On February 24th Air Force One touched down in India, marking President Donald Trump’s first trip to one of the pillars of America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. State visits offer a unique opportunity to take stock of a relationship and the India-U.S. strategic partnership proved to be in good health. However, the modest expectations surrounding the visit, and an outbreak of violence in the Indian capital during the president’s stay, ensured some of the symbolic and substantive progress made was lost in the headlines.
In some ways it was a tale of two visits, or at least two very different weeks in Delhi. After paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi, the president began his visit with a rousing, inspiring speech to a crowd of over 120,000 in the world’s largest cricket stadium in Gujarat. The following day in the national capital, he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed over $3.5 billion in defense deals and signaled growing geopolitical alignment on a range of salient strategic issues, from the Indo-Pacific, to the Quad, the rules-based order, the South China Sea, and the burgeoning India-U.S. energy partnership.
Contrasting sharply with the pageantry of the state visit was a lamentable spasm of violence in the capital that left over 50 people dead. It was the product of months of simmering tensions and protests from government critics opposed to recent and rumored changes in Indian citizenship laws that they charge could be abused to disadvantage or disenfranchise India’s 200 million Muslims. As in the past, President Trump largely avoided commenting on India’s internal strife, though the violence pushed Indian politics further into the spotlight after months of criticism of the Modi government from US media outlets and several prominent Democrats.
UPGRADING THE RELATIONSHIP
India-U.S. relations arguably received a boost the moment the president touched down in Gujarat. It was not simply his first state visit to the country, it was the first time any U.S. president traveled abroad exclusively to visit India. Despite a public appeal from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, President Trump passed on a trip to Islamabad, consistent with the policy of “de-hyphenation” practiced by the Obama administration. (President Jimmy Carter also skipped a trip to Pakistan when visiting India. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Clinton, and George W. Bush all visited both).
President Trump’s visit carried tempered expectations from the outset when it became clear a modest but painfully elusive trade deal would fail to materialize. Additionally, there were few big-ticket takeaways expected, though this was arguably a product of the success of the previous three years. Rather than waiting for a leader summit, the Trump and Modi governments have been quietly adding new layers to the strategic partnership, from changing U.S. export control laws to facilitate arms sales to India; to reviving and upgrading the “Quad;” launching a new “2+2” foreign and defense ministers dialogue; signing a foundational military agreement that allows for the sharing of encrypted communications and equipment; inaugurating the first-ever tri-service India-US military exercise; strengthening coordination between the Indian military and CENTCOM; getting the U.S. invited to India’s MILAN naval exercise, and concluding a pact to facilitate private sector defense cooperation.
The headline event of the president’s trip was an address to a massive cricket stadium in Gujarat that drew comparisons to last year’s Howdy Modi event in Houston, Texas. Largely praised in Delhi, the president’s speech underscored the unique bond between the two democracies: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
President Trump praised Prime Minister Modi’s rags-to-riches story, “you are living proof that with hard work and devotion, Indians can accomplish anything,” and drew sharp contrasts between India and its autocratic neighbor, China:
"India’s rise as a prosperous and independent nation is an example to every nation all over the world and one of the most outstanding achievements of our century. It is all the more inspiring because you have done it as a democratic country, you have done it as a peaceful country, you have done it as a tolerant country, and you have done it as a great free country. There is all the difference in the world between a nation that seeks power through coercion, intimidation, and aggression, and a nation that rises by setting its people free and unleashing them to chase their dreams. And that is India," said Trump.
Prime Minister Modi reciprocated the plaudits, identifying the India-U.S. relationship as “the most important partnership of the 21st Century.” His choice of words, and the two leaders’ decision to upgrade the relationship to a “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership,” sent an important diplomatic signal. Among other things, it informs the Indian bureaucracy that the U.S. partnership is increasingly global in scope and character and should be treated as second-to-none. “It’s a kind of ratings process,” explained External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
In their the fifth meeting in eight months, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi also built on a seemingly strong personal connection, continuing a tradition begun by Presidents Bush and Obama with Prime Ministers Vajpayee, Singh, and Modi. President Trump described Modi as a “very religious man.” “He’s a very calm man, but he’s actually a very, very strong person…I’ve seen him in action.”
The biggest tangible takeaway from the trip was a pair of arms sales to India totaling over $3.5 billion, including a deal for six Apache attack helicopters ($930 million) and 24 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters ($2.6 billion). The two sales likely pushed the total volume of defense trade to over $20 billion over the past 10 years, after decades of virtually non-existent defense ties. “I believe that the United States should be India’s premier defense partner,” President Trump declared, “and that’s the way it’s working out.” According to the joint statement, the two leaders also:
Pledged to deepen defense and security cooperation, especially through greater maritime and space domain awareness and information sharing; joint cooperation; exchange of military liaison personnel; advanced training and expanded exercises between all services and special forces; closer collaboration on co-development and co-production of advanced defense components, equipment, and platforms; and partnership between their defense industries.
The joint statement also noted Delhi and Washington expect to soon complete a fourth and final foundational “enabling” military agreement this year, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which facilitates the sharing of geospatial intelligence. Finally, the two leaders agreed to “reinvigorate” an existing Homeland Security Dialogue as well as establish a new Counter-Narcotics Working Group.
