Diplomacy acquires novel dimensions when dignitaries meet at the highest levels to discuss bilateral relations. This is evident by the events organised when President Trump visited India in the last week of February this year. India’s multi-alignment foreign policy has inclined towards greater and deeper engagement with the United States of America. India’s quest to play a pro-active role in the greater Indo-Pacific region finds support in the United States. However, the Indo-US partnership is also fissured with trade related issues, immigration and the strain that India-US relations put on India’s own relations with countries like Iran. In this backdrop, Donald Trump’s maiden visit to India came with hopes and anticipation which was evident from the presence of a spectacular mob at the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad and a favourable public opinion that was generated.
The camaraderie of PM Modi and President Trump was on display during the visit. And although both leaders could not bring about any significant conclusion in the area of bilateral trade, they agreed that a mega trade deal would be finalised by the end of the year. India and the US have always faced issues in bilateral trade negotiations. The recently concluded Trump’s visit proved that neither side is willing to cede negotiating ground and create disadvantage vis-a-vis the other. Among the issues discussed, America pressurised India to provide greater access to her markets, without reinstating India’s Generalized System of Preferences (GPS) status – a demand of India. And secondly, the US has removed India from the list of developing countries making all her exports a subject to investigation on whether they harm US industries with unjustified subsidies.
Among the positive outcome of this visit, advances made in the energy and the defense sectors were seen as of importance. Bilateral energy trade has been on the rise over the last four years and Trump’s visit ensured an energy deal signed between Indian government and ‘ExonnMobil’ that will facilitate India’s domestic supply of Natural Gas. Apart from a successful energy cooperation deal, a $ 3.5 billion defense deal was signed that provided India with six Apache helicopters of worth $ 930 million, 24 Seahawk or Romeo helicopters of worth $ 2.6 billion and a $ 1.9 billion deal for a missiles defense system.
Indeed, the major thrust during the visit was on strengthening the Indo-pacific regional order . Although, it would be a matter of future analysis on what impact the Modi-Trump meet has had on boosting bilateral intent in the Indo-Pacific region, certain aspects call for an in-depth analysis. It won’t be an understatement to say that the defense deal signed between India and America will, in reality, reinforce India’s position in the Indo-Pacific region given the current security considerations. It is important to mention here that the Seahawk helicopters are considered to be one of the best naval choppers with anti-submarine capabilities which would give the Indian Navy greater strategic impetus in the Indian Ocean Region. Furthermore, the Apache helicopters armed with the Hellfire Longbow air to ground missiles and Stinger air to air missiles will augment the power of Indian Army to a large extent.
What came out as a distinct feature from the visit with regards to the Indo-Pacific was India’s position vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific region is her participation in the ‘Blue Dot’ network. Inter-state initiatives have become a feature of transnational connectivity and infrastructural development more than ever before and America’s intention to build infrastructure in a more transparent manner within the region has pushed the country to invite India as a stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region. Besides, Australia and Japan are already members of the Blue Dot network already, providing multilateral cushion to India’s intentions. India’s cooperation with the US, especially at a time when China is struggling hard with the “Covid 19”, provides opportunities for India to consolidate her position within the Indo-Pacific Region.
Although President Trump’s reticence on India’s relations with Iran was a welcome, shades of US-India relations are impinging on India’s relations with Iran like never before. In the past, India has lessened her energy imports from Iran under the compulsions of US sanctions. It is important to note here that India’s relations with Iran is not just constrained to oil imports, rather Iran provides India geo-strategic impetus to counter China within the Indo-Pacific region. India’s investments in the Chabahar Port, especially as a competitive move against China’s investments in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, is likely to boost India’s position within the region in general and India’s ‘Counter China’ strategies in particular.
While the extravagance of the “Namaste Trump” event may have overshadowed the real deliverables from the visit, at the same time, one cannot deny that the meeting has added immensely in taking the bilateral relations further up. Although the defense deal and the energy cooperation were the necessities of bilateral relations, India should be watchful on trade negotiations with the US. India’s position vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific regional order can be analysed only after observing the way India embraces this concept and practice. It is paramount that India retains her autonomy within the region which in itself suggests that India has been able to negotiate diplomatically without compromising much of her geo-political and geo-economic interests.
*** The author is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Sukanta College, University of Calcutta & Ph.D Scholar, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. ***