Issue 18

On the Fence: The Sino-Indian Standoff Continues

On 12th  January 2022 , commanders of the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army of China met for the 14th round of Corps Commander Level talks with the aim being “resolution of the relevant issues along the LAC in the Western Sector.” The first round of talks between the respective division level commanders of both armies was held on 18th June 2020, following violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan valley. This clash represented the most deadly outbreak of violence between the two nations in nearly 50 years,  resulting in 20 casualties on the Indian side, and an indeterminate number of casualties on the Chinese side. Since this flare up of violence, both sides have ramped up military presence across the entire length of the Sino-Indian border, and the question of how to de-escalate and chart a response going forward has been on the minds of multiple stakeholders. 

After 14 rounds of official talks at the military, diplomatic and political levels, the question of the future of Sino-Indian relations still remains standing. The heart of the issue goes back to the boundary shared between the nation. The boundary question is however, very complex.  “The alignment of the LAC has never been agreed upon, nor has it been delineated or demarcated. Remote and uninhabitable, the contested territory has no significant natural resources or population centers. The terrain varies from dry and desolate in the Western sector to hilly and dense in the Eastern sector.” Notions of history, culture, and civilization differences present their own set of problems that have to be considered. This is not to say that concentrated efforts to resolve the crisis haven’t been made, or de-escalation hasn’t happened before. The 2005 agreement signed between the two governments, marked a step forward by recognising that “the boundary settlement must be final, covering all sectors of the India-China boundary.”

At the same time, this ongoing crisis represents a new turn. Simply put, the repeated talks have failed because while either side does not want further violence, each side also differs in how exactly they see de-escalation and the terms of resolving the larger border issues. A key demand for the Indian side as a precursor to the normalization of the relationship between the two nations has been the “complete withdrawal from all the friction points and status-quo until restored as it existed before May 2020.”

This stated aim has not been achieved so far and seems unlikely to be reached for the simple reason that it is not in China’s interest to withdraw and let the issue quietly die down.  China’s new strategy at the border is a mix of strategies that have been successfully used in other flashpoints. It is a mixture of not only salami-slicing tactics, but also gray zone warfare, both working to China’s benefit.

Gray zone warfare often relies on deniability, remaining below an adversary’s response threshold, and achieving a cumulative effect through seemingly minor actions.” One can see instances of this approach all across the current crisis. One major area is the effort to solve each hotspot, or area of tension on its own, as a piecemeal approach with the aim of de-linking certain hotspots from a larger political settlement of the issues. The history of the various talks is littered with such examples. Of the various flashpoints, it was during the 9th round of talks that troops were disengaged from the Pangong Tso lake area, from the Gogra region during the 12th round of talks, and the focus of the failed 14th round of talks was the Hot Springs area in Eastern Ladakh.  Experts and news media have pointed out that certain areas are no longer on the table for even the base process of ‘disengagement’. For example, the ongoing standoff in the Depsang and Demchok in Eastern Ladakh. While the Indian side has pushed for resolution here, the issues at play, i.e., denial of patrolling routes of the Indian army by the Chinese have been delinked and cast as ‘legacy issues’. Such an approach, however, masks the fact that the Chinese side has successfully used the 2020 crisis to block access of the Indian side to areas it historically used to patrol in. Further, for the Indian side to recast ongoing flashpoints as ‘legacy issues’ that cannot be talked about even for ‘disengagement,’ shows that the onus of escalation firmly lies on the Indian side, and secondly, gray zone warfare is indeed in effect.

China has also sought to recast the border issue in terms of sovereignty. Statements such as those made in regard to Arunachal Pradesh, seem to confirm that the aim of the Chinese side is indeed to split up the boundary question into sector-wise chunks, and not deal with it as a political whole, going back from what was previously agreed upon, such as the 2005 agreement. As Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Advisor points out “unlike past confrontations and face-offs, the framing of the crisis by China as a sovereignty dispute — rather than as a border dispute which would be solved by give and take — makes it harder to settle.”

The other Chinese strategy that dovetails perfectly with the advent of gray zone warfare is that of putting the onus of escalation on the Indian side. Chinese efforts such as occupying territory, building infrastructure, aggressive patrolling, disputing agreed-upon boundaries, or denying patrolling routes portray tightly controlled moves designed to put the serious onus of escalation on the other side while quietly accruing the benefits of this carefully scripted brinkmanship. The question for the Indian side is whether it can bear the costs of a steady level of escalation by the Chinese without resorting to any new levels of violence. 

