Dr Rupakjyoti Borah, NESA Alumnus and an Associate Professor at Sharda University, India.
The United States and India are the world’s two largest democracies. While both of them have many things in common, they drifted apart for many years during the latter half of the 20th century.
Relations nosedived following India’s nuclear tests in 1998, but a diplomatic breakthrough took place in 2000 following then President Clinton’s visit to India. Since then, relations have been on an upward curve. The two countries signed a landmark civilian nuclear deal during under former President George W Bush and then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in October 2008. Under Narendra Modi, who took over as Prime Minister in May 2014 (for his first term), relations have further improved. Former President Barack Obama was the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day (which showcases India’s military might and cultural diversity) celebrations in 2015.
President Donald Trump took a highly successful trip to India in February of this year. During the trip, Prime Minister Modi and President Trump took part in a massive public rally which was attended by nearly 125,000 people in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, which happens to be the home state of PM Narendra Modi. This visit also led to several other agreements being signed between the two countries. The Joint Statement released on this occasion notes that “President Trump and Prime Minister Modi vowed to strengthen a United States-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, anchored in mutual trust, shared interests, goodwill, and robust engagement of their citizens.”
So, what is the motivation for better relations between India and the United States?
To answer this question, a host of factors should be examined.
First, the ongoing flux in the Indo-Pacific is one of the major factors bringing the two countries closer. The two countries have shared interests in the global sweepstakes. China’s growing power projection capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region and the Trump Administration’s “America First” approach has seen Washington scout for an increasing number of partners in the region, who share common objectives and a democratic India fits the bill perfectly.
The renaming of the former PACOM (Pacific Command) as Indo-Pacific Command by the US military is an indication of things to come. Besides, the US, India and Japan are among the few major countries which have not joined the China-led BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). Along with Australia, they are also members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which was resuscitated in Manila, on the side-lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila in November 2017.
Second, Sino-Indian relations have gone through a rough phase in recent years, especially in the wake of the Doklam crisis in 2017. The Doklam crisis happened when Indian and Chinese troops clashed in Bhutan when Chinese troops had started constructing a road in the Doklam region of Bhutan. However, the two countries were able to come to a satisfactory resolution. This ultimately led to the Wuhan informal summit between the two countries which has started another pattern of great power relations between India and China. However, tensions remain and New Delhi has also been concerned by China’s growing influence in the maritime realm in its neighborhood.
Third, India is one of the biggest arms importers in the world and this is a fact that is not lost on American arms manufacturers. India and the US have signed an agreement known as the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), which will allow Indian and US troops to use designated military facilities in both countries on a reciprocal basis. This represents a significant shift in Indian foreign policy from earlier times when the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia, were the main sources of military hardware for the Indian defence forces. On the other hand, Indian defence imports from the US have grown by leaps and bounds and stood at around $18 billion last year.
Fourth, the US has become a net energy supplier and hence is critical for India’s energy security. New Delhi, as a growing economy, needs an increasing amount of energy resources and the US could well become a major supplier of India’s energy requirements in the years ahead. In addition, the Indian Diaspora has played a key role in bringing the two countries closer. This was evident during the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston in the US in September last year, which was attended by PM Modi, President Trump and a rapturous crowd of mostly Indian-Americans.
Fifth, the two countries also have a common interest in the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan. India is one of the major international donors in Afghanistan and has been one of the key backers of the Afghan government in the years following the uprooting of the Taliban regime. In addition, there is a lot of potential for India and the US to collaborate with third countries like Japan in the Indo-Pacific. One of the biggest developments in India’s bilateral ties has been its developing ties with Japan, another fellow democracy. This has also been helped by the personal bonhomie between the two Prime Ministers, PM Modi in India and PM Abe in Japan, which has only grown over the years.
Sixth, PM Modi has put forward a “Neighborhood First” initiative which aims to improve India’s ties with countries in its immediate neighborhood. One of the biggest developments has been in India’s ties with Bangladesh where the disputed border has been settled. In addition, India had also reached out to Nepal after the devastating earthquake in that country in 2015. PM Modi’s first visit to any foreign country during his first term was to Bhutan which showed the importance placed on the neighbourhood by the Modi government. The US has an important stake in South Asia, where India is a leading actor.
WHY IS INDIA MOVING TOWARDS MULTI-ALIGNMENT?
India’s foreign policy has always been tasked with securing its frontiers and ensuring its economic development. To that end, the country’s founding fathers pursued a non-aligned foreign policy, which meant that the country was equidistant from both Cold War power bloc –one led by the Soviet Union and the other by the United States. However, since 2014, when PM Modi took over the reins of power, there has been a subtle shift in Indian foreign policy from non-alignment to multi-alignment, especially as could be seen in India’s relations with the major powers like the US, France and China.
Why is this so?
First, the nature of challenges and opportunities in the world has changed. New Delhi has a growing stake in various international developments and hence it needs to cooperate with a host of international actors. This subtle shift can also be seen in its defense purchases from countries like the US, France and Israel.
Second, India’s size and population allow it a greater degree of latitude in international affairs compared to many other nations. In addition, India has a young population and is now enjoying the benefits of a demographic dividend. PM Modi has also laid particular stress on expanding India’s maritime footprint in the neighborhood, through what is known as the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative.
All these initiatives from the Indian side are actually bringing India and the US closer since they share a common interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
THE FUTURE OF INDIA-US TIES
Though the relations between India and the US are improving, there are quite a few issues that need to be ironed out in the times ahead.
First, the issue of India’s military ties with Russia, which remains the pre-eminent source of weaponry for India. Although India has been reducing its reliance on Russian arms imports, there is still some way to go. Then there is the issue of India’s inking of an order for the Russian S-400 missile systems, which may upset the growing bonhomie between India and the US in the realm of defence.
Second, another issue that may rile the growth of India-US ties is that of Indian investments in the Chabahar port in Iran, which is important for India as Pakistan has not given overland transit rights for Indian goods to Afghanistan. However, in the light of the US-imposed sanctions on Iran, it may become an irritant in India-US ties going forward.
Third, there is also the issue of trade. India enjoys a trade surplus with the US and this issue has also been flagged by US President Donald Trump. Last year, the US-India bilateral trade stood at approximately US$ 87.95 billion, but the American side seems to be unhappy about the trade surplus enjoyed by India.
That said, the areas of convergence in India-US ties far outweigh the areas of divergence. It can be safely said that the prospects for the future of Indo-US ties are extremely bright in the years to come. The two countries will, however, need to agree to disagree on some issues and therein lies the trick.
Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is an Associate Professor at Sharda University, India. He has been a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge (U.K), the Japan Institute of International Affairs (Japan) and the Australian National University (ANU). His books include The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India and Act-East via the Northeast. The views expressed are personal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org