President Trump is excited about the 5-7 million people he expects to see in India and ‘Namaste Trump’ will resonate across the stadium that he is inaugurating where he will address a packed stadium of Indians being brought from far and near in 1500 buses.
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh
Almost four years after taking over the helm, and in the last year of his first term in office, the US President Donald Trump is making his maiden visit to India from 24 to 26 February. The President and the First Lady is already talking and tweeting about how much they are looking forward to the visit; India too will definitely pull out all stops to ensure the success of this visit. President Trump is excited about the 5-7 million people he expects to see in India and ‘Namaste Trump’ will resonate across the stadium that he is inaugurating where he will address a packed stadium of Indians being brought from far and near in 1500 buses. If that also translates into votes back home for his re-election campaign from the Indian diaspora in continuation of the ‘Howdy Modi’ spirit, he is sure to be in his element.
However, optics aside, this visit will definitely be treated with the seriousness it deserves as it comes at a time when tensions in the region are rising with some of these likely to impact India directly. Certain aspects of the relationship like defence cooperation will be further strengthened whereas divergences would need to be handled with care and may need some recalibration on both sides. The history of Indo-US relations, often described as one between the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy has seen its share of ups and downs. Determined by the primacy of national interest, till about two decades ago, there were fewer ups and more downs, but in the period since there has been a burgeoning convergence between the two which has cut across the political divide in both countries. There is a shared understanding that both countries benefit mutually from this relationship and this visit would help to provide the US President with a better understanding of India’s imperatives in the region.
India’s strategic relationship with the US is driven primarily by the extensive defence cooperation which will figure prominently as India continues to procure sophisticated platforms form the US through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route and offers a lucrative market to the influential defence industrial complex in the US. The US expects the sale of the 24 Multi-Role helicopters for the Navy to be finalised during this visit. Both sides have taken pro-active steps to underline the strategic nature of the relationship. While India has signed the LEMOA and COMCOSA foundational agreements after much deliberation which greatly enhances interoperability between the Armed Forces of the two countries, various other proposals for further enhancing the depth of this engagement are at various stages of discussion. These also include certain strategic capabilities, some of which have been cleared by the US Congress although these may still be some distance away from being actually transferred. Initiatives such as the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) which have been progressing, albeit slowly, are also likely to get a boost. However, the threat of sanctions under various restrictive and denial regimes occasionally promulgated by the US Government remain. Reassurances that sanctions like CAATSA will not be applied to India if it goes ahead with acquiring the S-400 system from Russia or those affecting our relationship with Iran has not been definitive and is a vulnerability we can do without.
India has always had close ties with Iran. A substantial portion of our energy requirements is sourced from there. India is also developing the Chahbahar port in Iran and the North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC) which gives landlocked Central Asia access to the to the Indian Ocean which is of considerable strategic interest for India. The Chinese control of Gwadar makes this even more critical. Both these issues, therefore, need to be ring-fenced from the future course of US-Iran relations. The polarisation of global politics is becoming increasingly apparent with the US identifying China and Russia as revisionist powers and China clearly intending to challenge the US on more fronts than one. India’s growing proximity with the US could therefore not only affect India’s close relationship with Russia, a continuing legacy of the deep ties with the erstwhile Soviet Union but could also be damaging to India’s regional interests if India gets bracketed as an American ally in an emerging Russia-China-Iran-Pakistan ‘Quad’.
There would be a hope on both sides that President Trump will avoid the K-word and respect India’s repeated assertion that Kashmir is a bilateral issue which was also reiterated by India’s External Affairs Minister, at the recently concluded Munich Security Conference in response to an American Senator. Mention of mediation on Kashmir, in the emotive and immediacy of this subject, could, in fact, cast a shadow on the eventual outcome of this visit.
Last week India was declared a developed country by the USA, the immediate fallout of which would be the discontinuation of aid. While that figure may not be significant and will not make a significant impact, its symbolism is significant because the US knows only too well that India has a long way to go before attaining that status. In fact, India is barely a middle-income bracket country. President Trump has also questioned various trade and tariff arrangements with India which are under negotiation. India will hope that the geopolitical imperatives driving this relationship will outweigh the considerations driving this thought process.
Much to India’s consternation, the US recently approved the resumption of arms aid to Pakistan is driven by the US presence in Afghanistan. India, despite having been at the forefront in developing critical infrastructure in Afghanistan rarely finds itself in the front row on discussions about that country whereas Pakistan is included. This indispensability of Pakistan is adversarial to India’s interests as this may also allow Pakistan to get off the hook in the FATF against India’s case demanding its blacklisting. Both, arms aid and financial support will ultimately find their way into supporting cross border terrorism in Kashmir, as the US well knows.
One area of strategic interest in which the US and India are on the same page is the importance of maintaining a rules-based international order and the safety and security of the Indo-Pacific. Last year’s Exercise Malabar with Japan included was the largest ever with both India and the US deploying an aircraft carrier and Japan its helicopter carrier. There is a distinct possibility of Australia also being invited for the next edition of the exercise. It is convergences such as these which find expression through various bilateral and multilateral mechanisms that underpin the depth of the Indo-US relationship and should be leveraged to understand each other’s sensitivities when addressing the divergences. Both sides should, therefore, utilise this opportunity to enhance President Trump’s understanding of India which would help shape the contours of the future Indo-US relationship.
(The author is Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal).