President Donald Trump visited India on February 24 and 25. By most measures, the trip qualified as a success. The very fact that Trump—a leader notoriously averse to long-distance travel—actually made the trip is notable.1 More substantively, he delivered a well-received speech in a large cricket stadium in the state of Gujarat. The address celebrated India’s political and cultural traditions, and generated loud and long applause lines from the thousands in attendance. In New Delhi, he held meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that resulted in a far-reaching joint statement that spoke of cooperation in a wide variety of spaces, from cyber security to counternarcotics.2 And while the failure to finalize a long-negotiated trade deal put a damper on the trip, the two sides did produce three key deliverables: A new defense deal involving fighter helicopters, and two energy agreements.
Despite some obstacles, the US-India relationship—which has enjoyed rapid growth since the early 1990s, when New Delhi embraced economic liberalization, and especially since the early 2000s—has flourished during the Trump years. The president’s India visit energized an already-robust partnership, and it has positioned the relationship for further growth—including expanded cooperation beyond security, the relationship’s main pillar over the last two decades.
A sweet spot gets sweeter
US-India security cooperation remains strong, and it received another boost during Trump’s visit. New Delhi purchased $3 billion in defense equipment, which included army and naval helicopters.3 The naval helicopters are particularly significant, as they will enhance India’s ongoing naval modernization efforts and provide reinforcements for a fleet in great need of such craft. They can also boost New Delhi’s sea-based power projection capacities in an era when the seapower and overall influence of China—the main strategic rival of both New Delhi and Washington—are expanding in the Indo-Pacific.
The security relationship stands to remain strong mainly because of shared concern about China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific. Because of India’s size, location, and military strength, Washington hopes to enlist New Delhi as a partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy, which represents an effort to increase US investments and influence in Asia, and by extension to counterbalance China’s power and presence there.4 India has its own equivalent of an Indo-Pacific strategy, known as the Act East policy. This policy entails stepped-up efforts to deepen New Delhi’s footprint in areas where Beijing has long held sway, particularly in Southeast Asia.5 Washington and New Delhi share a similar vision of a free, open, and rules-based region—catchphrases that are often articulated by both governments in public messaging and policy documents. Additionally, the Trump administration’s geographic conception of the Indo-Pacific has evolved so that it is now in lockstep with India’s. Speaking at a January public forum in New Delhi, Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger described the region as stretching from “California to Kilimanjaro.”6
While other shared interests—including concerns about terrorism—fuel US-India security cooperation, the China factor is arguably the strongest link. The Trump administration has taken a particularly hard line on China, but there is a strong bipartisan view in Washington that Beijing is a strategic rival and should therefore be a source of concern. India’s views of China, and its current relations with Beijing, are complex. The two enjoy a robust trade partnership, and diplomatic ties have improved over the last few years—in part, according to China analysts, because of Beijing’s desire to avoid antagonistic relations with both Washington and New Delhi.7 At the same time, India views China as its biggest strategic competitor, and a series of factors—a disputed border; China’s close partnership with Pakistan, India’s bitter rival; and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which extends well into India’s backyard—inhibit deeper partnership. This deep-seated strategic concern about China in both Washington and New Delhi portends continued support in both capitals for US-India military partnership.
Potential for expanding partnership
The joint statement emerging from Trump’s meeting with Modi, along with the press statements the two leaders gave after their meeting, accentuated the relationship’s potential for growth beyond security cooperation.8 Indeed, private discussions with senior US officials after Trump’s visit reveal a strong desire to increase the partnership’s already-substantial cooperation in non-security realms. Two areas are particularly worth highlighting—one for immediate relevance, the other for longer-range potential. These are disease outbreaks and energy, respectively.
The Modi-Trump joint statement declared that “in support of global efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to disease outbreaks such as Covid-19, Trump and Modi committed to continuing their successful efforts in the areas of prevention, early detection, and rapid outbreak response.”9 After Trump’s visit, the coronavirus spread more rapidly and became a pandemic. In recent days, the two sides have underscored the importance of collaboration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to his Indian interlocutor S. Jaishankar on March 14 about how the two countries can work together to combat the coronavirus. They spoke again on March 31, with Pompeo stating in a follow-up tweet that cooperation is an “imperative.” On April 1, Alice Wells, the top South Asia official at the State Department, tweeted praise for an effort by Indian engineers to develop a low-cost ventilator. Wells indicated that this work was supported by MIT engineers and by “production advice from a U.S.-based company.”10
Cooperation on curbing coronavirus is a logical fit for US-India relations. The two countries already have institutional partnerships in place for health science collaborations.11 More broadly, there is strong expertise in both countries in the fields of medicine, epidemiology, pharmacology, and information technology, among other relevant sectors. The 4-million-strong Indian diaspora in the United States—a longstanding natural bridge for the relationship—is well represented in these fields.
