Our rapidly improving relations with the United States, seen in ample measure once again in the ongoing India visit of President Donald Trump and family, has a defining geopolitical history going back some decades. Republican President Richard Nixon, who had tilted firmly towards Pakistan in view of India’s closeness to the Soviet Union; opened the doors to Chairman Mao’s China in 1972. Nixon travelled quietly to Beijing, then usually called Peking. He stayed seven days, visiting three Chinese cities. Nixon was the very first American president to visit China after 25 years of no relations at all between the two countries. It changed the geopolitics of the Cold War and not just that of South Asia and the Far East. It had a profound effect on the USSR and all its Communist allies behind the “Iron Curtain”, in due course. Nixon himself called it “the week that changed the world”.
America had pitted, it became clear over time, one communist power, at the time only a populous developing country struggling with its economy, against the Soviet Empire, as well as its wider sphere of influence that included India. Over thirty years from the 1980s, China grew into the second biggest economy in the world. And this was largely on the back of Chinese exports to the US and its NATO-allied countries.
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, during the term of another Republican President, Ronald Reagan. And then the USSR, unable to keep up with the Americans in the so-called Star Wars arms race, also disintegrated.
The great security embrace of India in 2020 by President Trump is the start of another “great leap forward”. It is predicated on top of initiatives taken by Republican predecessor George W Bush who legitimised India as a responsible nuclear power and arranged for it to import Nuclear Power Reactors. Both President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the relationship has been raised to a Comprehensive Global Partnership. In addition to the $ 3 billion in defence sales, a new high in energy cooperation worth $ 2 billion was announced. Other items announced include women’s entrepreneurship, cooperation on mental health issues, drug trafficking, and other medical drugs.
While relations have also warmed under various geopolitical pressures, during the recent tenures of Democrat presidents Clinton and Obama, no major breakthroughs can be pointed out. However, a tendency to lecture India in liberal values is more of a Democrat hallmark.
In the 1960s however, Democrat President John Kennedy helped India from being overrun by China in 1962, and with India’s chronic food shortages of the early years. President Bill Clinton in his time forced Pakistan to pull back from the Kargil heights, even as he had imposed sanctions on India for going overtly nuclear.
President Trump’s latest initiative comes on top of three enabling security cooperation related agreements between the two countries. These were necessary because India was historically excluded as part of the Soviet alliance and debarred from sensitive military and technology cooperation.
Now, after several corrections to reflect the current day, the floodgates have been opened for sensitive high-tech and military equipment and intelligence sharing. These include armed missile-firing drones and the attendant satellite support and software, state-of-the-art attack helicopters, and advanced missile shields.
The documents signed during the visit of President Trump this time will account for a purchase of approximately $ 3 billion in armaments by India. The American high-tech missile shield on offer is despite its purchase of the latest missile shield from Russia over US objections and disapproval.
There are possibilities of increasing items in future that can be Made in India to run with the desired Indian policy in this regard. The joint briefing spoke in terms of becoming part of each other’s value chains.
By tightening this security embrace, the signal has been sent out to the world via President Trump ’s exclusive two-day visit to India. America now stands solidly behind India is probably the message. This is partial because America seeks to maintain its own pre-eminence as the world’s number one global power. This beneficial security cooperation with India is seen to help in this regard. On its part, if India is to be a bulwark in South Asia while ensuring its own defence, it must ramp up both its military and economic capabilities. It is, as many have pointed out a transactional relationship but as of now, a healthy one.
There is an obvious convergence of geopolitical objectives between the two countries. One also felt by several other countries in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. It is to contain the predatory and hegemonistic impulses of a resurgent China. The other is the desire of both countries to contain and roll-back the depredations of radical Islam generally, and Pakistan sponsored terrorism in particular.
A major trade agreement, referred to several times during this Trump visit, will have to wait till after the US presidential elections in November 2020, which President Trump expects to win. India has a positive balance of trade today. And America is now India’s largest trading partner.
A wide-ranging Indo-US bilateral trade agreement could be a major modernising impulse for India. It could also benefit the consumer with a wide array of choices at reasonable prices on items such as pork and dairy items. Even the iconic Harley Davidson motorcycles, currently taxed quite heavily with import and customs duties, may become more affordable. This, even as there are plans to make smaller-engined Harley-Davidson motorcycles in India to develop a mass-market here.
The crowds, pageantry, hospitality and warmth experienced by the American visitors in the president’s delegation which include senior officials, members of the president’s family and business chiefs, will go some way to hasten things along on the trade and industry front. So far, the international coverage of this visit has been uniformly positive.
In a sense, India, mostly on the fringes of American foreign policy over the years, has been ushered into a more central role. This suggests that the stature of India in official American eyes has gained considerable ground. The Indian diaspora in the US has also gained much influence.
The knock-on effect of this unambiguous endorsement from America will result in greater dynamism in relations with America’s NATO allies and those who take their lead from them.
It will also weaken Chinese opposition to including India in global fora, and efforts to seek a constant equivalence with its ally Pakistan. India’s own bilateral relationship with China has improved even as the wariness and rivalry exist alongside.
To some extent, the attitude of China has already changed. This is illustrated in its recent position at the FATF that endorsed Pakistan to remain in the grey list till it does more against terrorist financing and related activities.
It is unclear as yet, besides joint military manoeuvres by air, sea and land, with America and others, such as China itself, others in the Asia-Pacific and Australia, whether India will take on a more global role. India has never hesitated to send military personnel for UN Peacekeeping Missions. But will it agree to take on a more active role for the regional security concerns?
India may well begin to acknowledge its expanding role with logistic, surveillance, monitoring, intelligence and other infrastructural support in places beyond our borders. This may be necessary as the quid pro quo for increasing American support. However, it remains to be seen how this aspect progresses, probably more slowly than America may want.
India has made it clear that it will pursue a ‘nation first’ policy and trust itself to active bilateralism in each instance. America too may have taken a page from the same book of late. So, nothing here suggests that the new security embrace is overtly aimed at any third party. However, it does cramp the room for any power to move with inimical ambitions.