US President Donald Trump’s visit to India is not going to be a mere spectacle. That Trump is coming to India despite a slim possibility of a trade deal shows there is a lot more substance to his visit. He is not known to travel where he does not have any interest in. For example, Trump has avoided visiting multilateral forums during his term in the office.
With trade out of the way, the visit will focus on issues where there is a lot of convergence between India and the US like defence, Indo-Pacific, and Afghanistan.
Deeper defence ties
Defence ties have grown significantly in the last 15 years with India purchasing weapons worth over $18 billion from the US. In fact, one of the highlights of this visit is likely to be the announcement of over $5 billion in weapons purchase by India, which includes the much needed MH-60R naval multirole helicopter, the purchase of 24 of which for $2.6 billion was cleared by the cabinet committee on security this week. The total requirement is for 123 helicopters. India is also set to buy 6 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for nearly $930 million. The US has approved India’s bid to purchase of NASAMS air defence system for $1.87 billion. India is also likely to discuss the purchase of Sea Guardian surveillance drones for the Navy.
These will help Trump offset the US’ potential loss of not being able to sign a trade deal with India, allowing him to go back and tell Americans that he got billions of dollars worth of arms deal from India, which will create jobs.
There is more happening on the defence equipment front, which can also be taken up at the highest level when Trump meets Modi — setting up a mechanism for joint research, development and production of weapons systems. India and the US have identified the shortcomings in their Defence Trade and Technology Initiative conceived in 2012 and have shortlisted projects that can be pursued in the short, medium and long term. A statement of intent was signed in October 2019.
Strengthening the strategic ties
India and the US have also advanced their strategic and military ties. India had signed a logistics agreement towards the end of the Obama presidency, and that is already helping India refuel its warships at sea using US tankers and access its bases. India signed another foundational agreement on communications — COMCASA in early 2018 in the second year of Trump’s presidency. COMCASA helps in interoperability, especially in the maritime domain in tracking submarines. The Trump administration has also elevated India to STA-1 clearance that allows India to access advanced technologies from the US. India and the US continue to conduct military exercises and the ties at the political level has been solidified with the 2+2 ministerial dialogue.
India and the US see increased convergence on the Indo-Pacific too. Recently, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of South and Central Asia Alice Wells said that there is virtually no daylight in the US’ approaches to the Indo-Pacific. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh too stated that there is growing convergence between India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific — a free and open, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive region supported by a rules-based order and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity — and that of the US. There is great scope for India and the US to undertake joint connectivity projects that are viable for the host countries of the region, unlike the predatory Chinese projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. India and Japan have initiated such connectivity projects in third countries under their Asia-Africa growth corridor. This should be one of the focus areas during Trump’s visit.
The Afghan divergence
India and the US converge on the need for stable & prosperous Afghanistan without the scourge of terrorism. But there is divergence on how. The US wants to sign a deal with the Taliban and leave the country. This has security implications for India, which has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan, and supports the democratic government in Kabul. It is not in India’s interest to have the Taliban, which enjoys Pakistan’s support, back in Kabul. It is difficult for India to have its own boots on the ground independently.
Although, there have been reports claiming Afghanistan’s request for the presence of Indian troops, and even Trump would like the same. But as India gets more clarity from Trump on his deal with the Taliban, it can discuss with the US the possibility of having a UN peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. It will be easier for India to have troops in Afghanistan under the UN flag. The Narendra Modi government will be able to sell that to the people of India where popular opinion is against sending Indian troops in Afghanistan. This will make sure that there is no return of the Taliban in Kabul and Pakistan is denied the strategic depth it seeks.
While the spectacle of “millions of people” is likely to grab headlines, there is a lot more that will be discussed between Trump and Prime Minister Modi, which will cement the strategic ties. An early trade deal would be in India’s interest, especially to tap companies in the US that are looking to move out of China. The lack of a trade deal is not the end of the road for India and the US because there is a lot more riding on good relations between the two countries. It seems that there is an industry for writing obituaries of India-US relations at the slightest opportunity.
The author is editor of Defence Forum India. He is a commentator on defence and strategic affairs. He tweets @YusufDFI. Views are personal.