VIOLENCE IN DELHI
In recent months U.S. media outlets and prominent Democrats in Washington have grown more vocal in criticizing the Modi government and the rise of Hindu nationalism since it revoked the autonomous status of Kashmir in August. By contrast, President Trump has adopted a more muted approach and in Delhi largely declined to comment on the eruption of violence during his stay. He admitted that he was aware of the reports but “didn’t discuss that with [Prime Minister Modi]. That’s up to India.” The president did suggest that he and Prime Minister talked about the topic of religious freedom “for a long time,” adding: “the Prime Minister was incredible on what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly…And if you look back and look at what’s going on, relative to other places especially, they have really worked hard on religious freedom… And I really believe that’s what he wants.”
This sentiment was echoed in President Trump’s speech in Gujarat, where he praised India’s pluralistic traditions: “India is a country that proudly embraces freedom, liberty, individual rights, the rule of law, and the dignity of every human being. Your nation has always been admired around the Earth as the place where millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews worship side by side in harmony; where you speak more than 100 languages and come from more than two dozen states, yet you have always stood strong as one great Indian nation. Your unity is an inspiration to the world,” said Trump.
If communal violence and concerns about Hindu nationalism accelerate in the months ahead, the subject could feature more prominently in India-U.S. relations in 2021, following the U.S. presidential elections.
THE QUAD AND THE INDO-PACIFIC
In recent years, members of the “Quad”—Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S.—have begun to adopt a new paradigm for approaching the region. Geographically, the focus has shifted from viewing the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean as separate entities to viewing them as one interconnected space, the Indo-Pacific. In parallel, the four capitals have begun articulating a strategic vision for the region, one built atop a rules-based order, dubbed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Once viewed as the most reluctant, but in some ways the most important, member of the Quad, in recent years India has been drawing closer to the U.S. and its allies in embracing this vision and abandoning some of the Non-Aligned dogmas of the past. This has led to a quickening of the quantity and quality of military engagements, an improvement in defense and intelligence ties, joint opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and shared vision for what connectivity initiatives in the region should look like.
This was most evident in India’s decision to revive, and then upgrade, the Quadrilateral Dialogue in late 2017. Last year, the Quad added a new counterterrorism exercise to its agenda and elevated discussions from the level of joint/assistant secretary to full minister/cabinet secretary.
The Quad got a short but important leader-level endorsement during President Trump’s trip when gave the grouping a rare personal plug during a joint press conference, approvingly recognizing the Quad’s “revitalization.”
During his speech in Gujarat, President Trump portrayed a vision of India and the U.S. uniting to secure of their shared values and interests: “Together, we will defend our sovereignty, security, and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region for our children and for many, many generations to come.” The joint statement issued by the Indian and U.S. leaders characterized the two countries as “sovereign and vibrant democracies recognizing the importance of freedom, equal treatment of all citizens, human rights, and a commitment to the rule of law.” As expected, President Trump reaffirmed America’s support for Indian entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council.
The failure to complete an India-U.S. trade agreement following months of tense negotiations was an obvious point of disappointment during the president’s trip. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has identified numerous barriers to market access in India that it wants to see eased and the two sides have substantive differences to resolve on emerging technology issues like e-commerce and data localization. Over the past two years, trade tensions have resulted in the Trump administration imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that impacted India, revoking India’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), and threatening further punitive actions. The May 2019 Indian elections and the appointment of a new Indian commerce minister reinvigorated stalled trade talks but the two sides have yet to come to terms on roughly five of the thirty outstanding issues under negotiation.
Looking ahead, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi “agreed to promptly conclude the ongoing [trade] negotiations, which they hope can become phase one of a comprehensive bilateral trade agreement that reflects the true ambition and full potential of the bilateral commercial relations, advancing prosperity, investment, and job creation in both countries.” Prime Minister Modi later said he and President Trump “agreed to initiate negotiations for a bigger [trade] deal.”
Not all the news on the trade front was bleak. As President Trump noted, since his inauguration trade between India and the U.S. has “increased by more than 40 percent” while “the U.S. is India’s largest export market.” Indeed, bilateral trade reached record breaking heights in 2019, likely topping $150 billion dollars.
While it’s garnered few headlines, India-U.S. energy cooperation has grown exponentially in recent years, adding a new component to the strategic partnership. At their joint press conference, Prime Minister Modi declared total energy trade between the two countries had reached $20 billion over the last four years, calling America a “very important oil and gas source for India.” President Trump noted U.S. energy exports to India have increased 60% since he took office. (In 2019, U.S. exports of crude oil to India likely surpassed 90 million barrels, up from zero barrels in 2016, 9.6 million barrels in 2017, and 48 million barrels in 2018).
During the visit, officials from Exxon Mobil signed an agreement with Chart Industries and the Indian Oil Corporation to improve India’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure by pioneering “virtual gas pipelines” to transport LNG within India by road, rail and waterways. Finally, in the slow-moving nuclear arena, the two leaders “encouraged the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and [America’s] Westinghouse Electric Company to finalize the techno-commercial offer for the construction of six nuclear reactors in India at the earliest date.” Negotiations on this topic have been ongoing since India and the U.S. operationalized a groundbreaking nuclear deal in 2008.
