S.-based employees with Homeward Residential Holdings, Inc. and shifted their work to India. Ross likely still views India as a desirable outsourcing location.

Treasury Secretary: Steven Munchin

Treasury secretary-designate Steven Munchin, a banker and financier at Goldman Sachs and more recently Dane Capital, has less India experience than Ross. However, Goldman Sachs has a significant presence in India, with offices in Bengaluru and Mumbai, and it provides support to ReNew, an Indian renewable energy firm. It’s also bullish about investment prospects there. Amid predictions of economic distress thanks to India’s troubled demonetization initiative, a top Goldman Sachs official recently declared that India’s economic reforms and robust labor growth ensure ample emerging market opportunities. If Mnuchin espouses similarly sanguine views, U.S.-India business cooperation could enjoy a boost.

Attorney General: Jeff Sessions

Attorney general-designate Jeff Sessions is the one Trump cabinet pick who could cause problems for U.S.-India relations. On a broad level, his views on South Asia as a senator were friendly to New Delhi. He supported legislation promoting U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, backed a bill opposing American F16 sales to Pakistan, and favored continued financial support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

However, as attorney general, Sessions would focus less on diplomacy and national security and more on American laws and regulations — including the H1B visa program, which enables many Indian tech workers to live in the United States.
Sessions has consistently opposed this program, contending it takes jobs away from Americans.

If Sessions isn’t confirmed — his controversial past positions on race threaten his confirmation — other powerful players in Washington, including Trump, could launch a campaign to curb or even eliminate the program. There is growing bipartisan support to rein it in. Sessions or no Sessions, the H1B issue will be a major irritant to U.S.-India relations.

Cabinet’s Views At Odds With Trump’s?
Some South Asia-focused views of Trump’s cabinet picks, and some of their foreign policy views overall — supporting strong relations with Pakistan, eliminating U.S. jobs and shifting production to India, doing business with Iran — clash directly with Trump’s. This begs the question: How will power dynamics look in the Trump administration? If Trump defers to his cabinet, his administration could be more engaged with South Asia and the wider world than his rhetoric may suggest. Conversely, if Trump exerts full control over policy and marginalizes his cabinet, infighting and dysfunction could ensue, resulting in a confused and parochial foreign policy.

Ultimately, Trump will defer to his most trusted and long-standing supporters. This is good news for Sessions and Munchin, both top Trump campaign advisers. It’s bad news for Mattis, who isn’t as close to Trump as is national security advisor Michael Flynn.
Trump’s relationship with his cabinet could go a long way toward determining America’s foreign policy trajectory — in South Asia and beyond.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
This piece was first published by BloobergQuint; and is reproduced here with permission. Global Village Space (GVS) may not necessarily agree with views expressed here. 

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he is responsible for research, programming, and publications on the region. His main specialty is Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan and U.S. relations with each of them. Mr. Kugelman writes monthly columns for Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel and monthly commentaries for War on the Rocks. He also contributes regular pieces to the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog. He has published op-eds and commentaries in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Politico,, Bloomberg View, The Diplomat, Al Jazeera, and The National Interest, among others. He has been interviewed by numerous major media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic, BBC, CNN, NPR, and Voice of America. He has also produced a number of longer publications on South Asia, including the edited volumes Pakistan’s Interminable Energy Crisis: Is There Any Way Out? (Wilson Center, 2015), Pakistan’s Runaway Urbanization: What Can Be Done? (Wilson Center, 2014), and India’s Contemporary Security Challenges (Wilson Center, 2013). He has published policy briefs, journal articles, and book chapters on issues ranging from Pakistani youth and social media to India’s energy security strategy and transboundary water management in South Asia.


  1. Michael Kugelman talks at the end of the importance of Michael Flynn yet he does not even discuss him – I would have thought he will be most important for South Asia policies

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