US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exited President Donald Trump’s security team last week, and now there are reports of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s exit

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster was the first high-level visitor from the Trump team to visit India in April last year—three months after Trump took office

New Delhi: Last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exited President Donald Trump’s security team after being fired by the latter following months of speculation. And now news reports of another high-profile exit from Trump’s team is gathering steam—of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

A Reuters report last month said McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly could both be on their way out—thanks to longstanding friction with the president despite denials by White House spokesman Raj Shah.

Reports in the Washington Post newspaper and news website said McMaster has “never clicked” with the president. The report said that “as with the secretary of state, the president decided months ago amid disagreements over his Afghanistan strategy that McMaster wouldn’t be a permanent fixture in his administration”.

McMaster was the first high-level visitor from the Trump team to visit India in April last year—three months after Trump took office. It was a time when New Delhi was trying to gauge whether there would be any major change in policy towards India and South Asia from the Trump administration. But his talks with Indian leaders and officials seemed to set at rest any doubts as he emphasized the importance of the US-India strategic relationship and reaffirmed India’s designation as a Major Defense Partner.

Should McMaster too follow in Tillerson’s wake and leave the Trump cabinet, what would it mean for India—which has figured quite prominently in recent US foreign policy statements—whether it be the South Asia policy unveiled in September, the Indo-Pacific policy outlined in October or the US National Defence Strategy outlined late last year?

Analysts in India seem divided in their assessment.

Tillerson’s exit and McMaster’s possible departure “introduces an element of uncertainty for India and the world”, said former Indian ambassador to the US Arun Singh. This, he said, would continue till the “new constellation (of officials) settles down”.

On the other hand, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal was of the view that given the bipartisan support for a stronger India-US relationship, India would continue to be seen as a key partner and the departure of Tillerson and possible exit of McMaster wouldn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things.

The immediate fallout of Tillerson’s sacking on India has been the postponement of the inaugural “2+2” dialogue between the defence and foreign ministers of the two countries. The dialogue was to have held in Washington on 18 April and was to focus on strengthening the strategic partnership—a case in point being how to increase interoperability between the militaries of the two countries, according to people familiar with the development. With Tillerson’s successor, CIA director Mike Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearings expected to start only in April, the India-US dialogue “2+2” dialogue seems to have been put off indefinitely.

Other consequences for India could show in areas like the South Asia policy.

Tillerson along with McMaster and US Defence Secretary James Mattis were seen as the main architects of this policy that was unveiled by Trump in August. It had given India a prominent role in stabilising Afghanistan, something previous administrations were wary of, given their sensitivity to Pakistan’s concerns about India’s involvement in Afghanistan. Trump had also refused to put timelines to ending the US military presence in Afghanistan and said that a political settlement with the insurgent Taliban could happen perhaps at the end of an effective military effort—in line with India thinking on the matter.

Trump also came down hard on Pakistan sheltering militants and terrorist groups active in Afghanistan and other parts of South Asia. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said in his August speech. “Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India—the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States. We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan,” the US president added.

Would these lines of intent and strategy change, is the key question.

Also impacted could be the Indo-Pacific strategy outlined by Tillerson in October.

In a speech to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Tillerson spoke of US’s desire to “dramatically deepen” ties with India. Juxtaposing rising India with its giant neighbour China, he had said: “China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly.”

“We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability and growing prosperity so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics,” Tillerson had said with the reference to predatory economics widely seen as a swipe at China and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative that has seen Beijing disburse loans to countries which have later found it difficult to repay. This was seen in line with India’s thinking on China’s project.

Officials of India, US, Japan and Australia had also met in Manila in November to discuss cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The “quadrilateral” as it is called was seen as a grouping of democracies and seemingly sharing concerns about China’s looming presence in the region.

With Tillerson out of the picture, the question is whether the new incumbent will focus as much attention on India as before.