Opportunity to put back shine on Indo-US relationship?

India, US see Donald Trump's visit as chance to put back shine on bilateral ties. Will it work?

During President Trump’s first India visit, both India and US appear keen to ensure that differences over a trade deal do not scuttle the overall momentum in bilateral ties

Students paint on canvas faces of US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the street in Mumbai. (AFP Photo)

The buzz around US President Donald Trump’s India visit next week is building up. During his two-day visit beginning Monday (February 24), President Trump will travel to Ahmedabad to attend the ‘Namaste Trump’ event and also, visit Agra and the travel to Delhi.

This is President Trump’s first visit to India, and therefore, both sides appear keen to ensure that differences over the issue of a trade deal do not scuttle the overall momentum in bilateral ties.

During the visit, India and the US are expected to hold wide-ranging talks on strategic issues of mutual interest. The visit is significant in the context of American domestic politics, impact this has on foreign policy and the shifting terrain of South Asian geopolitics.

The US is entering an election cycle and President Trump is keen to make sure that his case for re-election remains strong. Recently, attempts to impeach him failed due to the strong support he enjoys within his own Republican Party and therefore now appears to be on a strong political footing.

At the same time, his opposition, the Democratic Party, still looks confused about the best presidential candidate to defeat Trump. Interestingly, despite the ensuing turmoil in American domestic politics and foreign policy over the last three years, Trump’s popularity ratings are high and the US economy is doing rather well. He is likely to carry that confidence in the upcoming Presidential elections.

India could do well to remember that the debates in American domestic politics – about the benefits of globalisation and the fate of the liberal international order; isolationism in world affairs and overall approach to economic policy – influence foreign policy. Therefore, Mr. Trump’s forthcoming visit should be seen from this perspective.

Trump will want to demonstrate to his supporters back home that he is ‘tough’ on foreign partners and therefore is driving a hard bargain with India over trade. Besides, he would also like to be seen as a popular leader on the world stage and will like to project his India visit as a success.

Defence partnership

That said, in the backdrop of this visit are the stakes that both India US have in strengthening a mutually beneficial partnership in the Indo-Pacific region. For India, military modernisation and easier access to sophisticated defence technologies is a key element in countering a growing Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Ahead of the Trump visit, India has cleared the proposal to purchase advanced weapons systems from the US such as MH-60 anti-submarine helicopters. Twenty four helicopters that India will receive are likely to play a crucial role in building capability to counter increasing forays of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. Besides, the US Congress has recently cleared the sale of an integrated air defence weapons system for India.

These weapons deals cannot be considered in purely economic terms and benefits to American manufacturers. Their strategic significance in building capabilities for the Indian armed forces cannot be overlooked.

South Asian geopolitics

This visit is of central importance for the evolving geopolitics in South Asia. This week, the results of the Afghan presidential elections were announced and incumbent President Ghani is set for another five years in office. Meanwhile, the US is negotiating its exit from Afghanistan with the Taliban.

President Trump is keen to finish the war in Afghanistan and bring American troops back home. It will be critical for his domestic audiences and he will want to take credit for having fulfilled one of his key campaign promises of 2016. However, India is genuinely concerned about the prospects of a hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s likely return to power due to some sort of deal facilitated by the US.

India would be keen to ensure and convince Mr. Trump that Indian interests in Afghanistan should not be harmed. Besides, in the context of rising tensions between the US and Iran, the prospects of Chabahar port and connectivity to Afghanistan via Iran is likely to be discussed as well.

India will also be keen to get American support over the issue of Kashmir. India’s decision to abrogate article 370 and restructure the state of Jammu & Kashmir has been criticised by influential sections in the Western political establishment.

Recently, a senior American senator from the Republican Party, Lindsey Graham, raised the issue of Kashmir at the Munich Security Forum. India will be keen to avoid such public questioning and criticism from high-ranking western politicians and policymakers.

Moreover, the US has blacklisted Sri Lankan Army Chief Lt.Gen. Shavendra Silva over the issue of alleged violations of human rights occurred during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. It complicates the US-Sri Lanka ties and creates openings for further Chinese influence in the island nation. India would be interested to resolve this issue as soon as possible.

It would be interesting to note that exactly 20 years ago, the then US President Bill Clinton had visited India. It was his first visit to India. Before visiting India, he too had faced impeachment proceedings and just like now, the US was entering an election cycle.

Clinton’s visit had laid down solid foundations for deeper Indo-US ties and created a momentum in the bilateral ties that were sustained during the next decade. During this period, India and the US worked together to construct a co-operative security partnership in the Indian Ocean, limit Chinese influence in Asia, contain terrorism emanating from Pakistan and also signed a strategically significant nuclear deal.

However, in the last few years, turmoil in the US domestic politics and flux in foreign policy has contributed towards creating uncertainty in the bilateral relationship. Therefore, India would like to convince President Trump during his visit that India remains a valuable partner for the US and that ties are resilient despite differences over trade.

(Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views expressed in this article are personal)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.