The costs of managing and operating the armed forces in brutal and inhospitable conditions, against a hostile neighbor, are happening during a time when the Indian Military is considering reforming its force structure to a Joint Theater Command System. This move, while argued by many as necessary, especially in light of China’s own military reforms, has its own set of myriad challenges and delays for policy-makers. Another area of concern is the issue of budgetary allocation for the Armed Forces. While the 2022-23 allocation of Rs 5.25 Lakh Crore represents “a 9.8% higher [increase] over the Budget estimates of last year” it “masks the challenge of the availability of resources … this increase is barely keeping up with the inflation and the demands of the three services”. More importantly, as pointed out by General Naravane, the ultimate solution to the problem lies at the political level. However, considering the increasingly strained personal relationship between Modi and Xi, one is unsure of the political vision of Indian policy makers. It is important to point out that while the Indian side as a response to Chinese aggression has “initiated a build-up of troops and weaponry along the border”, the more important question is till what point  such an aggressive posture is sustainable. 

In conclusion, one definitely hopes for the introduction of new confidence building measures, based on an approach that recognizes changed political and ground realities, while working together to solve long standing border issues between these two Asian giants in the spirit of mutual cooperation. What is more likely, and is disturbingly seen on the ground, is the fact that the relationship going forward between the two countries will depend on whichever of the two sides blinks first.

Shauryavardhan Sharma is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University. He graduated with a degree in History and International Relations, and is currently pursuing a Research Thesis on India’s Nuclear Programme. His interests lie in the field of Security Studies, and the analysis of India’s foreign policy.

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Issue 5

The compass of war is centered right at home.

Why do people go to war? Is it a feeling of surrendering yourself to your country? Is it driven by necessity and socio-economic conditions? Is it a larger cause that drives you to condone and carry out violence, provided it is directed towards the ‘right’ target? Perhaps the reason cannot be boxed into a category.

Whatever be the motivation, through the conceptions of conventional war, a couple of themes remain ever-present. War distances you from you from your locale and loved ones. War puts you in danger. War puts involved parties at vulnerable proximities, oftentimes in very close contact with the enemy, it forces you to kill at close range.

With the coming of new technology, the perceived proximity with the enemy is being challenged. Let’s look at the case of the 44 day war in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh that erupted in September this year. Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a peace deal after six weeks of conflict in the area. While the conflict has a tense history since the 1980s, the most recent spurt of violence left more than a 100 people dead. The deal, brokered by Russia, was signed on November 9. Correspondents like Robyn Dixon of The Washington Post have hailed drone warfare as the primary reason for Azerbaijan’s upper-hand in the conflict. Not only did it play an important part to help Azerbaijan gain military supremacy; the increasing use of drones in military conflict also provides a lens into the future of warfare. 

Nagorno-Karabakh has been a trigger for violence since the 1980s in light of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here, the population is ethnically Armenian while the land is inside the international boundary of Azerbaijan. In 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians declared independence. They were supported by Armenia in the war that erupted after. The altercations ended  with a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The agreement was uneasy at best, leaving about 600,000 Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts stranded away from their homes. 

Religious sentiments exacerbate historical tensions. It can be seen here as well.. The majority of Armenians are Christians whereas Muslims make up most of the Azerbaijan population. Both accuse each other of destroying temple sites among others.

It is in this context of such gradually heightened tensions that the 2020 violence has been different from all previous instances of conflict. Azerbaijan has used drones extensively to repeatedly bombard the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakertl. Conflicts build on constructing the ‘other’, an entity which is different from you either politically, ethnically, linguistically, religiously; or perhaps, on all those counts. Technology such as drones in warfare make sure that while the ideas of othering don’t change, the effects alter drastically. 

Think of what Donna Haraway calls the ‘god-trick’. This idea, simply put, is the ability to observe everywhere while being situated nowhere. This has persisted in fields of study such as history; especially that which deals with putting onus like colonialism. If you are nowhere, then you cannot possibly be blamed. Drones seem to have brought this conception to reality and warfare in a concrete way. 

The drone, or any other similar form of aerial surveillance, enables you to emulate a God figure on two counts– knowledge and visuals. It is not simply about what you can see but what you can think to see. The sights which earlier were limited to God are now seemingly perfected by man. It is of course an illusion, however, as ‘nowhere’ isn’t really possible– everything and everyone has their own politics, their own biases and their own vantage points. Therefore, three crucial aspects are ignored– partiality, situationality and locality, all hinting at the limitations of human surveillance. What the technology sees is determined by people and has a humane character to it. Therefore, it is prone to the lens, view and context of the operator. Usage of the drone then is not simply about differences in what is seen, but schisms in technology, and knowledge itself. 

This problematizes two things– first, the proximity to your target and second, who your target is. Home becomes the axis to understand the changing nature of warfare as operation of such weapons does not need presence in the battlefield. What is it then that the drone can see? Both are inherently tied to the idea of ‘rightness’ that I mentioned earlier. The basic idea is that you only kill combatants in war. They are people who are driven by the similar motives you have for their causes and their countries; and with whom you enter into an unspoken contract– it is okay for me to kill you and you to kill me. The conversation surrounding ‘right’ targets is important as harm to civilians is seen as something outside the norm for warfare. The Agence-France Presse reported that in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia had recorded 13 civilian deaths in early October. Azerbaijan had declined to report military casualties but reported 19 civilian casualties. 

In addition, the language that unmanned vehicles use is rational. It depends on abstractions and identity markers. What follows is a purely techno-strategic discourse which ignores humane aspects in pursuance of ‘targets’. People are seen as kill-able bodies through the  reinforcement of stereotypes. When the reliance is on identity markers, the trope with which drones are hailed as the future gets punctured. They can no longer bank on their precision when they deal in generalisations and result in any number of civilian casualties. Geographies of security hence move beyond the battlefield. 

Drones then cease to be simply machines of aerial surveillance and combat, but also complicate the distance-intimacy nexus. So we have a situation where the stereotypes remain, the distance increases, and the financial ease gives way. If aspects of war ever were humane, leaving it to algorithmic artificial intelligence removes that element completely. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 3

China’s Kintsugi: How it filled cracks in India’s diplomacy, gaining influence in South Asia

India shares deep socio-cultural ties with its immediate neighbors Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the past few years, there has been a palpable shift in diplomatic and economic alliance between these countries. Historically, India has been the leading power in South-East Asia, being also the leader amongst the non-aligned states with great affinity with the three countries. But recently, there have been various pointers that suggest these countries have been leaning more towards China and that this has put the kibosh on India’s influence in South Asia. There have been conspicuous and strategic shifts that have put the northern giant in a position that India was once in. With there being conflicts between India and China in forms of tensions at the border and India banning the Chinese app TikTok, it is important to look at whose influence is growing in the region as this implicates several political decisions in other states. 


An adage by Nepal’s first king Prithvi Narayan Shah goes as follows: “Nepal is a yam between two rocks”. The rocks here refer to India and China. The trajectory of the relationship between these countries in recent years can be likened to a tug of war with the two powers vying for greater influence on the Himalayan nation in between. 

India and Nepal share a porous border. Between these two countries, there are also deep intersections in terms of ethnic identities, culture, political history, trade and diplomacy. Since Nepal is a landlocked country with high mountains and rocky terrains bordering China, most of its imports come from the southern plains and more than 60% of those come from India. Yet, when the country was just recovering from the disastrous 2015 earthquake, India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal, restricting import of goods. 

The Indian government refuted allegations of betrayal in the face of tragedy, holding that the Madhesi conflict in southern Nepal was the actual reason for its decision. The decision nonetheless angered many politicians and citizens in Nepal, harboring anti-Indian sentiments because of how difficult life became due to the scarcity of daily goods in Nepal. 

With Nepal’s economy plummeting, there were reports that the Indian Oil Corporation declined sending adequate oil to Nepal after receiving orders to restrict supply from New Delhi. The Nepali populace agitated over their dependency on India for oil. However,  this was not the only reason that they were furious. At the time, India conveyed to the Nepali government to make several amendments to the new Nepali constitution promulgated that year. This caused many stakeholders in Nepal to be further inflamed at how India played the role of a big brother to Nepal, interfering in Nepal’s internal politics. 

In what was viewed as a keystone to bolstering Nepal-China relationship Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli made an agreement with the Chinese government to buy one third of its required oil from China. China also pledged to donate 1.3 million litres of oil to Nepal. After this, many projects in Nepal were initiated by China under the Belt and Road Initiative, including aid in reconstruction after the earthquake. China’s assistance was key to developing various highways and roads, with more projects including the Kathmandu-Kerung railway in the pipeline. 

In late 2019, India inaugurated plans for a railway near Limpiyadhura region, which Nepal claimed to be its own. The Nepali parliament issued an updated map that includes this region as its own. Many Nepalis supported this move. While both the countries have claimed this territory, the ‘cartographic war’ still ensues as little development has been made through diplomatic negotiation as it was proclaimed before. 

