U.S President Donald Trump’s 36 hours in India last month were full of activity as he travelled from Ahmedabad to Agra and then to Delhi with his family. He had hoped for a grand welcome and he got one. In his own words: “Nobody else that came here got the reception that I got yesterday. We had thousands of people outside (the stadium). That was an incredible scene.” The Modi government had ensured that his welcome would live up to the hype that the President himself had generated before his visit. This was the fifth meeting between the two leaders in the last 8 months, underlining the growing maturity of the relationship.
On a substantive level, Prime Minister Modi and the U.S President issued a comprehensive joint statement during which India and the U.S inked three MoUs, including one in the energy sector, and agreed to initiate talks on a major trade deal. The two leaders have decided to raise the Indo-U.S ties to a comprehensive global strategic partnership level. Security and defence ties for a boost with the two nations deciding to work more closely on homeland security and combating global terrorism as well as making defence engagement more ambitious by trying to make defence manufacturers part of each other’s supply chains. Two arms deals worth over U.S.D 3.5 billion for six Apache attack helicopters and 24 Seahawk/Romeo anti-submarine warfare helicopters have been signed with a $1.9 billion deal for a missile defence system in the pipeline.
The Indo-Pacific continues to be a special focus with the U.S President underlining the need to revitalize the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) initiative with the U.S, India, Australia, and Japan on counter-terrorism and maritime security.
Despite differences in the respective Indo-Pacific definitions initially, there is now a growing convergence with the Trump Administration expanding the scope of its definition of the Indo-Pacific in line with India’s – from the West coast of America to the East coast of Africa. The two nations have similar concerns about China’s BRI and so there is now a push for greater collaboration on regional infrastructure projects, including the Blue Dot Network, with the aim of supporting projects which are “open and inclusive, transparent, economically viable, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, and compliant with international standards, laws, and regulations.”
Though the two sides are yet to resolve their differences on trade, the two leaders exuded a newfound optimism that a mega trade deal might be in the offing. Trump was keen to point out that since his taking office, “U.S exports to India are up
nearly 60 percent and exports of high-quality American energy have grown by 500 percent.” India, for its part, is ratcheting up its energy relationship with the U.S as was underlined by the fact that India has become the fourth-largest export destination for U.S crude and the fifth-largest buyer of LNG from the U.S. During Trump’s visit, Exxon Mobil and Indian Oil concluded a deal to help India import more LNG.
Many in India would be tempted to look at Trump’s comments regarding his good relations with Pakistan with wariness. But that has to be viewed in the context of his desire to get American troops out of Afghanistan. As the U.S-Taliban peace deal gets ready, Trump needs Pakistan’s help. His repeated offers to mediate between India and Pakistan are about assuaging Pakistan’s immediate concerns. There is a reason why Indian policymakers are so relaxed about Trump’s comments.
Pakistan has become a mere footnote in the larger tapestry of India-U.S engagement which is driven as much from the bottom up as from the top. As Modi rightly argued, “relations between India and U.S aren’t just between two governments, but are people-centric and people-driven” and “these relations are very important for the most important relationship of the 21st century.” Nearly 4 million-strong Indian-American community and 200,000 Indian students have done as much for the bilateral ties as the broader strategic convergence.
While there is a distinct continuity in how successive governments have taken the relationship forward over the last three decades, Modi and Trump have managed to give a strategic coherence which was missing in the past. From signing the foundational military agreements to changing the energy and military contours of the engagement, the two leaders have pushed the boundaries and made it possible to imagine a relationship bereft of the baggage of the past. And Modi has managed the Trump phenomenon better than even some of America’s closest allies.
There is a reason why Trump remained firmly on message throughout his visit despite his proclivities to the contrary. Even as temperamental a President as Trump recognizes the importance of India and the role Modi has played in crafting the recent arc of Indo-U.S trajectory.
The argument that Trump’s visit was all optics and lacked substance is a bogus one. High-level visits like this one are always about optics. The fact that a supposedly transactional Trump decided to travel to India without any substantive deliverable is the real story here and tells you more about the present state of Indo-U.S ties than any deal would have.
Professor Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation,