Why India-US relations may survive Donald Trump
India—not a formal US ally—seems to have adapted better to the Trump presidency than many long-standing US allies
The just-concluded visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US was billed as a “no frills” summit. Indian officials were extremely careful to keep expectations low. The ploy seems to have worked, as the outcome of this “get to know each other” meeting between Modi and US President Donald Trump has been surprisingly pleasant.
The visit was laden with anxiety for people who had invested a lot in this bilateral relationship since the turn of the century. To start with, Trump did not share the same assumptions about the US role in upholding the global liberal order as his three predecessors—Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton—who contributed to strengthening Indo-US ties.
Along with the common democratic ethos—the rhetoric of India and the US being the largest and oldest democracies is actually more than just purple prose—the assumption of America’s global role underwrote the advances made in the India-US bilateral relationship. Moreover, Trump’s struggle in the domain of foreign policy—he has driven relations south with almost all US allies and his hopes for a turnaround with Russia and China haven’t exactly materialized—so far did not inspire much confidence in New Delhi.
Seeking immediate deals to further his “America First” campaign, Trump was seen as too transactional. His views on climate change, immigration, trade deficit, and American factories setting up shop in other countries were also something Indian interlocutors had to keep in mind. And the biggest problem was the apprehension that Modi’s conversation with Trump could go really bad if the former were to broach any of these controversial subjects. Given these limitations, the joint statement issued by both governments, and the individual press statements by Modi and Trump, after their meeting represent a significant achievement.
It is not that Trump chose to ignore the issues that concern him, but he did not let them dominate the proceedings. Trump duly noted his intent to reduce the US trade deficit with India. He highlighted that the US is trying to get higher prices for a long-term contract to sell natural gas to India. He was glad to note an Indian airline’s recent order of “100 new American planes, one of the largest orders of its kind, which will support thousands and thousands of American jobs”. In the delegation-level talks, Trump also thanked Modi for the Indian government’s decision to purchase 22 unarmed Guardian drones from the US.
The joint statement released is much shorter than all the India-US joint statements in recent memory—it excludes entire sections on issues like “climate and clean energy” and “people-to-people ties” that received substantial focus in previous summits. But on core strategic issues, the Indian delegation has clearly had its way. The language on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan is uninhibited. The US state department also chose the day to designate Syed Salahuddin, the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”. This vindicated New Delhi’s position of Kashmiri separatism being fuelled by Pakistan as a part of its sub-conventional warfare against India.
The Trump administration, which chose to send a high-level delegation headed by White House adviser Matt Pottinger to the inaugural Belt and Road Forum, has come around, if the joint statement is to be believed as an indicator of change in Washington’s stance, to accede to India’s views on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The statement supports regional economic connectivity projects provided they respect “sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment” and employ “responsible debt financing practices”. The statement recognizes India and the US as two “democratic stalwarts in the Indo-Pacific region”—a clear hint towards building a coalition of democratic countries against non-democratic forces (read China) in the region.
While the joint statement is nothing more than a statement of intent, it is clear that India, which is not a formal US ally, seems to have adapted better to the Trump presidency than many long-standing US allies. When looked at closely, this is not much of a surprise. Most of the post-World War II alliances had lost their meaning after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but they continued in the renewed spirit of globalization and multilateralism that took over the world.
The economic and strategic logic began to be questioned only when the distributional problems of free trade acquired political momentum in the long shadow of the Great Recession of 2008. In a new and unfamiliar moment for US allies, their inability to spend their required quota on defence began to be resented in America.
Also read: Highlights of the first Modi-Trump meeting
On the other hand, the logic of partnership with India was based on a strategic rationale that continues to be valid: the rise of China, and its consequences. China is not the only binding factor between India and the US but it is a very important one. This is where the non-proliferation activists in Washington and a few others who were haggling on different clauses of the Indo-US nuclear deal had missed the big picture. If globalizing forces formed the predominant logic behind the Indo-US partnership, this summit would not have been half as successful.
A good summit with India notwithstanding, the Trump administration’s commitment to balancing China still remains to be conclusively tested. But for the moment, the Indo-US partnership looks good enough to survive the long after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis, including the turbulent Trump era.
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