These factors put a severe strain on India-Nepal relationship. With China aiding several projects and a communist government taking hold in Nepal, allegiance between Nepali politicians and their Chinese counterparts has been observed with greater rapport in contrast to a much less cordial relationship with India. 


Since Partition, India and Pakistan have had a relationship that has been rife with several tensions. The two countries have fought four wars and observed several armed conflicts and stand-offs over the years. The fact that several attempts have been made by both countries (Agra summit, Lahore summit, Shimla summit, state visits, talks through diplomatic channels) to improve their bilateral relations shows that they view each other as important neighbors. These efforts have been impeded by the wars, border skirmishes and cross-border terrorism. 

Following the 2016 Pathankot attack and 2019 Pulwama attack, the renewed bilateral relation under new governments in both the states has deteriorated. While India has alleged that the attacks were orchestrated by the Pakistani government, the latter refuted it and claimed that the attacks were local retaliation to increased Indian army presence in the region. This also stoked nationlist sentiments amongst citizens in both countries. After the 2019 attack, India revoked Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation trade status, which implied the subjection of Pakistan goods to higher tariffs and restrictions.

While Pakistan’s relations with India declined, it developed a close relationship with China. Pakistan’s nuclear warfare development program has highly benefited from China’s support. Its  nuclear arsenal consists of weapons that operate in air, water and on land. In May 2020, a ship from Hong Kong headed to Karachi was detained by the Department of Revenue Intelligence and Kandla Customs for mislabeling an autoclave, a device used to manufacture long range missiles, as an industrial dryer. Clearly, China’s and Pakistan’s strategic relationship has been of great concern for the Indian national security. 

In addition to assistance in nuclear weapon development, China has also aided Pakistan’s economic growth with its incorporation into the Belt and Road Initiative through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China will also assist in building railways and highways through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar. This will increase not only trade but also Pakistan’s political and economic dependency towards China, which might pose hindrances to India-Pakistan relationship and also be challenging to India’s own security in the region. 


Like with Nepal and Pakistan, India shares rich socio-cultural and historical ties with Bangladesh as well. While India was a strong ally in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, a few years later, Bangladesh’s new ties to Islamic nations and an emphasis on its own Islamic identity deteriorated relations with India. Furthermore, the two countrieswere part of opposing alliances during the Cold War, which also put more strain on their friendship.

While their ties have seen some improvement with India and Bangladesh making major agreements with regards to land and water disputes such as the Teen Bigha Corridor and co-operation against terrorism, there have also been tensions regarding killings at the border and migration. 

Bangladesh has enjoyed a prosperous commercial relationship with China. Since 2006, China has been Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. In addition to trade, China also pledged to support Bangladesh with a staggering offer of $24 million in loans after Xi Jinping’s visit in 2016. While this has improved Bangladesh-China relations, this improvement seems to have come at the cost of India’s relationship with Bangladesh. In 2018, China exported $17.8 billion to Bangladesh while India exported $7.5 billion. On the other hand Bangladesh exports amounted to less than $1 billion to China and about $1.2 billion to India. 

It is evident that the rise of China’s influence is eclipsing that of India in these three countries. This foreshadows the growth of China as a regional hegemon in South Asia through several political and economic measures. With India also competing to gain the same vantage point, it has landed itself in a race to ensure efficient diplomatic dialogue, while refraining from interference in its neighbors’ sovereignty and inhibiting their prosperity. As for China’s surging economic influence, it is not something that has gone unnoticed. Experts are aware of the implication of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and what the spillover effects of economic dependence can be. Having said this, India’s relationship with its neighbors is still pivotal on accounts of trade and close socio-cultural ties.  For social cohesion amongst states in South Asia, neutrality will be key to ensuring that there are no tensions. At the end of the day though, its neighbours cannot ignore India even if they are under the influence of China.

(Featured image from

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

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Issue 2

Am I my Map? Cartography and Reworking Identity

We live in states as docile citizens and take a lot of things for granted. There are many facets which directly affect our nation that we have never even thought about. Maps are one of them. 

The very creation of a map entails conceptualisation of borders and their representation. That is why maps are called ‘projections’. The idea is to take an orange peel (originally spherical) and spread it flat, it can never fit neatly into a rectangle without stretching, cutting and bending it. When an n-dimensional globe is reduced to a 2 dimensional image on paper, it will lose its precision. We do this exercise with the orange peel on a global scale (quite literally) whenever we make maps. 

