Trump’s India Visit: Setting the Tone for the Next Steps

Monish Tourangbam
March 1, 2020


President Donald Trump visited India, amidst the race for the presidential nominee in the Democratic Party back home in the US. With chances of his being impeached history now, and new popularity polls showing positive signals for him, President Trump’s visit to India, was widely reported as being aimed at the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. With a public reception of a kind he had hardly encountered in any of his foreign visits, and President Trump seemed visibly enchanted with the extravaganza spread out for him in Gujarat and Delhi. Many also saw the Namaste Trump event in Gujarat as a follow up to the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Texas, both aimed at the successful and influential Indian-American community in the United States.

However, it would be wrong to see this visit as “much ado about nothing”. Even before the Air Force One landed in India, reports of an India-US trade deal had been doing the rounds. It soon became clear that no ground-breaking deal accompanied the American President’s trip to India. However, deal and no deal, any standalone visit from the President of the United States holds both optical and substantial significance. In November, American voters will decide whether there will be a Trump 2.0, or a new face from the Democratic Party will enter the Oval Office. Therefore, coming towards the end of his presidential term, this visit was a significant move to send clear signals to each other, that with or without Trump and with or without game-changer deals, the broad convergence in the India-US bilateral relationship was firmly in place.

In the last two decades, through Republican and Democratic presidencies in the United States and through the NDA and UPA regimes in India, the positive arc in the relationship has been fairly nurtured and nourished. The new terms of engagement and endearment between the two complex democracies often leads to uneven alignments of expectations and realisation. In issue areas across the spectrum, what has transpired over the last two decades is a hitherto unseen level of interactions between the multiple policymaking and policy influencing agencies of the two countries. Whether it is in the realm of trade and commercial relations, security and defence cooperation, new dynamics in energy cooperation or new technologies, public and private entities on both sides have become enmeshed than ever before. Therefore, India-US differences at this juncture seem to be borne more out of the complexities of two countries and issues which require fixing the nuts and bolts of a relationship, in a relationship whose cooperative bandwidth has only grown.

The post-World War II financial and security order that the Americans engineered and sustained in the name of the ‘liberal international order’ has been seen weakening, with no clear sense of what it is its alternative. The fact that China is rising and disrupting the global security, economic and even the technological scheme of things is not ambiguous. What is perhaps ambiguous is what this strategic flux is leading to, in terms of new partnerships in the economic and security realms. Therefore, while the strategic convergence between India and the United States to jointly manoeuvre and manage the ramifications of China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific is quite clear, what is not so clear is in what ways New Delhi and Washington are going to align each other’s perceptions of engagements with Beijing. In this context, such bilateral meetings between the leaders of India and the United States hold significance amidst the public diplomacy extravaganza and optics that usually follow such high profile visits.

Over the last two decades, the institutional linkages between the two countries have been developed in a robust manner, to a point, where the change of political regimes and leaderships in both the countries has hardly come to matter. The ministries cutting across economic, defence, security, energy and other pertinent areas have regularly interacted and developed enviable synergies. Those synergies, despite recurring challenges of ways and means, have resulted into a more dynamic and multifaceted relationship.

The defence cooperation between the two countries is now reflected in the form of a tri-service military exercise and increasing interoperability through foundational agreements. Moreover, both sides are actively engaging to increase the quality and quantity of defence equipment purchases and probabilities of co-production, post the designation of India as a major defence partner of the United States. The joint statement released after President Trump’s visit clearly reflected mutual intentions “to deepen defence and security cooperation”. Among others, “maritime and space domain awareness” were singled out as major areas of bilateral cooperation. Reaching out to, and creating deeper engagements with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific has been a significant point of emphasis, seen in the India-US-Japan trilateral dynamics and the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad) involving Australia as well. The Quad meetings have been elevated to the ministerial level, and new areas of cooperation and coordination for the sake of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific will form the crux of future deliberations. Relating to the Indo-Pacific, both sides also emphasised effective development solutions in the region, through “a new partnership between USAID and India’s Development Partnership Administration for cooperation in third countries.”

Amidst the broader understanding and confidence in India-US relations amply reflected during Trump’s visit and the institutional engagements cementing the partnership, the black swan could be Afghanistan. As President Trump savoured Indian hospitality and showered praises on his host Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a peace deal was being negotiated between the Americans and the Taliban, which might mean more traction for Pakistan in the shape of things to come in Afghanistan. While it is clear that the Taliban will acquire an important foothold in the future of Afghanistan in some form or the other, it is unclear what will be the actual fallout of a US-Taliban understanding and what are the prospects of a fruitful intra-Afghan talks. Besides the generic mention of American appreciation of India’s role in Afghanistan and some form of understanding between New Delhi and Washington, what transpires on the ground, and what a kind of an understanding New Delhi needs to develop with Washington with or without Trump in the near future, will remain a critical challenge for India-US relations.

*** The author is a senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) ***