Contrasting with the optimism with which US President Donald Trump’s election was welcomed in New Delhi last November, the run up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Washington was marked by uncertainty and concern. Indian worries centred on the US president’s erratic Twitter-diplomacy, his attempts to reduce the US’s global footprint, his business-oriented engagement of China, his inability to re-engage Russia and his general disinterest in India.
Despite – and also because of – such gloom and low expectations, Modi’s visit went off surprisingly well and it seems difficult to imagine how much better it could have gone. On the American side, Robert Blake, former assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, therefore qualified the visit as “a tremendous success.” Ashley Tellis, from the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, said it resulted in “a great outcome” with “significant achievements”. Analyst Michael Kugelman personified the success in Modi, who “came, saw and conquered”.
Similarly, on the Indian side, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran noted that the visit brought a “sense of relief,” and Dhruva Jaishankar from Brookings India emphasised that “New Delhi should be more than satisfied”. Nirupama Rao, former Indian ambassador to the US, observed that the visit concluded “on a note of reassuring affirmation about relations between the world’s most important and largest democracies”.
All is not well, however. The strategic partnership has, for now, survived, but important challenges loom on the horizon. So while several strategic factors and past investments will sustain the relationship in the short-term, the current path points in the direction of a plateau. Unless New Delhi takes immediate initiative, the prospects of stagnation will arise quickly.
Incontrovertible? What keeps the US and India going
As Modi underlined in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, the US and India have now definitely overcome their “hesitations of history” and, therefore, the “logic of our strategic relationship is incontrovertible”. Indeed, bilateral relations have undergone a revolutionary transformation since the early 2000s, in particular after Washington and New Delhi were able to push through an exceptional agreement on nuclear cooperation.
By emphasising the strategic, deep and irreversible nature of the relationship, Modi was signalling India’s commitment to continuity. For a change, after many years of initiatives from Presidents George W. Bush and Obama to court India, this time it was in New Delhi’s hands to take the lead, seeking to conserve past gains and probe where to push forward. This is, in itself, the greatest achievement of the visit – it confirms that, despite individual aberrations or any other tactical factors, the relationship has achieved a level of robustness that is here to stay, at least in the short run. Such convergence is driven by factors at three levels, reflected in the joint statement and the leaders’ informal remarks.
At the long-range level, the Indo-US rapprochement is driven by the formidable rise of China, which is not named but implicitly present all over the statement. It makes repeated references to the “Indo-Pacific” region, a proxy code used to signal intent to balance and contain China. Similarly, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea are dealt with a normative language, which makes several references to the importance of “transparent” and “responsible” connectivity, as well as to freedom of navigation, international law and even the United Nations charter.
In a possible reference to reports about China’s unwillingness to do more to deter North Korean nuclearisation, the joint statement also calls to “holding accountable all parties that support [Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction] programs.” Similarly, parting ways with Beijing’s opposition, Washington also recognises India as “global non-proliferation partner,” expressing “strong support” for its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Finally, the statement also indicates mutual concern at dealing with China’s “excess capacity in industrial sectors.” As Dhruva Jaishankar noted, the China angle of the statement, by itself, indicates that there is “an effective continuation of the [2015 Obama-Modi] Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.”
At the long-range level, beyond China and balancing imperatives, the relationship is also driven by shared democratic values. While the US and India have not always seen eye-to-eye during the Cold War, the last decade unleashed the force of their open and pluralist political systems. In his remarks, Trump thus made five references to democracy and representative government, including to the fact that both countries’ constitutions begin with the same phase, “We the people.” Similarly, Modi stressed that India and the US are “not partners by chance” and the joint statement has a subheading referring to both countries as “democratic stalwarts in the Indo-Pacific Region.”
At the mid-range level, the relationship now also stands on a good footing because a decade of deep engagements has created multiple stakeholders committed to the strategic partnership. First, at the governmental level, there are now close to 50 bilateral dialogues in which the US is represented at the assistant secretary level or higher. The defence department has emerged as one of India’s greatest advocates in Washington. Even the most India-sceptic wings in the state department have lost influence in recent years.
