It is easy to get carried away by the expansive optics surrounding US President Donald Trump’s visit to India and miss its strategic significance. Many Indian and US political observers see the visit as a part of Trump’s campaign to retain the White House in the November elections and Delhi’s willingness to extend support. They also see it as a continuation of the “Howdy Modi” rally last September in Houston and the PM’s virtual if controversial endorsement of the US President’s re-election bid. If Trump would welcome votes and financial contributions from the weighty Indian-American community that has traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party, Modi too could benefit from the president’s visit at a time when there is growing international criticism of his domestic policies in the second term — from the constitutional changes in J&K to the Citizenship Amendment Act.
But the India-US relationship is larger than the immediate personal interests of both Trump and Modi. There are two important issues in play during Trump’s visit to India — trade and security. The trade relationship has been under high stress ever since Trump came into office in January 2017; Delhi was slow in reading his deeply held opposition to “free trade” and has struggled to construct a new framework for commercial ties. At the bottom of it is Delhi’s lack of a strategy to deal with the upheaval in the global trading order triggered by Trump.
In contrast to trade, there has been a growing convergence of interests on securing the Indo-Pacific. Although India’s arms purchases from the US continue to draw headlines it is the deepening engagement — ranging from military intelligence sharing to inter-operability of forces — between the two defence establishments that may be of long-term political consequence for the balance of power in Asia and its waters. The shared interests in the Indo-Pacific, however, have not necessarily translated into the Greater Middle East — especially in the Af-Pak region and the Gulf. Trump has promised his core domestic supporters to end the “forever wars” in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As he prepares for a major American retrenchment from the volatile regions to the west of India, Trump would like India to take larger security responsibilities in both Afghanistan and the Gulf. Notwithstanding its declared strategic ambition, Delhi does not look ready. The foreign policy establishments in the US, China and elsewhere in the world, have made the mistake of underestimating Trump as a leader and his sweeping agenda for restructuring the global economic and political order. South Block has every reason to do better than that. Trump’s radical policies have presented India many challenges that Delhi must address and many opportunities it must seize.
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