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As the US President travels to India on Monday, we can expect to be treated to the sight of Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi locked in a bear hug at some point. Reports of the two leaders’ personal chemistry and the sight of vast throngs of cheering crowds at the ‘Kem Cho, Trump’ rally in Ahmedabad (the Indian response to ‘Howdy Modi’) will not alter the fact that the US–India relationship is undergoing the most sustained period of strain in more than a decade.
There’s no question the forging of a strategic partnership between the US and India has been one of the most consequential geopolitical developments of the past 20 years. Since the George W Bush administration, the US has worked to accelerate India’s rise in the belief that a strong, confident India on the world stage was in America’s interest. It is hard to overstate the extent of cooperation that has developed between the two countries in the interval. The US has emerged as India’s second largest defence supplier, with military sales totalling $18 billion since 2008, and the Indian military now conducts more joint exercises with the American armed forces than it does with any other country in the world. This growing partnership is underwritten by a range of mutual strategic concerns, including worries about China’s growing power in Asia, the recognition of Pakistan-based terrorism as a major threat and a keen interest in sustaining a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’.
As recently as January 2019, US–India ties were being held up as one of the few points of continuity and stability in the Trump administration’s Asia policy. Over the course of the past year, however, strains have emerged on all three pillars of the bilateral relationship – economic cooperation, strategic convergence and shared values. Differences in any one of these areas has been a fact of life. However, stress on all three fronts simultaneously is new. Escalating trade tensions are accompanied by a sense of malaise in the strategic partnership and developments in India that raise questions about the degree to which key values are actually shared between the two countries. Taken together, at least one analyst has described this as ‘the most formidable set of challenges the relationship has faced since the rapprochement of the early 2000s’.
It’s Not Trade That Binds
In a healthy partnership, the economic and strategic relationships are joined at the hip. In the US–India relationship, however, the economic component significantly lags the strategic aspect and is a perennial source of problems. This has become a major issue today because trade is the primary way that President Trump measures the health of a bilateral relationship, but the Modi government has reversed course on economic liberalisation. Although bilateral trade in goods and services surpassed $150 billion last year and saw the US reclaim its position from China as India’s largest trading partner, both sides want the other to do more. The US is pressing India to reduce its trade surpluses and remove tariffs, but these tariffs are part of Modi’s strategy to boost investment in domestic manufacturing as well as protect key constituencies like farmers and small traders.
The ‘America First’ and ‘Make in India’ policies are on a collision course. At present, the US and India have 10 active disputes against each other in the World Trade Organization, and the two sides have imposed a series of tariffs on each other’s exports and are threatening more. The confrontational approach both countries have adopted on trade necessarily affects perceptions of the other as a strategic partner. As one Indian commentator noted, ‘you can’t shake one hand and get a slap from the other’.
And Neither Do Military Affairs
In past periods of bilateral economic tension, the defence and intelligence side of the relationship could be counted on to keep things on track. However, this trade friction is happening at a time when the strategic side of the partnership is already stressed by a general sense of ‘India fatigue’ in Washington and concern in Delhi that the US does not respect India’s interests. American observers have expressed frustration over the slow pace of India’s emergence as a regional actor as well as the fact that all the effort the US has put into high-level policy dialogues, working groups and joint exercises have not led to deeper bilateral cooperation. For their part, Indian analysts note that on major foreign policy issues of concern – be it Afghanistan, Iran or Russia – the US frequently acts without taking New Delhi’s strategic concerns into account.
The Value Thing?
Finally, there are growing concerns in some quarters of American politics, most notably on Capitol Hill, that Indian democracy is becoming increasingly illiberal. For the first time in decades, Congress has held multiple hearings on Kashmir, and prominent US Senators who describe themselves as friends of India are raising questions about the state of religious freedom and civil liberties. The perception that the US and India shared fundamental values, despite occasional disagreements on specific foreign policy issues, helped facilitate the rapid development of the strategic partnership. However, if current trends continue, this relationship is unlikely to enjoy such easy bipartisan support in the future.
Don’t Expect Much, Be Surprised by Little
What might come from Trump’s first presidential visit to India? Expectations are modest. A comprehensive trade deal that would satisfy the grievances of both sides has eluded negotiators for almost two years and even a limited trade agreement that would ameliorate some of the economic tensions appears unlikely to be signed at this time. Instead, an Indian pledge to purchase $3.5 billion in military helicopters is likely to be the key takeaway from the visit. The signing of a major defence deal will undoubtedly lighten the mood, but it won’t address the fundamental tensions that are emerging in these bilateral ties. At best, it is papering over the cracks.
For the past two years or more, Washington has had its India policy on auto-pilot – relying on momentum from prior administrations to help keep things moving forward. Despite present problems, the logic underwriting a robust US–India strategic partnership remains sound and the default position of both sides is to cooperate.
That being said, the next decade of the bilateral relationship is unlikely to progress as smoothly as the past 10 years and it will require much more from each side than just stage-managed spectacles and bear hugs.
Walter C Ladwig III is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London and a RUSI Associate Fellow.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of White House / flickr.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.