war on the rocks

U.S.-India Relations: The Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Bright Spot

January 24, 2019

It’s customary these days to lament U.S. relations with allied countries like Germany and Canada, or to worry about warmth with unfriendly ones like Russia and North Korea. Ties with India, however, are a refreshingly positive outlier. Bilateral relations are mostly healthy and both sides continue to raise their strategic bet on a close long-term partnership. With the United States and India sustaining deepening ties across multiple administrations, their leaders should grow more ambitious still. Now is the time to envision precisely what a maximalist U.S.-India relationship might encompass in the future.

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At the annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi earlier this month, I witnessed a striking degree of optimism about the United States. India’s strategic elite largely welcomes President Donald Trump’s tough approach to China, his skepticism about Pakistan, the administration’s emphasis on a free and open Indo-Pacific, and its willingness to transfer technology. There are warning signs — I’ll get to those — but at the moment they detract little from the overall trend of deepening relations.

The improving relationship stems partially from the Trump administration’s clearly articulated strategic priorities in the region. In identifying great power competition as the key driver of U.S. national security strategy, the administration signals a convergence in U.S. and Indian views of China. Prioritizing the China challenge also provides an underlying rationale for greater alignment with India as one element in a broad effort to balance power in the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi generally shares the appetite for cooperation: In a forthcoming Brookings India poll of the country’s strategic elites, a full 75 percent say that their country’s most important partner on global issues is the United States, with Russia a distant second at 12 percent.

The Trump administration meshes with India’s approach on other issues as well. Its consistent description of an “Indo-Pacific” region, and the renaming of Pacific Command as INDOPACOM, echoes language favored by New Delhi for years. The administration’s criticism of China’s One Belt One Road initiative mirrors Indian concerns, and both share a desire to boost security cooperation with countries like Japan, Vietnam, and Australia. Washington and New Delhi teamed up with Tokyo and Canberra to revive the Quad as a vehicle for cooperation, and the administration last year made India eligible to purchase license-free space and defense technology under Strategic Trade Authorization-1, making it just the third Asian country so designated (after Japan and South Korea). This year will see the U.S.-India CEO Forum convene for the first time under the Trump administration, a new annual tri-service defense exercise take place, and likely progress on an Industrial Security Annex to facilitate private sector work on defense technology projects.

In the meantime, some previous pressures have dissipated: Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, for instance, means India’s environmental practices no longer rank high in U.S. officials’ talking points. The traditional gap between Washington and New Delhi on Pakistan policy has narrowed considerably as well. The Trump administration cut aid to Islamabad, including $300 million in coalition support funds, last fall, citing Pakistani failure to act against terrorists. The president’s periodic condemnation of Pakistani conduct falls on sympathetic ears among hawks in India’s national security community.

Not everything is rosy. Washington’s drive to sanction Iran and those doing business with it will implicate India, which imports Iranian crude and wishes to continue. The administration has granted New Delhi an initial waiver, but its future disposition remains uncertain. Similarly, the Modi government seeks a waiver for CAATSA sanctions that would otherwise cover its purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system. Indian officials worry about U.S. plans for an Afghanistan withdrawal and fret about the possibility of being cut out of any peace deal. Trump’s dismissal of Indian aid to Kabul — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the U.S. president said, is “constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan” —played particularly badly.

Other issues could become irritants as well. The U.S. Trade Representative is reviewing India’s eligibility for the Generalized System of Preferences program, which permits certain products to enter the U.S. market duty-free. New Delhi has announced — but not yet implemented — tariffs in retaliation for Trump’s moves on steel and aluminum. U.S. moves on immigration policy — especially those decisions related but not limited to H1B and H4 visas — rarely take Indian sentiment into account but always affect it. Indians wonder what will follow the departure of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, while Americans are starting to imagine a post-Modi relationship after the BJP’s poor showing in recent state elections.

More striking than the potential pitfalls, however, is that a relationship of such significance has been sustained in Washington from the waning days of Bill Clinton, through George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and now under Trump. Likewise, support for closer ties with the United States has won support in New Delhi from both Congress and BJP-led governments.

It also points to an opportunity, one that the Trump administration would be wise to seize: Step even harder on the bilateral accelerator.

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To double down on the U.S.-India relationship, officials and analysts on both sides should envision what this relationship might comprise in a decade or so, and work backwards from there. For all the progress, for example, trade still falls short of its potential, and diplomatic coordination remains low (at the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, the two countries only vote the same about a quarter of the time). Defense ties remain a high point but retain more potential, particularly if New Delhi were to approve the last of the so-called “foundational agreements” governing the sharing of geospatial intelligence. And while Washington has embraced the reality of great power competition, New Delhi’s views remain relatively sotto voce and Indian officials are keen to preserve a measure of non-alignment. Over a decade, all of this and more may change, and both sides should be there to take advantage. Doing so would help solidify a partnership that can help to balance power in the Indo-Pacific, uphold key global rules, and unite the world’s two largest democracies as change swirls around them.

Indian leaders will also need to look inward. America’s strategic bet rests on the premise that India will continue its impressive performance of the past two decades, growing more prosperous, militarily capable, and diplomatically influential. That, in turn, requires New Delhi to sustain economic reforms, open its market further, set military priorities, and clear bureaucratic hurdles to greater cooperation.

In the meantime, as the frustrations of global challenges seem inexorably to build, and with Washington starting 2019 unusually paralyzed and self-possessed, there is a flicker of optimism on the foreign policy radar. U.S.-India relations are moving forward, and both sides would be wise to build on the existing strengths.

 

Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security. 

Image: The White House