That Trump travelled to India without any substantive deliverable is the real story here
US President Donald Trump’s 36 hours in India were full of activity, as he travelled from Ahmedabad to Agra and then to Delhi with his family. He had hoped for a grand welcome and he got one. In his words: “Nobody else that came here got the reception that I got yesterday. We had thousands of people outside [the stadium]. That was an incredible scene." The Narendra Modi government had ensured that his welcome would live up to the hype that the president himself had generated before his visit. There are not many countries in the world where Trump would have got such a reception. Prime Minister Modi has a knack for building a rapport with global leaders and, even in the case of a rather mercurial Trump, he has succeeded in creating a personal relationship despite some initial disdain that the US leader had reportedly shown for him. The result was that during his India visit, Trump was effervescent in his praise of Modi, so much so that even in the visitors’ diary of Sabarmati ashram, he wrote: “To my great friend, Prime Minister Modi—thank you for this wonderful visit." This was the fifth meeting between the two in the last eight months, underlining the growing maturity of the relationship.
On a substantive level, India and the US issued a comprehensive joint statement, inked three memorandums of understanding, including one in the energy sector, and agreed to initiate talks on a major trade deal. The two leaders decided to raise India-US ties to the level of a “comprehensive global strategic partnership". Security and defence ties got a boost, with the two deciding to work more closely on homeland security and combating global terrorism. There was also an ambitious effort to make defence manufacturers part of each other’s supply chains. Two arms deals worth over $3.5 billion for six Apache attack helicopters and 24 Seahawk/Romeo anti-submarine warfare helicopters have been signed, with a $1.9 billion deal for a missile defence system also in the pipeline.
The Indo-Pacific remains a special focus, with the US president underlining the need to revitalize the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue initiative involving the US, India, Australia and Japan on counter-terrorism and maritime security. Despite initial differences in their respective definitions of the zone, convergence has grown with the Trump administration expanding the scope of its definition in line with India’s, to include the region from the west coast of India to the east coast of Africa. The two nations have similar concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and, so, there is now a push for greater collaboration on regional infrastructure projects, including the Blue Dot Network, with the aim of supporting projects which are “open and inclusive, transparent, economically viable, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, and compliant with international standards, laws, and regulations".
Though the two sides are yet to resolve their differences on trade, the two leaders exuded a newfound optimism that a mega trade deal might be in the offing. Trump was keen to point out that since his taking office, “US exports to India are up nearly 60% and exports of high-quality American energy have grown by 500%." India, for its part, is ratcheting up its energy relationship with the US as highlighted by the fact that India has become the fourth-largest export destination for US crude and the fifth-largest buyer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US. During Trump’s visit, Exxon Mobil and Indian Oil concluded a deal to help India import more LNG.
Many in India would be tempted to look at Trump’s comments on his good relations with Pakistan with wariness. But that has to be viewed in the context of his desire to get US troops out of Afghanistan. As a US-Taliban peace deal gets ready, Trump needs Pakistan’s help. His repeated offers to mediate between India and Pakistan are about assuaging Pakistan’s immediate concerns. There is a reason that Indian policymakers are relaxed about Trump’s comments. Pakistan is now a mere footnote in the larger tapestry of the India-US engagement, which is driven as much from the bottom up as from the top. As Modi rightly argued, “Relations between India and US aren’t just between two governments, but are people-centric and people-driven" and “these relations are very important for the most important relationship of the 21st century."
While there is a distinct continuity in how successive governments have taken the relationship forward over the last three decades, Modi and Trump have managed to give it a strategic coherence that was missing. From signing foundational military agreements to changing the energy and military contours of the engagement, the two have made it possible to imagine a relationship bereft of past baggage. Also, Modi has managed the Trump phenomenon better than even some of America’s closest allies. Note how Trump stayed firmly on-message throughout his visit, despite his proclivities to the contrary. Even as temperamental a president as Trump recognizes the importance of India and the role Modi has played in crafting the recent arc of the India-US trajectory.
The argument that Trump’s visit was all optics and lacked substance is bogus. High level visits like this are always about optics. The fact that a supposedly transactional Trump decided to travel to India without any substantive deliverable is the real story here. It tells you more about the state of India-US ties than any deal would have.
Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London