Energy is another sphere ripe for collaboration.12 Trump’s India visit produced two energy agreements. One entails Exxon-Mobil helping India to strengthen its natural gas distribution network. The other is a commitment from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to establish a $600 million financing facility for renewable energy projects.
These deals were announced against a backdrop of deepening energy cooperation, which includes a strategic energy partnership accord inked in 2018. US crude oil exports to India skyrocketed from none in 2016 to over 90 million barrels in 2019.13 While in New Delhi, Trump said that “high-quality” US energy exports to India have increased by 500 percent since he took office.14 Indian energy companies have invested at least $4 billion in US shale gas assets.15 This trend of intensifying energy ties is poised to continue, given robust US natural gas production; India’s strong demand for external energy sources; and New Delhi’s desire—intensified by the American sanctions regime on Iran—to wean itself off its longstanding dependence on hydrocarbons from the Middle East.
The partnership is not problem-free; it has experienced ample challenges. But in an indication of the relationship’s underlying strength, it is notable that despite all that has gone wrong bilaterally in recent years, the partnership has emerged relatively unscathed.16 Consider, first of all, the tensions generated by Trump: His description of India as a “tariff king,” his gripe that India has done “absolutely nothing” to mitigate climate change, his complaint that India does not offer enough assistance in Afghanistan, his mocking of Modi’s accent, and his long silence after two Indian engineers were shot (one of them died) in Kansas in 2017.
There have also been problematic policies. The Trump administration has threatened to rein in the H-1B visa program, a visa category that disproportionately benefits Indian workers in America. It has also substantively improved relations with Pakistan, India’s bitter rival. Meanwhile, New Delhi has purchased a missile defense system from Russia, a move that could trigger US sanctions, and given a nod to China’s Huawei to participate in 5G network trials. And India’s actions in the disputed region of Kashmir have provoked the loudest condemnations on Capitol Hill of Indian policy since 1998, when New Delhi staged nuclear weapons tests. And then there are commercial tensions, which are not new, but have been particularly serious of late. Last year, Washington ended India’s preferential trade privileges and threatened an investigation of its trade practices.
That these problems have not damaged the partnership can be attributed to a variety of factors. These include enduring shared strategic interests, advocacy efforts led by the Indian-American community on Capitol Hill, and deep repositories of goodwill that are fortified by sustained high-level dialogues—from working groups on security and non-security themes to the 2+2 dialogue between each country’s top defense and diplomatic official.
Additionally, some of the tensions are not as serious as they may seem. Washington’s criticism of New Delhi about Kashmir has been restricted to concerns about human rights. It has not extended to Kashmir’s territorial status. Also, US criticism of New Delhi—which is also directed at a new Indian citizenship law that critics believe discriminates against Muslims—has largely emanated from Democrats on Capital Hill. The Trump administration itself has said little publicly on these issues.
On trade, despite not getting a deal in time for Trump’s India visit, the two sides are still in advanced negotiations. During Trump’s trip, he and Modi spoke of progress in talks and reiterated their desire for a deal. The Trump administration will want to move quickly to ink one before the US presidential election. The optics of having inked a trade deal with China, a top strategic rival, while struggling to get one with India, a top strategic partner, are suboptimal.
Furthermore, New Delhi’s concerns about Washington’s strengthening relations with Islamabad may be misplaced. The US government largely views its relationship with Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan. US-Pakistan relations have improved over the last 18 months because of Washington’s view that Islamabad has helped facilitate US talks with the Taliban. Once American troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan, Washington will have less of an incentive to allocate policy space for the upkeep of its partnership with Pakistan.17
More than a month after Trump’s India visit, the US-India relationship remains on a positive trajectory. Security cooperation, the partnership’s sweet spot, remains strong and—impelled by shared concern about China and convergent policies on the Indo-Pacific—is poised for further growth. There is also great potential for collaboration beyond security. And the partnership’s various tension points, because of the relationship’s overall robust health, are manageable.
This does not guarantee entirely smooth sailing. In the immediate term, coronavirus does provide opportunities for bilateral cooperation, but the sheer scale of the pandemic will limit each side’s bandwidth to focus on the partnership until both countries are no longer fighting coronavirus at home. And that will take months, if not longer.
In the medium term, domestic politics in each country could cause some friction in the relationship. The Modi government shows no intention of dialing down the Hindu nationalist agenda it has carried out aggressively in recent months. This agenda has produced a backlash that includes anti-government protests, which have sometimes turned violent. If the Indian government’s domestic policies result in intensified unrest and become too much of a distraction for it to focus on pursuing its shared strategic goals with Washington, bilateral relations could be dealt a blow.
