By Sreya Sarkar
While the press in both U.S. and India were busy covering the theatrical aspect of the 36-hour President Trump visit to India, tossing around snarky one-liners that are typically generated by pompous signature Trump or Modi events, a potentially complex foreign policy strategy has been unfolding on the global stage. So, what was the trip really about? No, Trump did not fly halfway around the World to be showered by adulations from a hundred-thousand Indians, nor did he go to India to see Taj Mahal.
Prime Minister Modi said in the press briefing following his talks with President Trump, that U.S.-India alliance is one of the most defining partnerships of the 21st century. Both the countries are coming to realize the full significance of it. India has a unique relationship with U.S. given the fact that strategically the two countries are aligned yet the relationship often has struggled with an unexpected degree of friction. Sujan Chinoy in his piece on Trump’s visit to India writes, “The two sides have agreed to elevate relations to a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. The addition of the word “comprehensive” acquires new salience in a time of flux, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. The two sides have agreed to work together on defense, technology, terrorism, homeland security, energy, trade, checking narco-terrorism and organized crime.” India sees Trump’s reassessment of America’s traditional alliances as a strategic opportunity. It indicates a shift that will allow India to deepen ties with Washington without provoking retaliation from China or destroying a longstanding partnership with Russia.
Where does trade figure in this?
Experts describe the current state of U.S.-India relations as being strong on the defense side and struggling on the commercial side. Alyssa Ayres, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia said, “It has proven easier to solve some of the barriers to strategic and defense cooperation than to resolve the tough barriers on the trade and economic side.” U.S.-India trade tensions have persisted for the past two years because the twin economic nationalisms driving them are organizing principles of Trump’s and Modi’s doctrines. The two leaders have chalked out “America First” and “India First” economic policies that value short-term transactions over long-term economic fundamentals and strategic priorities. This ensures that, far from completing the comprehensive trade agreement Trump hinted at, these two strategic partners will likely continue to clash over minor trade issues. However, the U.S. remains India’s biggest trading partner. Mutual trade between the two economies is worth US$150 billion annually. While a trade deal would help ease a longstanding point of friction with Washington, the president is right to keep the visit on his schedule without one. It seems difficult to imagine momentum in an election year in the U.S., anyway.
Is it just about defense then?
Former deputy chief of the army, Gurmeet Singh said that India is on the cusp of transforming and modernizing its armed forces, and is looking at all aspects of security, including its Indo-pacific region. So, it’s important that the security apparatus of India is technologically up to par allowing the country to monitor its own assets in the area. “The key aspect is that we should be able to carry out effective intelligence, surveillance, and domination of this area,” said Singh.
Rakesh Sood, a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation believes that there had occurred a tectonic change of India-U.S. relations after 2000. President George W. Bush committed to removing the nuclear hurdle from the relationship and that resulted in the civil nuclear deal. The deal was seen as a watershed in U.S.-India relations and introduced a new aspect to international nonproliferation efforts. It provided U.S. assistance to India’s civilian nuclear energy program and expanded US-India cooperation in energy and satellite technology. But critics in the U.S. had said that the deal fundamentally reversed half a century of U.S. nonproliferation efforts, undermining attempts to prevent states like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, and potentially contributing to a nuclear arms race in Asia. Vikram Singh, senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace has an explanation for this. According to him, U.S. practices “Indian exceptionalism”, and India does not necessarily realize this.
In 2010 Obama endorsed a permanent seat for India in the UN’s Security Council and he followed it up with the joint vision on the Indo-Pacific, that was a clear indication that India will bring some stability in the region.
Through all this, from 2007 India has purchased US$17 Billion worth of military hardware.
The U.S. is coming to realize that India is a potential partner but old habits die hard. The U.S. is used to dealing with either junior allies in a U.S.-dominated alliance structure or with adversaries. India is neither and is strongly determined to safeguard its regional strategic autonomy. “Developing a habit of talking to each other as equal partners have been a learning experience for India and the U.S.”, said Sood.
James Jay Carafano, a leading expert in national security back in 2017 had written, “What’s needed is a common security framework that doesn’t require a formal alliance and does allow for common operational capabilities. At the same time, it must also let India “unplug” to deal with its own regional security concerns that aren’t part of the joint effort to craft an enduring approach to Indo-Pacific challenges. The kind of relationship required really doesn’t exist. The United States needs to craft a unique defense relationship with India—one that delivers the benefits of allied status without the formal architecture that goes with it.”
The Trump trip did yield a $3.4 billion military helicopter contract, the latest in a string of major U.S. arms sales to India in recent years. The U.S. has become India’s largest weapons supplier, with the two countries also holding more frequent joint military exercises.
Moving forward U.S.-India partnership will a necessity for both the countries whatever be the new equation between the two. Richard M. Rossow, at Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in his commentary, “The security challenges in the Indo-Pacific will worsen in the coming years, and India will become a part of the solution.” The situation is much more complex now with a steady march towards multipolarity at the global level as well at the Asian level. “Today, the Indian Ocean is contested waters and finding ways to increase U.S.-India cooperation in this important maritime domain is crucial to the growing security partnership.”
About the Author:
Sreya did her undergraduate studies in Political Science from Kolkata’s Presidency College and graduate studies from JNU in New Delhi. After a short stint as a journalist, she set off for her second Masters at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She worked as a public policy analyst in U.S. think tanks and published numerous non-fiction articles and op-eds for newspapers and policy blogs. She is currently working with the Red Ink Literary Agency to get her first full-length novel published.