Second, beyond bureaucracy, as Modi underlined, this “deeper and stronger partnership [also] extends far beyond the Beltway and the Raisina Hill.” Business has been the main driving force, with more than 500 American companies operating in India. As Vice President Mike Pence underlined in his speech at the US-India Business Council, in less than 20 years bilateral trade has surged from $20 billion to $115 billion. In just three years, since 2014, American foreign direct investment in India trebled, and exports to India now support around 200,000 American jobs. On top of this economic dimension, the strategic nature of the relationship is also anchored in a variety of exchanges in science and technology, and people-to-people contacts, including the formidable Indian-American diaspora lobby.
One should, however, not neglect the uphill task that Modi and his bureaucracy faced to keep the momentum going. In 2014, he was able to put the visa ban issue aside and personally dedicate himself to the relationship, visiting Washington thrice and hosting former US President Barack Obama for a historic second presidential visit to India. Bipartisan support for India was symbolically cemented with his address to a joint session of Congress in 2016.
Much outreach work also went into preparing last week’s visit – as pointed out by Brookings Institution’s Tanvi Madan, over the last six months the Indian embassy reached out to 13 senators and 20 representatives and Delhi hosted three US congressional delegations. Modi’s team of advisors divided labour to maximise impact, with foreign secretary S. Jaishankar negotiating directly with secretary of state Rex Tillerson and defence secretary James Mattis, while national security advisor Ajit Doval engaged his counterpart H.R. McMaster and secretary of homeland security John Kelly.
Finally, the strategic partnership also benefitted from a short-range and tactical alignment of factors. This is reflected in both leaders’ communion of interests in countering terrorism. While principally focused on Pakistan and the US designation of Syed Salahuddin as a “global terrorist”, this convergence stretches far beyond cross-border dynamics and is anchored in a widening set of bilateral intelligence-sharing mechanisms. At a more personal level, which naturally received much attention given Trump’s idiosyncrasies and Modi’s charismatic drive, both leaders also visibly hit it off with a succession of hugs and handshakes.
As Washington-based analyst Seema Sirohi pointed out, the visit’s convergence of long, mid and short-range factors proves the bilateral bottom line that “the India-US strategic partnership is durable – and desirable – even in these times of fierce flux.”
What Delhi must do to avoid the plateau
Reflecting satisfaction with the visit on all sides, analyst Shashank Joshi aptly noted that “the visit proved straightforward, hurdling the low bar set in advance.” Relief should not, however, lead to complacency and the comfort of banking on a bold joint statement. The strategic partnership remains strong but faces many challenges ahead. Failing to address these could lead to stagnation and even divergence.
Joshua White, former National Security Council director of South Asian Affairs, thus warned that while the Modi-Trump meeting “appears to have come off well” and “helped reaffirm that the relationship remains on a steady trajectory,” one must also realise that “what makes for a successful first visit is not enough to make for a successful relationship.” So what hurdles must New Delhi overcome in order to realise Pence’s prediction that “the best days for America and India are yet to come”?
First, India must avoid the danger of the relationship plateauing, as many analysts feared after the burst of engagement in the 2000s. Beyond rhetoric, will Washington walk the talk? Were the rather few substantive outcomes of the visit mere outputs that were already in the pipeline, such as the sale of Guardian drones approved under the Obama administration? Does the punchy but short joint statement really reflect Trump’s commitment to India as a strategic partner, or are references to terrorism and Pakistan a mere linguistic concession from the White House for Modi to score some political points at home? Similarly, on the BRI, will the US align with India to promote alternative connectivity plans, or stick to its narrow business interests in China’s infrastructure plans?
Second, at the personal level, will both leaders be able to sustain their engagement and deepen their dialogue to share threat assessments and find new areas for strategic alignment? As White observed, “Trump and Modi will need to move beyond their early affinity and similarly identify a basket of global issues on which they can seek each other’s advice and support.” This week’s G20 Summit in Hamburg will probably throw some early light on this as Modi and Trump are expected to meet again at its sidelines.
