Matthew is pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Relations and is interested in South Asian affairs, especially the Kashmir region.
Note from the Author: this is to be read in conjunction with Asha’s article in order to have sufficient context on India’s current politics; that article is also published on the KCL Geopolitical Risk Society blog. The opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are solely my own and do not reflect Asha’s or anyone else’s.
President Trump began his February 2020 visit to India with bold plans for the two-day trip, yet he and the American delegation concluded it with much less in hand than they had hoped. The rapid onset of the COVID-19 crisis further derailed hopes of more negotiations as both countries focused on the crisis. Prior to the talks, Trump and Modi held trade deals with the other as a top priority of the visit. A second major goal for the Americans was negotiating increased military and security cooperation, with the hopes India might assume some responsibility for regional affairs. Lastly, infrastructure talks were to be a third, yet still major, goal of the trip. This article will briefly look at what the goals were, what was accomplished, and why they were important.
President Trump’s stated goal of the visit was to secure a new trade deal with India, despite revoking India’s preferential trade status in June 2019. In return, India placed tariffs on American goods. This is all in line with Donald Trump’s typical negotiating strategy, i.e., hurt a country and then come back with an ‘improved’ trade deal. Why does America want increased trade with India though? For one, Trump is a protectionist and wants the world’s second-largest population to buy American. More importantly though, despite having officially stepped back from Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy, the Trump administration still recognizes the geopolitical importance of the Indo-Pacific region. In essence, a strong partnership with India is the key to a pro-American Indo-Pacific that can push back against China’s influence.
Donald Trump concluded his visit by saying, “relations between the two countries have never been as good as they are now” and added they made a “wonderful deal”. So was there a deal? US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was not present in the delegation to India, signaling that Trump was unlikely to broker a deal during this visit. Furthermore, India’s retaliatory tariffs are still in effect alongside a new ‘Google Tax’ and other proposed e-commerce regulations, all red line issues stopping any further progress in negotiations. Modi, a protectionist like Trump, wants to keep these tariffs in place to protect domestic industry. Trump, on the other hand, wants Modi to buy more from America and remove the tariffs. Overall, the delegation’s visit ended with only one tangible in the form of India purchasing $3 Billion USD of military equipment from the US.
- Military and security
Just before Trump’s departure, PM Modi signed a $3 billion-dollar deal to buy American military helicopters and technology, signaling India’s willingness to appease American policymakers by moving away from Russian defense purchases. President Trump, in turn, reaffirmed India’s status as a Major Defense Partner. There were concerns until recently that the Trump administration would impose CAATSA sanctions against India for its S-400 missile purchase from Russia. This now seems to be a remote possibility after India’s recent purchases and joint security commitments, also announced during the visit. Specifically, the two leaders pledged to “deepen defense and security cooperation… information sharing; joint cooperation; exchange of military liaison personnel…” and announced a joint counter-terrorism training operation.
So, what is the ‘why’ of the military sale and cooperation announcements? Although China was not mentioned on the trip publicly, the Trump administration shares the Modi’s government anxieties regarding Beijing’s intentions in the Indo-Pacific. For instance, in late 2017 the US and India revived an annual defense ministers’ meeting with Japan and Australia called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). The Quad was reinstated to be, “an Asian arc of Democracy” and a military counter to Chinese aggression and expansion in the South China Sea. For its part, India has started participating in joint wargames and freedom of navigation patrols with other Quad members. Outside the group, but emboldened by its security, India also started sailing its navies with Filipino fleets in similar exercises. Significantly, in March of 2020 a Quad meeting was joined by three Asian Pacific countries, New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam, a potential sign of the group’s growing influence. In an interesting parallel with history, Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution, points out in her article that, “[the] US-India partnership is similar to one that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, when both countries saw China as a threat.” and that it led to “economic aid to India, military assistance and… an air defense agreement and intelligence sharing.” Over the past month, tensions have increased over Chinese incursions along the Indian border near Ladakh region. These incursions started when India began construction of a road in Ladakh and quickly developed into violent rock throwing and fist fights. The US has continually asserted in Congress and through diplomatic channels that Beijing has overstepped its bounds, calling them “bullies”. President Trump has gone so far as to offer himself as a mediator in the border dispute, though there has yet to be a response from either side. As Beijing attempts to stretch its influence, the US is expected to continue attempting to maintain involvement in assisting India’s dreams of regional hegemony.
