President Trump’s Maiden Visit to India: Defence Cooperation Likely Occupy the Center Stage

Simi Mehta
February 16, 2020


On February 24, 2020, US President Donald J. Trump will inaugurate the world’s largest cricket stadium in the world, in Ahmedabad, and respond to thumping voices of “Kem Cho, Trump”, after participating in a 7-km roadshow from the airport to the Sabarmati Ashram. He will be accompanied by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, besides at least 5-6 million people who are expected to gather. 

Celebrating the close ties between the USA and India, this will be the first visit of a US President since 2015, first in the third decade of the 21st century and Trump’s first foreign visit after his impeachment trial. The palpable excitement over the visit is imminent on both sides, with PM Modi underscoring that this visit of POTUS and FLOTUS would “go a long way in further cementing India-USA ties”.

The visit is expected to overtake the obvious optics and engage in serious discussions on broad strategic ingredients that bring India and the US together. On February 25, the Trump couple will be accorded a ceremonial welcome in the second leg of their visit to New Delhi. With India set to give final approval for the $2.6 billion 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters equipped with torpedoes and submarine detection capabilities for the Indian Navy from the Lockheed Martin and the US approval already in place for the sale of an Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) or the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System-II to India estimated at $1.8 billion, defense cooperation is expected to occupy the center stage during the visit. This will strengthen the Indian defense capabilities, and aid the modernization process of its armed forces. It will also build upon Trump administration’s previous decisions to ease the controls for high and sensitive technology product sales to India, granting it the same access as NATO allies through the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 status, as well as sale of armed drones and integrated air and missile defense technology to India over the past three years. India would also demonstrate its volition to modernize its armed forces and strengthen its defense capabilities and bilateral defense cooperation through the agreements with the US that guide the sharing of sensitive military and communications technology and reciprocal use of military facilities. 

Trump’s maiden visit to India as the US President visit will strengthen the sinews of the respective countries’ Indo-Pacific policies and witness a synergy in their push-back strategies against the China-Russia alignment in Asia. It will be of relevance to see if the Blue Dot network finds mention at the leadership level in this visit. This network launched by the US government in November 2019 is a global certification for projects as market-driven, financially sustainable and transparent, and is a reaction to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. It needs to be highlighted that Australia and Japan- the other two members of Quad (apart from the US and India) have already signed up for the network. 

In an endeavor to push for deeper trade and business ties, the two countries have been trying to reach a modest trade deal with lower tariffs. However, the long-awaited ‘mini’ trade deal may not see the anticipated fruition as talks have run into problems over issues of data privacy and e-commerce controls, and the recent withdrawal of India from the list of ‘developing countries’- a status given in line with the WTO’s system of Generalized System of Preferences, on February 10, 2020. This could highlight the issues of increased tariff barriers, which will act as an impediment for India getting favorable trade terms. So far, Indian exporters have benefitted under the tariff-free access to the US markets, and receiving these imports under the ‘developed country’ tag would subject the exports to scrutiny, like whether they harm American industry with unjust subsidized exports. Despite this, the India Inc. is optimistic for higher investments from American companies, demanding exemption from high duties imposed by the US on certain steel and aluminum products from India, and greater market access for its agricultural, automobile, auto components, and engineering products. 

Reflecting the strong personal rapport between Trump and Modi, this visit will be the fifth meeting between the two leaders in the last three years to elevate the bilateral strategic relations. It would demonstrate the two countries’ embrace of each other and their affirmation to the shared values of commitment to democracy, human rights, diversity, rule of law, and to a more peaceful and open Indo-Pacific, and US’ acknowledgment of India as a major partner of the US in maintaining the international global order.

Trump’s visit to India is possibly the final major foreign tour before the Presidential elections due in November 2020. The fact that Indian Americans constitute a huge population and voter base in the US, if he reaffirms America’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and immigrants, this visit could steer a significant number of their votes his way by exhibiting his close ties with India. In fact, PM Modi already blew the US election bugle at the Howdy Modi event in September 2019 in Texas. Swarmed by Indian American crowd, he endorsed Trump for a second term saying “Abki baar Trump Sarkar”.

*** The Author is the CEO and Editorial Director of a New Delhi based think tank- Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI). She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and was a Fulbright Scholar at Ohio State University, USA. She can be reached at ***