We use maps in our daily lives. States use them to assert dominance and demarcate territory. In the process, we implicitly agree that the word ‘projection’ allows for distortions. On top of that, we understand that distortions are acceptable in any form of representation. The question here is exactly which distortions are we willing to accept?  

Knowing this, it is unfathomable that borders are sort of a given. The more robust your border, the more secure your national identity. This is why soldiers get stationed to harsh climates, fight over land which is uninhabitable (as in the case of Ladakh) and countries use their maps to assert influence. The question to ask is why does your national identity depend on a border you have never seen? 

We are all products of different identities– caste, class, gender, race; it’s just a matter of context which identity gets called upon at what time. With the nation state, the identity that gets called upon most often is that of the citizen. As Sankaran Krishna brings up in his work, Cartographic Anxiety, While we don’t relinquish our religious, linguistic or regional identity, they are rendered vestigial, at least for the time being. Cartography creates an ‘India’ on paper while simultaneously conversations, laws and political mechanisms create the ‘Indian’ in our minds. The existence of one serves as reinforcement for the other.

This conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; India has experienced threats to its borders from Pakistan, Nepal and China in the past couple of months. These are intrinsically tied to cartographic representation as maps become important for both escalation of conflict and its eventual disengagement relevant in the current context. 

Pakistan’s new map, as explained by Prime Minister Imran Khan, shows the aspirations of its  people as well as the people of Kashmir. For India, these aspirations mean showing the Indian territories of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and parts of Gujarat as disputed. The new map came as a response to India’s inclusion of areas like parts of POK and Gilgit-Baltistan in its own November 2019 map. While Pakistan claims to stand for the Kashmiri cause, India has called this battle of the maps “an exercise in political absurdity.” The map here is defining the state’s position but it’s also defining what national matters are because it defines where the nation begins and ends quite physically in a political imagination. 

In the case of Nepal, the new issue of the Indian map of November 2019 was exacerbated by another issue– the virtual inauguration of a road to Lipulekh by the Indian defence minister in May 2020. Nepal claimed that at least 17 kms of this road fell on its land. The issue gained traction in Nepali domestic politics as it saw protests with #BackOffIndia trending on social media. In the following month of June, Nepal’s Parliament approved a revised map showing the disputed areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as its own.

The root of the Nepal problem can be tied back to different interpretations of the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 which demarcates the origin of the Mahakali river as the natural boundary. The countries differ on the point of origin. We have inherited borders drawn by British colonial powers. India is anxious to cement them in areas such as the western front, and contest them at other fronts. 

India also shares a 3488 km long border with China. It is one of the longest disputed borders in the world. The current standoff at Galwan Valley deals, among other things, in occupying land that the two nations perceive to be theirs. It is a game of perceptions where ground reality matters little, simply because it would mean one side or the other giving up their claim. 

The three instances seen through this lens tell us one thing– there is a connect between military confrontation, people’s stance and map-making. 

Nations can allow their maps to engulf more territories but never to shrink. Looking at India and its neighbours, redrawing the map must be seen in light of people’s opinion and diplomatic arcs. Bookings Fellow Constantino Xavier said in an interview to Scroll “India cannot afford to think of permanent friends anymore in its neighbourhood.”

In conjunction to this question of maps, we need to ask ourselves if we are taking a top-down view of the border. Does the map matter beyond the concerns of the state for border populations, especially in the case of an open border like India and Nepal? While the focus was on India, the conversation around borders and maps is larger. Questions of identity become important in dealing with refugee crises, in camps deliberately placed outside legal boundaries and in treating people as foreign, alien and different.

Many mechanisms are used to reinforce our citizenship. The map is one of them, it imprints a visual image in our mind of where we belong. This is why people in Nepal protest Indian encroachment, and Indians break TVs at a call to boycott Chinese products in the climate of the standoff. Maps show you the state as a natural, ideal entity. By placing troops, defiling natural features and building walls among others, the state seeks to fit this ideal.

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Liberalization at the Margins in Hard Times

Observing a world where the global momentum towards democracy is stalling, I asked in my book what donors can do to nudge aid recipients towards democracy. The audacity of the question stems from the fact that we are living in an era characterized by feckless democracies and resurgent authoritarianism.  These are hard times. If we are not to despair, we should examine our political constraints realistically. 

