By Dr Subhash Kapila
US President Trump’s first visit to India on February 25, 2020 is highly significant geopolitically when churning global politics presents unpredictable power templates and challenging strategic uncertainties to both the United States and India too, mainly generated by China not emerging as a responsible stakeholder in Indo Pacific security.
Initially it needs to be recorded that in terms of overall perspectives on President Trump’s visit to India the emphasis or significant take-ways would be more geopolitical, strategic and military –all aimed at further reinforcing the US-India Strategic Partnership. Trade issues will figure prominently but can expectedly not subsume the geopolitical and military determinants that presently define the relationship between the United States and India.
India stands geopolitically acknowledged as a Major Power by US President Trump in that his India visit is a ‘Stand Alone’ visit to India exclusively and not clubbed with Pakistan as in past US presidential visits. It reflects the value that the United States places on India’s geopolitical significance in the global power calculus and the significance of the US-India Strategic Partnership, with special reference to Indo Pacific security. It also needs to be read tangentially that the United States concedes that India is the Regional Power in South Asia dispensing with past US policy formulations of balancing India by strategic use of Pakistan.
Hovering over this significant visit of President Trump’s to India would be the contextual geopolitical environment not only confined to Indo Pacific but also on the global plane. United States global predominance is under challenge by China and it is no secret that China aspires to emerge as the second pole in global power calculus—- and that too as a challenger to the United States in a China-perceived US-China bipolar world.
In a way, growing friction flowing from this in both strategic and economic terms have resulted in United States no longer seeking engagement with China, or ‘conengagement’ but perceives China as a nation working adversarially to undermine United States global influence. This stands reflected in President Trump’s National Security Strategy Document. The most visible reflection of the growing fissures between United States and China is the ongoing US-China Trade Wars emerging from the ‘free-rides; that China has ridden and economically prospered for decades and which facilitated its exponential military rise.
India’s relations with China cannot be described strictly as friendly and warm and promotive of peace and security in the Indo Pacific. China-India Military Confrontation in 2020 may seem as muted currently but that basically arises from India going out of its way to keep peace on India’s Northern Borders and not because of any serious efforts by China to mend fences with India.
What impelled China to back-off from the Dokalam Military Standoff of 2018 were India’s geopolitical rise and its growing salience in global power calculations basically facilitated by the growing strategic and military substantiveness of the US-India Strategic Partnership. This Strategic Partnership has changed the Asian balance of power equations.
More notably geopolitically, is the emergence of the China-Pakistan Axis which when dispassionately analysed carries serious adverse implications for both India and the United States. The United States has already made public its displeasure on Pakistan consciously facilitating the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor traversing the entire length of Pakistan including the disputed territory of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This Corridor is less ‘Economic’ and more ‘Strategic’ creating security implications both for India and the United States.
Contextually therefore, during President Trump’s visit to India the China Factor cannot be ignored by both Nations in their discussions even though such discussion may be behind closed doors and not in the public domain.
President Trump taking great efforts to come to India on a ‘Stand Alone’ visit is coming with great expectations of “deliverables” that India can bestow on the US President in a hotly contested US presidential election year. In my view, there could be three areas where India could oblige the United States —-namely, big ticket arms purchases by India from the United States creating US jobs; geopolitical backing of India for United States policies in Asia Pacific and Middle East; and of course opening of Indian markets for US goods.
India is reportedly ready to sign multi-billion dollars arms purchase agreements with the United Sates supplementing the total of $17 billion arms purchases already made in the past years. As regards India’s geopolitical backing for United States policies in Asia Pacific and the Middle East, it needs to be asserted that India’s Strategic Partnership with the United States facilitated India’s growing proximity with key allies in the Asia Pacific, namely Japan and South Korea. In the Middle East, besides Israel, India under PM Modi has been able to forge strong relationships with traditional strong US allies like Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Trade relations will present some sticky patches for both United States and India to navigate through. The US President is hoping to carry home some big trade deals and it remains to be seen how India will respond and to what measure India could provide trade sweeteners.
But more than these what concerns US President Trump foremost in 2020 is US disengagement from Afghanistan and how much India can contribute to work with the United States in this direction. President Trump can be expected to make demands on India for provisioning of Indian Armed Forces military presence in Afghanistan. Keeping India’s domestic politics in mind India may not be in a position to oblige the US President on this score.
India’s expectations of “deliverables ’from the United Sates can be assessed as comparatively more modest as compared to those of the United States. India’s expectations can be assessed as more Pakistan-centric and China-centric, but rather more Pakistan-centric.
When it comes to Pakistan, President Trump in the initial years of his presidency castigated Pakistan for its disruptive policies of terrorism in the neighbourhood and not taking legal action against Pakistani terrorism outfits like Hafeez Saeed. Recent pressures on Pakistan under the ambit of FATF has nudged Pakistan to move towards reining-in these Pakistan Army affiliates despite China’s outright support in the United Nations to prevent them from being designated as ‘Global Terrorists’.
With Pakistan having cast its lot with China dispensing with its designation of ‘United States Front Line State’ to in 2020 emerging visibly as ‘China’s Front Line State’. While the Afghanistan factor may prompt the United States to temporise with Pakistan in a transactional mode, it is my assessment that United States priority importance in its South Asian policy formulations is no longer relevant.
United States and India on the verge of the third decade of the 21st Century have at the helm two politically audacious leaders. President Trump has committed himself to the policy maxim of “America First” while at the same time Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overriding policy ‘mantra’ is “India First”. However, that is unlikely to disturb or disrupt the value that both United States and India place on their Strategic Partnership. Both are capable of enmeshing their respective national security interests and priorities in a harmonious combination.
Notably, Indian PM Modi has been successful in establishing close personal and warm relationships with successive US Presidents and that would come into play in a big way when President Trump arrives in India for dialogues/discussions with the Indian Prime Minister. This factor would be significant in smoothening any irritants that may crop up in discussions between bureaucracies of both countries.
Arising from the above reality is the strategic truism which needs to be accepted in the Indian strategic community, long used to Non-alignment shibboleths, that in the two decades of evolution of the US-India Strategic Partnership, with many bumps included, is that a wide basket of shared strategic convergences on Indo Pacific security have emerged in 2020 arising from the geopolitical challenges posed by China.
The above seemingly has impelled President Trump departing from established policy formulations of balancing India and Pakistan and US deference to China’s sensitivities in South Asia to a visible change where United States under President Trump has come down heavily in Trade Wars with China and in disciplining Pakistan’s propensity for state-sponsored terrorism, notwithstanding that United States needs Pakistan’s assistance on Afghanistan.
United States and India are two vibrant democracies and it is natural that despite strong strategic convergences on Indo Pacific security and global geopolitics some irritants would keep cropping-up along the way. That should not be a disturbing factor for policy establishments and strategic communities on both sides. As long as such irritants are managed without rancour and purposeful dialogue there should be no concerns on the future of the US-India Strategic Partnership.
Concluding, what needs to be remembered and emphasised is that both in the United States and India there exists a bipartisan political support on the value and direction of the US-India Strategic Partnership and whose course was broadly laid out in the ‘Vision Statement’ at the turn of the Millennium when what I termed in my Paper of that time as the “Advent of the Inevitable” It is sincerely hoped that US President Trump would during his India Visit 2020 add further impetus to this ‘Inevitable”.