US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

Donald Trump concluded his 36-hour India tour on Tuesday evening. This was his first visit to India since being elected the 45th president of the United States in November 2016. His tour to India was much anticipated by both the countries, which have a common strategic objective of balancing China’s rise.

This objective was reflected immediately in Trump’s first speech after landing in India, where he took a jab at China’s undemocratic rise. India’s rise “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,” he said in his speech at Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. 

China’s revealed preference is to secure and safeguard, and inevitably control, the Indo-Pacific region in the future. This has been reaffirmed multiple times through the defense white papers and speeches of Politburo Standing Committee leaders.

The US was late to realize and acknowledge China’s rise, as its realignment toward the region happened only in 2012 with the “pivot to Asia” strategy. The current regime under President Trump has gone a step further by hardening its approach toward China.

The Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy report, which was released on July 1, 2019, highlights China’s assertive behavior undermining the international system and rule-based order. It claims that China’s military modernization “endangers free flow of trade, threatens the sovereignty of other nations and undermines regional stability.” The document refers to India as a broad-based strategic partner underpinning shared interests and values.  

However, India approaches this region with a bit of caution. It acknowledges the implications related to China’s rise but holds back from overtly calling it out. This was implied in June 2018 through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he said India’s Indo-Pacific strategy was not against any third country. 

But despite minor differences at the broader strategic level, defense cooperation between the US and India is strengthening with the purpose of checking China’s rise. The US views India’s rise and its increased defense capabilities in the future as a way to balance China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. For India, this is an opportunity to diversify its weapons import, acquire more state-of-the-art military hardware and increase defense-technology cooperation, besides balancing China.

Trump’s recent visit reaffirms this convergence, as the biggest takeaway was the elevation of the India-US relationship into a “comprehensive global strategic partnership.” Trump announced a US$3 billion defense deal under which India will buy MH-60R naval and AH64E Apache helicopters and other military equipment from the US.

During his Motera speech, Trump claimed that the US looks forward to providing India with the best and most feared military equipment including aircraft, rockets, ships, missiles, advanced air defense systems and armed and unarmed aerial vehicles.

“I believe the US should be India’s premier defense partner … and together we will defend our sovereignty, security, and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” he said.   

Last year, the US Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act to bring India at par with the NATO allies for increasing defense partnerships and sharing advanced defense technologies. While passing this law, Congress sought a briefing from the Pentagon on the ways and means to increase US-India defense cooperation and military engagement on the Indo-Pacific region. The briefing is due before March 1, 2020.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data suggest that America’s weapons exports to India from 2013 to 2017 increased 557% over the previous five-year period. 

Before Trump’s India visit, the US Congress approved the sale of a state-of-the-art Integrated Air Defense Weapons System (IADWS), which would cost about $1.9 billion. India has requested the purchase of advanced sentinel radars, AMRAAMs (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles) and Stinger missiles, M481 rifles, canister launchers, and more.

Last year, the US and India held their first-ever tri-service amphibious military exercises called Tiger Triumph off the easn coast of India. This was in addition to the institutionalized Yudh Abhyas and Malabar trilateral naval exercises. The two countries have signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communication, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and institutionalized 2+2 dialogue at the highest level.   

Despite the fissures in the relations between the two countries on several issues in the past few years, their strategic defense cooperation has deepened. Trump’s visit was reiterated this and opened a plethora of opportunities for India to improve its defense capabilities and balancing the rise of China in the Indo-pacific region. 

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Suyash Desai

The author is a research analyst working on China at the Takshashila Institution. His MPhil dissertation is on India’s approach to regionalism in Asia from the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University.