Of Modi and Trump: A Case of Continuity?

Indo-U.S. relations, despite some inevitable vicissitudes, had been mostly on an upswing since the second Clinton administration. After dramatic progress on multiple fronts during the two terms of George W. Bush, it had briefly appeared to be in the doldrums during the first Obama administration. Two issues in particular had vexed New Delhi. The administration had been overly solicitous of India’s long-standing and long-term adversary, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and had sought to link the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan with the U.S. role in Afghanistan. India had responded coolly toward the first overture and had expressed outright hostility toward the second. The administration, after its initial flirtation with the PRC did not play out well, changed tack. Also, faced with a blunt and unyielding stance from India on the other matter, it backtracked from linking the two issues.

Indeed following Obama’s visit to India in October 2010, the relationship had undergone a significant course correction. Among other matters, Obama was the first U.S. president to publicly, if in a qualified fashion, endorse India’s quest to join the United Nations as a Permanent Member. This gesture, though hedged with suitable qualifications, was of extraordinary significance to the Indian foreign policy elite, for whom the goal is of talismanic dimensions.

President Trump’s assumption of office came as a surprise to India’s policymakers. To compound matters, Trump had railed against the India’s use of the H-1B visas during the campaign—an issue of no trivial significance to India’s multi-billion dollar information technology industry. Apart from this populist rant, he had expressed scant interest in India and shortly after getting elected had lauded the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in a phone call. Subsequently, earlier this year, Trump had publicly accused India of seeking billions of dollars from advanced industrial countries in exchange for its support for the Paris climate change accords.

All these statements had been of cold comfort to India’s foreign policy establishment. Nor had the administration sought to reassure India that it would pursue policy continuity in other areas such as defense cooperation or regional security through high-level diplomatic contacts. In fact, the only official of any consequence who visited India was the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster. Based upon press reports, much of his time in New Delhi had been devoted to discussions about the future of Afghanistan.

Consequently, as Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C. loomed, many within India’s foreign policy circles fretted about how Modi’s first state visit to the United States following Trump’s election would play out. Fortunately, for the most part, press reports and the detailed joint communiqué suggest that the Indo-U.S. relationship is in no imminent danger of being derailed. What are the indicators that the visit was at least a modest success and that it presages continuity in American policy toward India? Also, might there be any possible pitfalls that still lurk over the horizon? Are there issues that were left unaddressed that could come back to disturb the seeming bonhomie that the two leaders have established?

At the outset, it might be desirable to highlight what most Indian foreign policy commentators deem to be the achievements of the trip. Virtually all of them have taken note of the decision of the Trump administration to declare well-known terrorist, Syed Salauddin, the leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” Under the terms of this label, any of his financial assets in the United States will be subject to seizure, and no U.S. citizen can have contact with the individual. The practical consequences of this listing may be limited as Salauddin is unlikely to possess significant financial resources in the United States, and few Americans would be desirous of establishing contact with him anyway. That said, the designation is nevertheless important as it helps India put pressure on Pakistan, his base of operations.

Barring this decision, even a casual glance at the joint communiqué reveals that a number of subjects that had been under consideration under the Obama administration will still be pursued. In the defense arena, the previous administration had granted India the status of a Major Defense Partner. Under its aegis, India was granted access to a range of dual-use technologies. The joint statement affirmed India’s status and revealed that the U.S. has now offered India new drone technology. It has also emphasized the significance of on-going bilateral naval cooperation and an interest in its deepening and expansion.

Also, in a striking departure from past precedent, India affirmed American efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile pursuits. Previous Indian regimes had shied away from taking such bold and unequivocal stances on matters that did not directly impinge on India’s national security concerns. Similarly, without explicitly alluding to the PRC, the statement underscored the importance of the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. In many ways, these are important signs that India now envisages a wider role for itself on matters of regional security across Asia.

Some potentially contentious issues, however, seem to have been set aside. There is no mention of the nettlesome issue of H-1B visas; the matter of divergent views on climate change seem to have been mostly papered over; and there is no reference to Iran’s role in the Gulf. The final issue deserves a bit of discussion. India, for a variety of compelling reasons seeks to preserve a cordial relationship with Iran. Among other matters, it has a very substantial Shia population in northern India and values their political quiescence. It is also dependent on Iran for access to natural gas. Finally, it has invested much in the development of a port facility at Chabahar in Iran to counter the PRC’s growing presence in Pakistan and to obtain land access to Afghanistan. Consequently, it would be loath to dilute this critical relationship.

The Trump administration with its fixation on Iran is no doubt aware of India’s ties to Iran. The fact that this issue in a concluding public statement has been neatly sidestepped suggests that it is not an area where there is mutual understanding. Nevertheless, it is not a matter that can be swept under a rug. At some point, the two sides will be compelled to grasp this particular nettle and not allow it to damage the overall fabric of the relationship.

A few analysts in India have suggested that the visit did not yield significant new achievements barring the U.S. decision to isolate Syed Salauddin and to nudge forward the process of defense cooperation. Such a characterization, though seemingly accurate, misses a critical point. Modi’s visit and Trump’s affirmation of a range of past policies suggests that there is no rupture in the relationship. With the significant ballast that it has acquired over the past decade and a half, the absence of any dramatic turns under the Trump administration demonstrates that it can withstand a significant shift in the overarching orientation of U.S. foreign policy.


Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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