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#5246, 20 March 2017

Eagle Eye

Forecast 2017: India-US Strategic Partnership
Chintamani Mahapatra
Rector and Professor, JNU, & Columnist, IPCS

The nature, intensity and direction of the US' relations with friends, foes, partners and the marginalised countries entered a period of unprecedented uncertainty with Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US presidential election.

That Trump’s foreign policy approach would be drastically different from that of his predecessors’ was amply clear from the days of the election campaign. Trump fought the election on a platform that raised questions about the relevance of long-standing alliances; portrayed possibility of redefining the country’s adversaries; and held mere hopes of continuity of policy as far as Washington’s emerging strategic partnerships with some countries are concerned. 

India fits in the last category of nations. Since the post- World War II era, US-India relations have always been marked by highs and lows, and convergences and divergences. The Cold War calculations - and not the merits of bilateral relations - shaped the US' policy towards India during the approximately four decades of the Cold War era. However, the end of the Cold War too witnessed ups and downs in the relationship. 

It was only in the early years of the 20th Century, with the then US President Bill Clinton's visit to India that a new paradigm of US-India relations began to emerge. Months after Clinton’s India visit, the Democratic Party lost the 2000 presidential election and George W. Bush of the Republican Party became the US' president. For a brief while, it appeared that the new paradigm of US-India ties would die in its inception.

However, such apprehensions were misplaced and short-lived. Eight years of the Bush White House witnessed a carefully nurtured US relationship with India that cemented a strategic partnership with the conclusion of the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Defence and security cooperation between the two countries too tremendously improved with bilateral military exercises, trade in sophisticated arms and ammunitions, and defense technology transfer from the US to India.

The Obama Administration picked up the thread where his predecessor had left and the Indo-US strategic partnership witnessed vertical growth and horizontal expansion. There were several hiccups in the process but those were deftly handled and the strategic relationship did not get derailed.

Significantly, there was no indication at all during the 2016 election campaign that the outcome of the election would in any way negatively affect US-India ties. After all, bipartisan consensus on sustaining and improving Washington’s relationship with India has existed in the US for years. 

While Trump was by and large an outsider to the beltway foreign policy consensus and was not a mainstream Republican Party leader, even his statements and remarks displayed no sign that a Trump Administration would alter the US' policy towards India in any significant way. In fact, candidate Trump had aired many views against Pakistan, China and many other countries, but not against India.

Soon after Trump’s victory, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated activism to engage with the new US Administration. India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval landed in Washington to connect with the Trump transition team. While Prime Minister Modi and President Trump exchanged views over a phone call, news leaked that they invited each other to visit their respective countries. More recently, India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Washington to exchange notes with various branches of the US government with a view to further strengthen the India-US bilateral. Despite all these efforts, there are critical issues that may adversely shake the India-US strategic partnership, unless handled dexterously and in a timely manner. 

First, the economic nationalism of the Trump White House should not come on the way of Prime Minister Modi's “Make in India” initiative. Second, the Trump Administration's job creation and retention measures should not excessively hit the Indian workforce employed by American and Indian IT companies. Third, the Trump Administration’s Afghanistan policy should not clash with India’s core interests in that country. Fourth, the Trump Administration should keep the Kashmir issue outside his political bargaining with Pakistan. Fifth, the Trump Administration’s disproportionate confrontation or measured cooperation with China should not outshine or overshadow Washington’s policy towards this region. Last but not least, Trump’s immigration policy should in no way hamper the interests of the Indian-American community. A series of attacks on the Indian-Americans in the US threatens to weaken the very constituency that has become a social bridge linking peoples of both the countries. 

It must be noted that the above menu of issues is for both the US Administration and Indian policymakers to work on to manage the difficult political and bureaucratic transition in Washington and ensure that the India-US strategic relationship does not get negatively impacted.

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