Why India may be Donald’s trump card

Kusum Tewari


The US pivot to
Asia has been almost a decade in the making. But for the past two decades, the more significant development has been the Indian pivot to the US. This change of direction, after almost half a century of “tilt” towards Russia, has meant that on a geopolitical level, India is quietly reorienting its approach, outlook and policies to reflect the growing convergence with the US.

Donald Trump may be the most transactional US president till date, but he has largely upheld the traditional American understanding that India’s global rise is a good thing because a successful India would be a powerful democratic counter-balance to an expansionist and authoritarian China.

This matches India’s own notion that it was the only natural balancing power to China in Asia. That was one of the reasons behind the US using its global heft in an unprecedented move to lift India’s nuclear pariah status. Since then, India has been integrating itself into the global technology regimes, which it had been denied. As former PM Manmohan Singh observed while returning from signing the deal in 2005, “The nuclear deal will do for India in strategic and technology terms what the 1991 economic reforms did for its economy.”

When Modi came to power in 2014, his overt investment in the US could not be missed. He built a solid relationship with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama and over the past three years, has assiduously worked on Trump. Going beyond the trade difficulties, the Modi government moved from crafting a joint strategic vision for Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific in January 2015 to aligning their Indo-Pacific policies by 2019. In 2018, the
Pentagon articulated what it called a “three-pronged” strategy of maritime cooperation with India — a shared vision on maritime security, upgrading bilateral maritime security partnership and collaborating to build regional capacity and improve regional maritime domain awareness. In the past few years, India has built its own complementary strategy.

As Ashley Tellis points out in an article for Foreign Affairs, “The Trump administration’s focus on great-power competition, its designation of China as a strategic competitor, and its pursuit of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ all gave India renewed importance.”

What this showed was the growing convergence between the two asymmetrical powers on strategic affairs — as the US took on China in the
South China Sea, India has been slowly but surely building up its own capabilities in the Indian Ocean, both with the aim of balancing China’s rise. India has been building its own alliances in the Indo-Pacific region — with France, Australia, Indonesia,
Vietnam and Singapore, all with huge overlaps with the US. India’s closest strategic partner in Asia is Japan, which, together with the US, forms the core of the Indo-Pacific.

India has also accommodated the US in its immediate neighbourhood, from Nepal to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as both powers work to limit China’s influence. In the past few months, both the US and India have independently been reaching out to the Central Asian states, building networks that provide alternatives to Chinese expansionism — the US also wants to limit Russia’s influence, but India is happy to give Russia a lead position there. This flexibility has worked well for India, while the US is slowly learning to live with India’s independent strategic vision that includes Russia and

Three areas — energy, defence, and people — provide the underpinnings for the new and improved India-US strategic partnership. India is diversifying its energy basket away from the Gulf by buying more oil and gas from the US. The US has become one of India’s biggest defence suppliers. Underlying this geopolitical convergence is the obvious affinity of the Indian people for the US, which has meant 4 million Indian Americans, 200,000 students who form the backbone of the strategic partnership. That is for any US administration to cash in, because it ties India closer to America in the most fundamental of ways.

Tellis says, “India and the US are far from becoming formal allies. They are dogged by persistent trade disagreements, which India shows no inclination to settle. But given Trump’s record with other US allies, his administration has been surprisingly lenient when it comes to India’s uncompetitive trade practices. It has also kept mum about India’s feared drift toward illiberalism, enabling both countries to push ahead on strategic, especially defence, cooperation, which has always been the lodestar that guides US-Indian relations.”

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