In a world troubled by the outbreak of a virus and slowing down of major world economies, the successful two-day visit of US President Donald Trump to India and his natural chemistry with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a silver lining as the world's two great democracies, and economies, showed off their natural collaboration.
The joint statement released by the two leaders on the second day of this visit confirmed much of the speculation surrounding President Trump’s maiden visit to India. In addition to the $3 billion defence deal, an ensured trade deal in the near future and a significant increase in energy cooperation, India and the United States also committed themselves to an organised effort in fighting terrorism and countering the narcotics trade. Beyond these tangible aspects of the partnership, the joint statement (and the visit at large) have been instrumental in showcasing the strength of the US-India relationship and the personal relationship between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump, both of whom accord high value to “chemistry in diplomacy”.
This surge in the Indo-US relationship is owed to India’s emergence as a crucial partner within the American security framework, especially in the Indo-Pacific. The influence of the highly educated and prosperous Indian diaspora has also had a positive influence on this relationship. Finally, American investment into India is a natural partner in the ambitious Make in India targets of Prime Minister Modi, which are a cornerstone of his New India vision. Increased defence cooperation is, therefore, timely and important.
India and the US in the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-American relationship is particularly important in a region that hosts 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits, a third of the world’s cargo and two-thirds the world’s population, and the United States has adjusted its policies in the region and given birth to the concept of the 'Indo-Pacific'.
Extending from the west coast of India to the west coast of the United States including the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the Indo-Pacific is the latest American geopolitical and spatial conception. To further refocus its strategy and affirm its commitment to a 'free and open Indo-Pacific', in May 2018, the United States renamed its oldest and largest unified combatant commands-the Pacific Command as United States Indo-Pacific Command. The centrality of the Indo-Pacific in American strategic policy and India’s role in upholding this security thus received a major boost. Indian diplomatic support is also invaluable to India in Afghanistan.
Indeed, today’s joint statement also mentioned the Quad—a strategic dialogue involving Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Formed almost two decades ago, the Quad finds reinforced significance today; by way of ensuring enhanced cooperation among the four countries, President Trump relayed the American Indo-Pacific policy.
India as a strong and reliable partner that helps the US meet these divergent strategic goals is, therefore, indispensable. While India had always treated the US with kind fraternity and enthusiasm, the US now finds India playing a larger role in its own foreign policy conceptions. The mutual dependence has only increased and in acknowledging India’s importance, the US is reflecting prudence.
Various concessions in the last few years have cemented India’s position in the American security framework. In 2016, the US designated India as a 'major defence partner', a position that is unique to India. Further, on 30 July 2018, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that India will move into Tier-1 of the US Department of Commerce’s Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA-1) license exception, a designation typically reserved for NATO allies. While these designations would ideally establish a strategic alliance between two countries, Indian apprehensions of and aversion to formalised alliances preclude such a possibility. Regardless, the recognised common goals of securing the Indo-Pacific.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the joint statement released today promises an additional $3 billion in defence trade. In key additions to the defence fleet, India will obtain six AH-64E Apache helicopters for the Indian Army and 24 MH-60 Romeo Helicopters (the 'finest in the world') for the Navy. This deal comes on the existing $13 billion worth Indian defence equipment acquisition from the US. Talks for the exchange of geo-spatial maps to get pinpoint military accuracy of automated hardware systems and weapons such as cruise and ballistic missiles are already in the pipeline. The partners have launched a Defence Technology and Trade initiative (DTTI) aimed at simplifying technology transfer policies and exploring possibilities of co-development and co-production.
Apart from trade in defence equipment, India and the US have also increased partnerships and joint exercises, highlighting the positive trend in a strengthening relationship. In November 2019, India and the United States conducted their first-ever tri-service military exercises called 'Tiger Triumph' in the Bay of Bengal with the view to improve defence cooperation. These exercises took place despite the Malabar Exercises—the joint annual maritime exercise on the western coast of India.
Given everything, the visit of the American President to New Delhi marks a watershed moment in the Indo-US relationship. As the two leaders lauded each other for their leadership and contribution, acknowledged their popularity locally and globally, they showcased a personal camaraderie that many other leaders would resent. By promising a longer and stronger partnership in counter-terrorism, maritime security and cyber-security for a more stable Indo-Pacific, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi have wedded Indian and American security conceptions.
The United States and India share a lot in common—most significantly, a strong constitutional framework espousing democratic principles and a commitment to a rules-based international order. At a time we are increasingly having to grapple with illiberal forces and a changing world order, cooperation between strong democracies is among the welcome and awaited scheme of things.
This blog was authored by Aarushi Aggarwal.
- Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, “Why the Indian Ocean Matters.” The Diplomat, 1 Jan. 5712