New Delhi: US President Donald Trump’s visit to India, which begins today, won’t just be a spectacle. It will also deepen the countries’ strategic relationship, with both sides expected to sign a range of pacts from defence to energy, and give a renewed push to the Indo-Pacific initiative.
While negotiations between New Delhi and Washington on a small trade package have fallen apart, in terms of strategic convergence, there could quite a few substantial announcements with long-term implications.
“The talks will be comprehensive and cover issues relating to our strategic partnership in the areas of defence, security, counter-terrorism, as well as trade, energy, people-to-people exchanges and other bilateral matters,” said Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla during a press briefing announcing the visit earlier this week.
“While the focus (of the visit) will be on the spectacle and pageantry of the ‘Namaste Trump’ event, we can expect both leaders to underscore the shared interests that bind the two sides together. And at the end of the day, that’s the element that counts the most, rather than the idea of shared values or the chemistry between Modi and Trump,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Defence trade between both countries has reached $18 billion in 2019 from almost nil in 2008. India is now in the category of those NATO countries that get access to sensitive technology under STA-1, or Strategic Trade Authority Tier 1 designation, which New Delhi received in August 2018.
India and the US could sign defence deals worth more than $6 billion for procuring 24 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters and six Apache helicopters.
Trump, who is coming on his maiden visit to India as US President, could also push New Delhi to consider American fighter jets — Lockheed Martin’s F-21 and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet — for the Indian Air Force’s plan to procure 114 new fighters for $15 billion.
India is also designated as a ‘Major Defence Partner’ of the US, with both sides having signed the two critical foundational pacts — Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) — that are aimed at interoperability between their defence forces. A third pact — Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA) — is in the advanced stages of negotiation.
India is also expected to make some investment announcements in the US’ energy sector as it explores newer markets to buy crude oil.
US export of energy to India increased to $8 billion last year from nil in 2008, and is expected to reach $10 billion this year.
India and the US have established a Strategic Energy Partnership (SEP) in 2018, replacing the earlier Energy Dialogue. US Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette is going to be part of the Trump delegation during his India trip.
Trump’s visit could also see both countries giving a renewed push to their collaboration in seeking an “open, free and inclusive” Indo-Pacific region, keeping a check on an increasingly assertive China.
“The Trump administration, perhaps because of its views and perspective on China, has been much more forthcoming on bilateral defence relations. It has promoted the sale of defence systems to India, which we would like to have because they are highly sophisticated and our armed forces express the need for them,” said veteran diplomat Neelam Deo, now director and co-founder of think tank Gateway House.
According to Deo, the fact that the quadrilateral grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia has met at the foreign ministers’ level, has led to “raising the profile” of the dialogue.
The Quadrilateral Security Grouping, or the ‘Quad’, has emerged as yet another strategic initiative within the Indo-Pacific. The meeting of their foreign ministers was largely seen as a clear signal to Beijing.
Trump’s 36-hour whirlwind tour will feature three meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which will add yet another strategic significance to the relationship, given that the US Presidential election race is heating up ahead of the polls in November.
“The Trump visit, while short on splashy deals and major deliverables, will provide a big boost to a relationship that has continued to grow; yet has, at times, stumbled due to tensions on the commercial side. The fact that President Trump, who is averse to long-distance travel and is focused on his re-election bid, is making the trip should itself be viewed as a big deliverable,” said Kugelman.
Trump’s 36 hours in India
Upon landing in India, President Trump will be welcomed by Prime Minister Modi and taken to Ahmedabad’s Motera Stadium for a gala public address called ‘Namaste Trump’. En route from the airport to the stadium, the President and his entourage will experience a cultural show called the ‘India Road Show’.
From Ahmedabad, President Trump will leave for the Taj Mahal in Agra with First Lady Melania Trump.
Tuesday will be all business when the President holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi, followed by the US-India CEOs’ roundtable at the Roosevelt House at the US Embassy.
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