As an aspiring hegemon, India has committed to help build a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) pipeline from Turkmenistan, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and ending in India. Part of this pipeline project includes helping train Afghan police to protect vital infrastructure. This means Indian troops need to be present in Afghanistan, something it has been hesitant to do up to now. Unfortunately for India though, its position as the regional democratic power makes it almost a necessity to become militarily involved in Asia. For example, if the Taliban were to assume control of Afghanistan again in a peace deal, they would certainly ally themselves with Pakistan, and possibly China for development purposes. The Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s army and ISI cooperate frequently. This situation would be especially bad for India since the Afghan Taliban could then move with near impunity to the Kashmir Line of Control (LoC). Regarding the pipeline’s future, it would obviously not take place under Taliban rule. Regardless, the US delegation has made a commitment to help develop LNG pipeline infrastructure in India while also maintaining a dialogue with the Taliban. While pipeline development support is not entirely contingent on it, the US also pushed India to maintain 5G network security, i.e., keeping Chinese tech out. The US similarly wants India to join its counter to the Chinese One-Belt project, the ‘Blue Dot Network’ (BDN).
Once again, why does the US care so much about India’s infrastructure? The transnational Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India LNG pipeline links the fossil fuel reserves of the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean. US firm ExxonMobil and Indian Oil have already signed an agreement to help India import more Liquefied Natural Gas in anticipation of the project’s completion. Upon completion, the US would benefit from India having an ocean accessible LNG source so tankers could get the product easily. The US also certainly realizes the importance of long term regional security through development and the pipeline will bring jobs and wealth to all four countries it traverses, a goal of the BDN. Additionally, the recent US-Indian military cooperation agreement is partly aimed at India taking over US stability missions in Afghanistan, since Pakistan is at best an unwilling partner. Having India take the lead on training Afghan security and intelligence forces is a start. In the long run, India will benefit from a safer Afghanistan through reduced drug trade and less terrorism, making the mission even more vital. As for the 5G network demands, experts say there are some risks posed by using Chinese technology in 5G networks, but that is not a unified consensus across the field. This has been a recent sticking point in negotiations with all US allies and is just one of President Trump’s obsessions. It is in Modi’s best interest to follow along with the requirements, finding a fine line between full cooperation and shutting out the US completely.
The Trump administration is continuing a pattern of trade negotiation seen with other nations, although the stakes are much higher with India; trade not being the only major issue. Modi is viewed by global analysts as one of 2020’s top economic risk factors. Namely, his economic policies are stunting Indian growth and fueling sectarian violence. Furthermore, his party’s hawkishness is also more likely to escalate a border conflict to a high intensity fighting akin to the 1999 Kargil War, especially in high-tension regions like Kashmir. As the US increases its cooperative efforts with India there is hope Modi might be compelled by the limelight to restrain the extremist elements of his party a little more. In trade relations the two countries made little progress as they have yet to negotiate around numerous trade barriers and red line issues. Militarily, the US signed a small but significant deal for helicopters destined for use along the Kashmir LoC. Added to this is India’s increasing support for Indo-Pacific military cooperation both in and out of the Quad. Lastly, the various proposed infrastructure deals have yet to materialize, mainly while the US waits for India to join the BDN. Some signs of progress have appeared in India blocking Chinese FDI and threats to blacklist Huawei 5G tech in the country, both things Trump is sure to be pleased with. The extent that PM Modi will bow to US demands remains to be seen, but so far, some basic demands like blocking Huawei have been met. The Trump administration clearly sees India as the valuable ally it can be, especially within the BDN. This renewed period of detente will be beneficial for India, the US, and the whole Indo-Pacific region. So, although trade negotiations have been postponed due to CoVID-19, the short to long term goals of this US administration remain the same.
 India Today, “India, US ink $3 billion defence deals…”
 BBC, “Donald Trump in India”
 White House, “Joint Statement: Vision and Principles…”
 Madan, “The pitfalls and promise…”
 Pant, “India’s Afghan Dilemma…”
 BBC, “Donald Trump in India”
 Asha, “Modi, the Greatest Risk to India”
BBC. “https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51625503”. February 25, 2020
India Today Web Desk. “https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/us-defence-deals-3-billion-india-president-donald-trump-1649804-2020-02-25”. February 25, 2020
Madan, Tanvi. “https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/02/27/the-pitfalls-and-promise-of-a-us-india-partnership-driven-by-china/”. February 27, 2020
Pant, Harsh, and Paliwal, Avinash. “https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/19/indias-afghan-dilemma-is-tougher-than-ever/”. February 19, 2019
White House Foreign Policy. “https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-vision-principles-united-states-india-comprehensive-global-strategic-partnership/”. February 25, 2020