A more high-maintenance relationship for India

India has had to adjust to cater to President Trump’s style and priorities, writes Tanvi Madan.

Tanvi Madan (Director, The India Project, The Brookings Institution)

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride” describes the feeling in India on 8 November, 2016, when there were twin surprises: demonetisation of certain currency at home and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, which had arguably become India’s most important partner.

In the years since, policymakers in Delhi have tried to limit the bumpiness, developed shock absorbers to minimise or mitigate the volatility, and move the India-U.S. relationship forward where possible. Overall, in the Trump years there has been more continuity in India-U.S. ties than some might have expected, but enough change to keep Indian policymakers on their toes.

The most significant progress has come in the diplomatic, defence and security sphere, driven by shared concerns about a rising China and complementary Indo-Pacific visions, as well as counter-terrorism cooperation.

The two countries’ bilateral engagement has deepened, as has its institutionalisation. For example, there is now an annual foreign and defence ministers’ dialogue (with a 2+2 intercessional at the assistant secretary level), an Indian liaison at the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, and U.S. consideration of placing a liaison at India’s Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean region. They also have ongoing dialogues on homeland security and issues like the security of 5G networks.

Shedding its earlier reluctance, India has signed “foundational” agreements with the U.S., enhancing their militaries’ interoperability and enabling intelligence sharing. Moreover, a change in U.S. policy has enabled Delhi to acquire additional American equipment, and the U.S. and India have expanded their military exercises, which include the new multi-service Tiger Triumph and the revived bilateral air force exercise Cope India.

Delhi has also become more comfortable in working with the U.S. to engage other partners. This has resulted in the upgrading of the trilateral with Japan to the leader level, and the revival and upgrading of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Australia. Furthermore, these years have witnessed the inclusion of Japan as an observer in the India-U.S. air force exercise, and the U.S. as an observer in the Australia-India naval exercise. The American and Indian navies have also undertaken a group sail with their Filipino and Japanese counterparts through the South China Sea.

India has also found Washington to be helpful in two crises: in 2017, during the Sino-Indian stand-off at the Bhutan-China-India tri-junction, and in 2019 following a terrorist attack in Kashmir that led to heightened India-Pakistan tension. This assistance has involved rhetorical support, behind-the-scenes help, as well as coordinating action in international organisations. The U.S. has also tempered its criticism of India when Delhi moved to change the status of Jammu & Kashmir last year and helped blunt Chinese action against India at the UN Security Council.

The strategic side of the relationship has not been without differences, though the two countries have largely managed them. For Delhi, neither the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan nor the related U.S.-Pakistan bonhomie has been its preferred outcome. Washington has been upset with India’s defence ties with Russia that could open it up to U.S. sanctions. India, in turn, has largely gone along with U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, but they have reinforced concerns about Washington weaponising interdependence.

The two countries also have differences on China, including on whether it poses an ideological challenge and how far to go in confronting Beijing.   Economic differences have been tougher to manage. On the one hand, trade, investment and revenue-generating people-to-people (tourism, education) ties have grown, and the American trade deficit with India has decreased. On the other hand, friction in the economic sphere has increased.

Beyond market access problems, investment restrictions, and price controls on medical devices, the Trump administration has expressed concern about India’s e-commerce regulations and data localisation plans. India, in turn, has been the target of tariffs, lost certain trade benefits, and worries about certain aspects of Trump’s immigration approach. As things stand, the two countries are working toward a phase-one trade deal.

The third leg of the U.S.-India relationship—involving shared values—has not been a major feature. The two countries have rhetorically emphasised their democratic nature. However, India’s actions vis-à-vis Kashmir and its Citizenship Amendment Act have raised human rights concerns in Washington. While the administration has largely refrained from public criticism (something the Modi government has appreciated and might have even counted on), members of Congress have been less shy reticent.

Perhaps the bigger adjustments in the relationship have been in India’s approach. This has become a high maintenance relationship for Delhi. It has had to cater to President Trump’s style and priorities.

That has meant highlighting deals in ways that prime ministers were loathe to in the past on the grounds that it would seem too “transactional.” It has meant giving the president public platforms in Ahmedabad and Houston that his campaign has used for political purposes. It has meant downplaying statements that would otherwise have caused offence in India—whether reports of Trump making fun of Modi’s accent, or his offers to mediate the Kashmir dispute, or his praise of Pakistan in India, or his indication of retaliation if India did not deliver on supplies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug Trump claimed to be effective in treating coronavirus.

It also has also meant Modi encouraging the Indian diaspora in the U.S. to make contributions not in India—as was the emphasis he emphasised in the past—but in the U.S.

Finally, it has meant Modi personally investing in wooing Trump, just as President Obama made an a special effort to engage Modi in 2014-15.

It is difficult to conclude that Modi and Trump have chemistry. But Trump has indicated that he sees Modi as a strongman and a winner—impressions likely reinforced by Modi’s re-election. And whatever Modi thinks of Trump, he has catered to his preferences, recognising the importance of the U.S. for his domestic and foreign policy objectives. This attention has seemed to pay off in dealing with differences.

India has also adjusted its regional and global approach as a result of reliability concerns and uncertainty about America’s continuing role and commitment in the Indo-Pacific. Delhi has highlighted India’s willingness to burden share, and simultaneously pointed out that, as a non-ally, the U.S. does not have obligations toward it.

India’s willingness to revive the quadrilateral has also been partly shaped by this uncertainty. Policymakers recognised that the Quad was important to senior Trump administration officials and thus one way of incentivising the U.S. to stay involved in Asia. But that revival was also shaped by another calculation Delhi has made in the Trump era: i.e. that it is important to double down on diversifying its portfolio of partners.

This has benefited not just as Australia and Japan, but also resulted in India’s rediscovery of Europe and the reinvigoration of its defence relationship with Russia.