Third, will the bureaucratic establishments in Washington be able to continue educating Trump on the need of deepening the strategic partnership with India? While under Presidents Bush and Obama the US’s engagement of India was mostly a top-down affair, with the White House taking initiative, under Trump the relationship will depend on a bottom-up approach. There are indications that the US president is willing to delegate decision-making autonomy on some issues, especially to the Department of Defense – most notably on Afghanistan and the South China Sea. But India should also worry about the executive side-lining of the state department, which will have less autonomy to sustain the economic, scientific and cultural partnership with India.
Fourth, for all possible defence agreements, the relationship will cease to be strategic unless the economic dimension keeps on track. The joint statement’s rather flimsy paragraphs on this issue reflect the clash between Modi’s ‘Make in India’ and Trump’s ‘America First’ policies. Trumps remarks focused exclusively on the hard aspects of economic relations, including trade, investment and infrastructure.
Prior American interest in Indian softer economic initiatives such as smart cities, education and skilling, science and technology dropped off the radar, with Modi only making one passing reference to a “digital partnership.” Indrani Bagchi thus cautioned that this could feed the narrow-minded belief that India can “partner [with] the EU on our developmental goals, [and] with the US on security and strategic objectives.”
Fifth, India will now face the uphill challenge to keep the momentum going and drive new energy into the relationship. This is naturally animating an interesting debate in New Delhi, more on the actual terms and depth of alignment with the US than, as so often in the past, on the fundamental need of partnering with the Americans.
Kanti Bajpai, from Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, for example, argued that India has already “tilted too far towards the US and been too aggressive with China,” and should instead reach out to Europe and Japan and re-engage Russia. However, for those committed to further engagement with the US – now clearly in the majority – the Trumpian retrenchment agenda warrants the need to develop new ideas and find creative ways to pitch them to Washington.
How to balance China with a plan B
But what if everything fails and New Delhi can no longer bank on Washington? The ultimate challenges for New Delhi will be to concurrently foster a plan B for a scenario in which the US remains unresponsive to Indian initiatives. As Madan argues, in the long term the “trajectory and pace of the US-India relationship over the next few years will be shaped not just by whether or not Trump and Modi get along, but on how their governments perceive and deal with China.”
Similarly, Saran cautions that as “Trump is moving away from confronting China in the Asia-Pacific towards some kind of a modus vivendi …we will need to rely upon our own resources and capabilities.” Many will erroneously interpret this as a return to “non-alignment” when, in fact, history shows us that India’s grand strategy was always flexibly geared to pursuing multiple – and often also contradictory – alignments, rather than avoiding them alltogether. Adapting to new circumstances, including a declining US and a rising China, will require a strategic recalibration at two levels.
Modi has been particularly proactive on the first level, in terms of external balancing. By reaching out to Japan, Australia, the European Union and other middle powers interested in crafting trilateral and quadrilateral mechanisms, New Delhi is seeking to reduce its strategic dependence on the US’s traditional initiative to save the liberal order in Asia. For example, now that it took the initiative to opt out of China’s BRI and forward alternative criteria for Eurasian connectivity, will New Delhi be able to practice what it preaches in tandem with other “like-minded” partners? It will be interesting to observe to what extent other Asian middle and small states are willing to follow any Indian initiative at the risk of facing Chinese retribution.
The Modi government has, however, been less inclined to enforce the second and domestic level of this strategy: reforming the economy to augment its capabilities to shape the changing balance of power and match China’s formidable financial clout, particularly in its immediate neighbourhood. Opening up India’s economy to private and foreign competition, improving ease of business, modernising the military, or dismantling archaic regulatory frameworks will be key priorities to achieve this internal balancing strategy. No regional connectivity plans will work unless private companies – both Indian and foreign – are involved.
This second level of strategic recalibration will only succeed if Modi is able to articulate to his domestic audience that India’s security and strategic objectives abroad hinge on reforms at home. While this will be a hard sell, especially to those at the top who will be the main losers from greater economic openness and external competition, there is no real alternative. Delhi may buy itself some time by relying on Washington’s defence assets or Tokyo’s financial clout in the short run, but history shows us that no great power has ever risen on the cheap by merely playing the external balancing game.