Meanwhile, in the United States, because most of the criticism of India’s policies has emanated from liberal Democrats, there is a risk that cracks could appear in the relationship’s bipartisan armor. While it is likely that the centrist Joe Biden, and not the more liberal Bernie Sanders, will win the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election, there is a fair chance that the Democrats will take control of both the House and Senate. Such an outcome would provide more space for liberal Democrats to take issue with the policies of an Indian government that resents international criticism, even from its close partners.
And in the longer term, the shared interest that most binds the partnership together could come under scrutiny. Washington and New Delhi see eye to eye on the China threat, but they differ on how to tackle it. India is still reluctant to provide the level of operational assistance (including joint patrols) that America expects from its strategic partners.
Still, the partnership’s overall strength should easily allow it to weather these potential challenges. Overall, the US-India relationship is in a good place. In a volatile, topsy-turvy era for US foreign policy, with the Trump administration having alienated some longtime friends (such as NATO allies) and attracted some bitter foes (read North Korea), the US-India relationship represents a rare case of stability and predictability. And it is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
1. James H. Lebovic and Elizabeth N. Saunders, “Trump Doesn’t Like Traveling. That’s Bad for Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs, January 20, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-01-20/trump-doesnt-traveling-thats-bad-diplomacy.
2. “Joint Statement: Vision and Principles for the United States-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership,” The White House, February 25, 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-vision-principles-united-states-india-comprehensive-global-strategic-partnership/.
3. Bradley Bowman, Cleo Paskal, and Maj. Liane Livitski, “U.S.-India Helicopter Deal Deepens Vital Partnership,” Defense News, March 5, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/03/05/us-india-helicopter-deal-deepens-vital-partnership/.
4. For an in-depth US government articulation of the Indo-Pacific policy and India’s envisioned role in it, see “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region,” Department of Defense, June 1, 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.
5. For a recent Indian analysis of the Act East policy, see K.V. Kesavan, “India’s ‘Act East’ Policy and Regional Cooperation,” Observer Research Foundation, Raisina Debates, February 14, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/indias-act-east-policy-and-regional-cooperation-61375/.
6. Indrani Bagchi, “Raisina Dialogue: ‘Indo-Pacific’ A Global Common, Says Foreign Secy Vijay Gokhale,” Times of India, January 17, 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/raisina-dialogue-indo-pacific-a-global-common-says-foreign-secy-vijay-gokhale/articleshow/73337528.cms.
7. Yun Sun, “China’s Strategic Assessment of India,” War on the Rocks, March 25, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/03/chinas-strategic-assessment-of-india/.
8. “Joint Statement” and “Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Modi of India in Joint Press Statement,” The White House, February 25, 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-prime-minister-modi-india-joint-press-statement-2/.
9. See “Joint Statement.”
10. Mike Pompeo (@SecPompeo) tweet, March 31, 2020, https://twitter.com/SecPompeo/status/1245090727056388096, and Alice Wells tweet (posted on the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs account, @State_SCA), April 1, 2020, https://twitter.com/State_SCA/status/1245447716722880512.
11. “India, US Collaborating in Diagnostics to Fight Covid-19: Ambassador Sandhu,” Press Trust of India, March 26, 2020, https://www.business-standard.com/article/health/india-us-collaborating-in-diagnostics-to-fight-covid-19-ambassador-sandhu-120032600388_1.html.
12. Suhasini Haidar, “Energy Could Replace Defense as the Strongest Link in India-U.S. Relations, Say Experts,” The Hindu, February 24, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/energy-could-replace-defence-as-the-strongest-link-in-india-us-relations-say-experts/article30906523.ece.
13. Jeff M. Smith, “Rising Above the Fray: The Trump-Modi Chapter in India-U.S. Relations,” The Heritage Foundation, February 19, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/rising-above-the-fray-the-trump-modi-chapter-india-us-relations.
14. “Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Modi of India.”
15. Utpal Bhaskar, “Energy is the New Bridge in US-India Relationship,” Livemint, September 23, 2019, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/energy-is-the-new-bridge-in-us-india-relationship-1569209135057.html.
16. This section outlining recent challenges for US-India relations is drawn in part from Michael Kugelman, “India’s Illiberal Turn Won’t Shake Its Relationship with the United States,” Foreign Policy, February 28, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/28/riots-hindu-modi-trump-delhi-brutal-violence-us-india-relationship/.
17. However, there are some non-government analysts in Washington—including this writer—who believe the United States should view Pakistan as a country that is strategically significant in its own right, and for reasons separate from Afghanistan. See Marvin G. Weinbaum and Syed Muhammed Ali, “Seizing the Moment for Change: Pathways to a Sustainable U.S.-Pakistan Relationship,” Middle East Institute, Policy Paper 2020-5, March 2020, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2020-03/Seizing%20the%20Moment%20for%20Change%20-%20US-Pakistan%20March%202020_0.pdf.