Indo-US relationship made great strides in 2017, with President Donald Trump keeping his electoral promise of being the “best friend of India” inside the White House. India was the only country for which the Trump administration came out with a 100-year plan; an honour not accorded to even America’s top allies. Not only Trump administration rechristened the Asia Pacific region as Indo-Pacific, much to the anxiety of China, giving a greater role and space for New Delhi in the entire region, but also for the first time the United States stated in clear terms that India is a key player in Afghanistan.
As Trump announced his South Asia Policy – giving India a key role in bringing peace in the war-torn nation – in August, for the first time a US president aligned himself with New Delhi’s position that terrorism emanates from Pakistan. While many critics would say that it still remains in the realms of rhetoric, top officials of the Trump administration assert that it would be a “big mistake” on the part of Pakistan if it did not take seriously the words of Trump.
President Trump recently released his first National Security Strategy, which described India as a “leading global power” and stressed on deepening US’ strategic partnership with New Delhi and support its leadership role in maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific region. “2017 has been an important year for the US-India relationship,” Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asia Tom Vajda told PTI.
“United by our common interests and goals, our bilateral relationship in 2017 focused on what we can do together to promote peace and security throughout the world, particularly in the Indo-Pacific; combat terrorist threats; strengthen our defence and security ties; increase free and reciprocal trade; and build out energy linkages,” he said.
As President Trump said during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, “the relationship between India and the United States has never been stronger, has never been better,” the top State Department official said.
It is also for the first time that the US has aligned itself with India’s position on One Belt One Road of China. Before heading for India, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his India-policy speech sketched out the administration’s policy on OBOR, on the lines of that of India and reiterated New Delhi’s argument that there is need to come out with an alternative to Chinese model of predatory financing to countries which eats into their sovereignty.
Not only this, led by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, the entire administration raised the sovereignty issue of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which pases through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. While the ground work of the relationship was being laid by officials on both sides – in particular Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit K Doval – in the first six months of the year, when they held multiple visits or hosted senior White House officials, it is the meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Trump at the White House on June 26, which is said to be a landmark and a turning point in the bilateral relationship this year.
The joint statement issued laid out the broader parameters of the relationship. Modi and Trump have met twice this year and have spoken over phone multiple times.
The two have developed strong friendship and are working together to take the relationship to a new height that would not only benefit India and the US but also the entire world.
Modi’s visit was quickly followed by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Tillerson travelling to India. Trump’s daughter and presidential advisor Ivanka Trump led the US delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad that was co-hosted by India and the US. “We were incredibly proud to co-host the very successful Global Entrepreneurship Summit with India in November,” Vajda said.
“Our militaries once again showed their ability to operate together with the MALABAR naval exercise off the coast of Chennai, and our two armies came together in Washington State for the Yudh Abhyas exercise to hone their skills in counter terrorism and counter insurgency operations,” he said.
“Our economic relationship continues to grow, led by sales in US civil aviation, military equipment, and, for the first time, crude oil as we seek to expand and balance our trade relationship,” Vajda added.
Trump also appointed a veteran India hand, Kenneth Juster, as the new US Ambassador to New Delhi this November. “We look forward to continuing to grow our partnership in 2018,” Vajda said.
At a time when both the Republicans and Democrats are rarely having any meeting ground including foreign policy, India-US relationship emerged as one of the rare of the rarest meeting ground between a Republican White House and the opposition Democratic party. “I think this year proved that the US/India partnership is a bipartisan priority,” former US Ambassador to India Richard Verma told PTI.
“This relationship has not only weathered the storm of global uncertainty, it has proven to be a great stabiliser as well,” said Verma, the first Indian-American envoy to India.
Nisha Desai Biswal, Obama administration’s point person for South and Central Asia, echoed the same. “While 2017 has been a very dynamic year in the US on the political front, there has been remarkable stability on the US-India partnership, a continuing priority for the United States in the Trump administration,” Biswal told PTI.
She said the Trump administration has also framed the strategic importance of US-India partnership across the Indo-Pacific in very bold and unequivocal terms. Now president of US-India Business Council (USIBC), Biswal said this bodes well for greater growth in defence collaboration.
As President of USIBC, Biswal said she is also focused on the state of overall bilateral trade and the commercial ties. “We are optimistic that the way forward will see fewer hurdles and an easier path for much needed investment,” Biswal said.
As is the case with all bilateral ties, there are a couple of issues that the two sides need to work on to resolve their differences. Prominent among them is the issue of the H-1B visas, which attracts foreign specialised workers to come to the US for employment, many of them from India and China.
The Modi Government has strongly taken up the issue with the Trump administration. Similarly, India has refused to succumb to any pressure when it comes to the interest of its own people. This was quite evident in the recently concluded WTO talks.
The US has expressed its disappointment over India’s position on several issues being talked about at the WTO. The first half of new year is expected to see a flurry of activities between the two countries.
The two-plus-two dialogue which was announced during Modi-Trump meeting is expected to be held before spring as officials from the two sides are trying to find a common date. Officials are also looking at a possibility of Trump travelling to India sometime in 2018.