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

On February 24, the heads of state of two of the world’s largest democracies met after Air Force One landed at Ahmedabad Airport in India. A 36-hour-long itinerary rolled out as the president of the United States stepped off the plane to a huge photo opportunity – two strongmen, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, hugging each other. A tri-service Guard of Honor presented arms as Trump beamed.

However, was the visit all optics, or was it able to stop the cracks that had begun to appear in the Indo-US relationship and reaffirm the faith of those who had hoped that it would serve to be a pivot of a stabilizing order in the Indo-Pacific region?

Notwithstanding the expectations, a few milestones that this meeting created are worth mentioning. Trump’s visit was the first ever India-only itinerary for an American president visiting the country. Nor has it ever been that a US president has been felicitated by more than 110,000 people congregating in a stadium in Ahmedabad to say “Namaste Trump.”

Beyond all the hoopla, there was a lot on the table and surely some hard bargaining; however, was it the strategic issues that predominated or were trade issues at the forefront?

As far as trade issues are concerned, the fizz was already off-limits, with a trade agreement not having been fully negotiated before the visit. However, the US remains India’s biggest trading partner. Mutual trade between the two economies is worth US$150 billion annually.

The Indian side was pitching for lowering of tariffs on steel and aluminum products and greater access in such sectors as automobiles, automobile components, agriculture and a host of others. The US was similarly looking at greater access and lower tariffs on a host of items, including dairy products, medical devices and ICT (information and communications technology) products. Trump remains concerned about the US trade deficit, which India is trying to address through purchases of energy resources, weapons systems and military platforms.

In the area of weapons platforms, Trump did have a flag to carry back home; a $3 billion contract for 24 MH-60R multirole helicopters from Lockheed Martin and six AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.

The modernization drive of the Indian Armed Forces throws open huge opportunities for US aerospace and defense companies. Trump was focused on bagging an Indian order for 110 multirole fighter aircraft. Lockheed Martin has offered the F-21. Boeing has its F/A-18 lined up. Trump will surely want a big deal before the US elections in November. The selection process is in its early stages.

Strategic issues that were discussed included the increasing Chinese forays into Afghanistan, terrorism, Pakistan, and the Indian Ocean region. The US would like India to deploy a substantial force in Afghanistan. However, the Indians would be loath to do it. The sustenance of such a force and the inevitable violent response of Pakistan make the proposal a no-win venture. India has invested heavily in the Afghan reconstruction process, and would like to continue with its involvement in the same vein.

According to the joint statement at the end of the visit, the two countries agreed to strengthen the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. They also decided 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.”

Terrorism in the South Asian subcontinent is directly related to Pakistan’s approach to it. Be it India or Afghanistan, the activities of terror groups operating in these countries continue to be calibrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The joint communiqué states, “Prime Minister Modi and President Trump denounced any use of terrorist proxies and strongly condemned cross-border terrorism in all its forms. They called 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 [in Mumbai in 2008] and Pathankot.”

However, Pakistan has been pivotal to the US-Taliban talks that led to a week’s reduced violence followed by an agreement on February 29 that calls for a US troop drawdown, negotiations between the democratically elected regime in Kabul and the Taliban, and an exchange of prisoners. India and the US also agreed on the need for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned stabilizing process.

Pakistan has emerged as a frontline state again in the US scheme of things in Afghanistan. The US is due to restart the military training and education program for Pakistan. The security assistance grant to Pakistan, though, remains suspended. However, the gradual resumption of US aid to a gasping Pakistani economy cannot be too far off.

The fundamental difference expected in their approaches when the two leaders met was that while Modi was expected to focus on strategic issues, Trump’s focus was to be trade-related.

The renaming of the US Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command and the plethora of statements that originated from Washington in its wake had conveyed the impression that in the American calculus, India as a strategic partner was of greater import to the US. The meet between the two leaders reaffirmed it by stating in the joint communiqué the desire to “strengthen consultation through the India-US-Japan trilateral summits; the 2+2 ministerial meeting mechanism of the foreign and defense ministers of India and the United States; and the India-US-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral consultations.”

The joint declaration makes it clear that the United States appreciates India’s role as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region.

Both leaders welcomed the rejuvenation of the Homeland Security dialogue between the US Department of Homeland Security and the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs. They expressed their intent to create a Counter Narcotics Working Group and safeguard their citizens from the fallouts of the illicit drug trade.

The discussions during the visit also covered crucial strategic issues like the South China Sea, India’s seat on the UN Security Council, and its entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

There were other issues that were discussed during the visit, but it appears that strategic issues far outstripped discussions on trade between the two countries. If the reverse were true, it would definitely have been a setback to Indo-US relations. The fact remains that with the rise of China and its belligerent approach, there is a need to form stable and dependable alliances in the Indo-Pacific region. While the inclusion of all countries is both desirable and a priority objective, the coming together of the bigger powers including Australia, Japan, the US and India is a must. In fact, such a strong alliance would boost the confidence of smaller states as they face Chinese pressures.

Notwithstanding the huge canvas that the joint communiqué lists, the intangibles not listed perhaps define the Trump visit more accurately. The visit was a give-and-take story with both sides addressing their common concerns quite deliberately. Individual concerns of the two countries where there was a lack of convergence were left on the back burner.  

There is obviously a lot of common ground between the two countries that can drive the relationship forward. The lack of a trade agreement wasn’t allowed to cast a dark shadow on the meet. The meeting wasn’t transactional, something that has come to define Trump’s approach to geopolitics.

The visit, as apparent from the joint communiqué, strengthened the relationship between the two heads of state, essential for Indo-American relations to grow. As far as Modi is concerned, apparently he has been able to retain his concept of multi-alignment. Across the table, Trump went about his business without dumping Pakistan. Yes, there were the usual references to terrorism and the like, but there was no dilution in the visualized role of Pakistan in resolving the Afghanistan issue, and thereby, its importance to the US.

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S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.