In democracy promotion, I argue we should take both the reluctance of Western donors and the pushback by recipients seriously. Unlike other approaches to democracy promotion, I do not assume donors value democracy promotion as much as they say they do. Neither for that matter do I assume that authoritarian regimes will give up power voluntarily. The reforms that donors seek are painful for autocrats. Which self-respecting dictator will voluntarily give up power? Instead of democratization, our smart autocrat can be expected to offer alternative policy concessions in exchange for the desired aid. This means some recipients like Egypt, will have leverage against the West and are effectively immune to donor pressure to liberalize. I label such countries, “primary recipients” in my book. Primary recipients can push back and as such are not suitable targets for democracy promotion. It also implies that some recipients, like Fiji, will lack the attributes to make counteroffers attractive enough to the aid donors. I label this group the “secondary recipients” in my book.  Secondary recipients, precisely because they have little else to offer to donors, are more likely to liberalize in exchange for the needed aid. Notice what have been theoretically achieved, I just spelt out a path that works around both the disinterest by democratic donors and the resistance by authoritarian recipients for focusing on the leverage of recipients. If my theory is correct, it follows that a strategy of targeting secondary recipient is a way to promote democracy. 

A not uncommon response to this strategy is to assert that it has been invalidated by the Trump administration, with its lack of interest in democracy promotion. Behind this stance is a sense that Trump’s foreign policy is radically different from those held by previous American presidents.

When evaluating foreign policies of any country, it is important to go beyond their rhetoric and look at their actual behavior. A politician, a country or any actor can claim a commitment to a lofty goal. It does not mean they will allocate the resources necessary to realize such goals. The verbal commitment is cheap talk. The actual spending of resource is a costly signal. We focus on the later. It is true that Trump’s foreign policy does not follow traditional Republican principles such as the promotion of free-market capitalism, democracy and the liberal world order. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is an eclectic mix of realism, protectionism and personal expediency.  Under this approach, any deal is judged acceptable so long as the US or Trump himself personally benefits more than the other negotiating party. 

Trump’s approach is also distinctive in that he is indifferent to the identity (read regime-type) of his negotiating partners. Liberal democracies are treated no different from authoritarian regimes. Long standing NATO allies (such as Germany, France) and trade partners (Canada, Mexico) have to pay their share or they risk US tariffs. Trump demonstrated a personal affinity for populist leaders (including Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, and Hungary’s Orban) and found common course with authoritarian leaders (notably Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim and Saudi Arabia’s MBS). Authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that provide tangible benefits to the US (or to him personally) were given a free pass in human rights abuse and democratic backsliding.   

These imperatives of Trump do not consider the secondary consequences for the international order or the impact on the US credibility as an ally. The result is predictable. William Burns, a former Foreign Service Officer, and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made the following memorable observation: 

For dictators, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, a non-stop advertisement for Western self-dealing (Foreign Affairs 2019). 

This verdict is devastating for US prestige, what does it imply for democracy promotion?  The key is to recognize Trump’s foreign policy is transactional. Under Trump, every relationship of the US, regardless of whether they are with democracies or autocracies, has to offer value to the US in direct monetizable terms. Primary recipients, by definition, have lots to offer to aid donors. They, by virtue of their policy concession to the US, remain unsuitable targets for democracy promotion – just as my theory predicts. More importantly, secondary recipients, who have less leverage because they have little to offer to donors, remain the group that is more suitable for democracy promotion.  

It is plausible that recipients who have no direct monetary value to the US might fall beneath the attention of the White House. This may allow for aid agencies such as the US Agency International Development (USAID) to work behind the scenes and quietly push for liberalization.   

If, by way of a counterfactual, I had argued that there was a time when the US values democracy promotion above all, then the current Trump administration would present a severe challenge since they prioritize interests that are immediately monetizable.

Instead, I observe that the US is not that invested in democracy promotion, if doing so entails the sacrifice of other strategic or commercial interests. The Trump administration, as negative as it has been for democracy promotion, does not represent a fundamental break with the past behavior of the US (recall the distinction on costly signals); there was simply no Golden Age of democracy promotion to harken back to. A transactional US does not fundamentally alter a strategy of liberalization at the margins. This holds true even if Trump wins a second presidential term

The bad news is that “we the people” do not care enough about international democracy promotion to prioritize it over other policy concessions we might get. We have to recognize the political limits, such as they are, and work around them. The good news is that there is a way forward.  We can filter recipients by their leverage. This suggests a focus on secondary recipients as the path to democracy promotion. Liberalization at the Margins, as it were. 

Bann Seng Tan is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His first book is on the strategic use of foreign aid in democracy promotion (

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