President Trump and First Lady Melania embark on their first visit to India (February 24-25) in an effort to bolster the relationship between the countries. This has been a much-awaited visit as repeated invitations were sent to Washington during the various high-level visits. In addition to the usual fanfare, the visit will hopefully resolve some of the pressing concerns on matters pertaining to trade and defense between the two.
In the past, presidential visits have invigorated the relations between the two countries. This was true in the case of President Clinton’s visit in 2000, George H. W Bush’s 2006 visit, as well as Obama’s visit in 2012 and 2015 as a guest at the Republican Day parade.
Trump-Modi and the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS)
When Trump assumed the presidency, there was a great deal of uncertainty regarding his policies towards the allies as a result of his rhetoric. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership further exacerbated regional concerns. Therefore, in an effort to reinvigorate US position among the allies as well as put China on notice, the administration put forth the IPS. For the IPS to be a success, the US, through the Quad, the 2+2 ministerial dialogue, as well as defense and economic agreements, has aimed at fostering regional relations. In this endeavor, New Delhi has an important role to play.
New Delhi is considered an important trading partner of the US as well as a key player in the region with its “Look East Policy” and “Neighborhood First” strategy. Therefore, the hope is that the president’s visit will invigorate the regional strategy. The restrengthening of the Quad has been another mechanism in which New Delhi is also a party. Though the Quad is often considered an important mechanism to potentially provide regional security, this is dependent on the members and their willingness to do so. New Delhi’s role as a member of Quad, thus signifies its importance with regional democracies.
The 2+2 ministerial dialogue between the US and India is aimed at fostering the IPS. In the latest meeting, the two sides converged on the ideas of “peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific”, “furthering military-to-military cooperation as well as the Defense Technology Trade Initiative. In the December 2019 meeting, the two sides agreed on the promotion of “infrastructure development, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, and regional connectivity”.
Another aspect of the IPS coveted by India is membership of the Blue Dot Network (BDN). The BDN announced in 2019 is a multi shareholder initiative aimed at involving the private as well as the public sector in the development of maritime infrastructure. As Japan and Australia are already part of it, India has been working towards a seat at the table. One of the main reasons for the development of the BDN is to present a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative and growing regional reliance on China.
Defense sales are considered an important pillar of the IPS. India is one of the largest importers of US arms and military equipment. On the eve of Trump’s visit, the two sides have finalized and inked the $3.5 billion defense deal. In addition to this, the US has authorized sales, which include armed drones and integrated air and missile defense technology, both of which were denied by the Obama administration. Washington has also approved of India Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 status in 2018, which allows for the sale of sensitive technology transfer. The US approved the sale of an Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) estimated at $1.8 billion. Recently, the two sides are in conversation over the sale of 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian Navy worth $2.6 billion.
The Constraints on the Indo-US Relationship
The Indian government has been skeptical about the administration’s commitment to the IPS, especially with Trump’s absence at the ASEAN Summits. India, at times, is reticent about its moves in the region as a result of minting its relations with China. There is a great deal of fear that Washington’s strategy could infuriate China, which will have consequences on regional countries.
For Washington, the internal situation within the US has been in disarray as a result of the impeachment trials and upcoming Presidential elections. The visit, therefore, could be used as a pulpit to shore up Trump’s position as president as well as garner the support of Indian Americans in the upcoming election.
In spite of some concerns looming over the visit, there is a great deal of confidence that the visit will bolster Indo-US ties, especially in matters pertaining to the Indo-Pacific strategy. The US and India are no longer “estranged democracies” but “engaged democracies”.
*** The author is a doctoral candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was also a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Fellow at the American University, Washington DC ***