In one of the more surprising announcements of the trip, the joint statement noted that America’s new International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) would be establishing a “permanent presence in India this year,” while the DFC would provide a “$600 million financing facility for renewable energy projects in India.” The DFC is intended to expand the U.S. government’s authorities and capabilities to support U.S. private sector infrastructure investments abroad.
At a time China’s Belt and Road Initiative has attracted growing global scrutiny, the U.S., together with Australia and Japan, have also unveiled a new Blue Dot Network (BDN) designed to promote “high-quality trusted standards for global infrastructure development.” The BDN was discussed by the two leaders, who “expressed interest in the concept.” Finally, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi supported a “partnership between USAID and India’s Development Partnership Administration for cooperation in third countries.”
The Trump administration has been engaged in an intensive global public diplomacy campaign to warn foreign capitals about the dangers of allowing “untrusted vendors”—such as Chinese telecom giant Huawei—to build their new 5G infrastructure. While India has allowed Huawei to participate in 5G test trials, it is taking a patient approach and is unlikely to make a final decision on vendors for at least another year. Notably, Indian security firms were raising espionage concerns about Huawei over a decade ago, before many western intelligence agencies began raising red flags.
President Trump’s 5G point-person, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, accompanied the president on his India visit and was expected to hold technical discussions with his counterparts. During a press briefing, President Trump noted he and Prime Minister Modi "discussed the importance of a secure 5G wireless network and the need for this emerging technology to be a tool for freedom, progress, prosperity -- not to do anything where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship."
SOUTH CHINA SEA
In recent years India has gradually grown more vocal about its concerns in the South China Sea, and the need to respect international law and maintain freedom of navigation there. Indian oil firm ONGC has for years held the hydrocarbon rights to a Vietnamese offshore bloc which falls within China’s “Nine Dash Line” claim. While India is still a long way from conducting freedom of navigation operations there (as are most U.S. treaty allies), the South China Sea got an interesting mention in the joint statement: “The United States and India took note of efforts toward a meaningful Code of Conduct in the South China Sea [between ASEAN and China], and solemnly urged that it not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law.”
Afghanistan was not a main point of focus during President Trump’s trip, despite India’s intense interest in the unfolding peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. Delhi has historically been skeptical of the intentions of the Taliban and their patrons in Pakistan, and the efficacy of negotiations with the group. Nevertheless, the Indian government has stressed that it supports Afghan-led peace negotiations and shares America’s principal objectives in the country, as articulated in the joint statement:
The United States and India share interest in a united, sovereign, democratic, inclusive, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan. They support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process that results in a sustainable peace, cessation of violence, elimination of terrorist safe havens, and preservation of the gains of the last 18 years. President Trump welcomed India’s role in continuing to provide development and security assistance to help stabilize and provide connectivity in Afghanistan.
PAKISTAN AND TERRORISM
India largely welcomed the Trump administration’s early decision to suspend U.S. military aid to Pakistan, to launch new unilateral and multilateral sanctions on Pakistani-based terrorists, and seek to hold Pakistan more accountable at various international watchdogs like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a terrorism finance watchdog.
By contrast, Delhi has been more skeptical of the relative thaw in Pakistan-U.S. relations over the past six months, as Pakistan has positioned itself as kingmaker in negotiations with the Taliban. President Trump likely raised some eyebrows when, during his speech in Gujarat, he described America’s relationship with Pakistan as “a very good one,” pointed to “signs of big progress with Pakistan,” and said his “administration is working in very positive way with Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist organizations” operating on Pakistan’s border. During a press conference the U.S. president added that he had a “very good” relationship with Prime Minister Khan.
The joint statement issued by both sides was more critical of Pakistan and terrorist organizations operating on its soil. President Trump and Prime Minister Modi:
[D]enounced any use of terrorist proxies and strongly condemned cross-border terrorism in all its forms. They call on Pakistan to ensure that no territory under its control is used to launch terrorist attacks, and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of such attacks, including 26/11Mumbai and Pathankot. They called for concerted action against all terrorist groups, including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network, TTP, D-Company, and all their affiliates.
The India-U.S. relationship has taken several strides forward during the first three-plus years of the Trump administration. In the waning months of the president’s term, the priority should be consolidating the gains already made and banking a few more “wins” before the year is out.
First, the two sides should commit themselves to completing a modest trade deal before U.S. elections in November. They have begun flirting with the idea of a larger trade deal post-elections but they should build on the considerable work already done to complete the more limited package in the near-term.
Second, Washington and Delhi should commit to finishing the pending BECA defense agreement before the elections. Third, the two should agree to establish a new joint military exercise that breaks new ground. A joint army exercise in the Himalayas or a joint naval exercise near India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands would both be strategically desirable. Fourth, if possible, the two sides should work toward operationalizing a new defense co-development project under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) and commit to collaborating on a new joint infrastructure project in South Asia in partnership with America’s new International Development Finance Corporation.