The Trump administration’s strategic statement follows up on its vision of India as a partner of the United States. In the last six months the Trump administration has laid out the contours of how they visualize India in the global arena, both the big picture issues as well as the minutiae. How the United States views India in the global arena, what role India can play in helping stabilize Afghanistan, what role Washington would like India to play in the Indo-Pacific and in South Asia.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with President Donald Trump in June 2017, on his fifth trip to the United States since becoming premier in 2014, the President referred to India as a “true friend” that are working together to face common threats and challenges. The joint statement released spoke of the need to “expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives.” This meeting demonstrated that irrespective of change of administrations in either country, the two sides viewed each other as natural partners.
Two months later in a speech outlining his administration’s broad strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia, President Trump referred to India as “a key security and economic partner” with whom the United States “shared objectives for peace and security.” The American President also broke from tradition and asked India to do more in the “area of economic assistance and development” in Afghanistan. Thus after years of not seeking an Indian presence, primarily out of fear of Pakistan’s reaction, and often asking India to keep a low profile in Afghanistan, Washington came full circle asking New Delhi to play a deeper role.
On his first trip to India as Secretary of Defense in September 2017, General James Mattis, spoke of the need to elevate the relationship, enhance strategic cooperation in Afghanistan and building a resilient regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific.
One month later in a speech titled “Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that close ties with India would be an American priority for the next one hundred years. America’s top diplomat reassured India that the United States understood India’s unique potential. From being ‘estranged’ democracies during the Cold War, India and the US today were in the words of Mr. Tillerson the “two bookends of stability - on either side of the globe - standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.”
Starting from the meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi successive high ranking American officials have thus made the argument that India is a reliable and strategic partner for the United States. The latest National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017 is a continuation of this policy.
The strategy talks about India both in the context of the Indo-Pacific as well as South and Central Asia, both priority areas for this administration. India is referred to as a “leading global power” and strong “strategic and defense partner” with whom the United States will “expand our defense and security cooperation with India.”
The policy towards South Asia focuses on American priorities but gives India a key role and addresses Indian concerns. By stating that the US seeks “an American presence in the region proportionate to threats to the homeland and our allies” it hopes to assuage Indian concerns about Afghanistan’s stability. Similarly, that one of the priority actions will be to “insist that Pakistan take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil” and “prevent cross-border terrorism” again is something that will gladden New Delhi.
The rise of China, economically and militarily, is of key concern both to the United States and India. For decades New Delhi took a complacent or reactive approach to what happened in its immediate neighborhood. It is only in recent years with the rise of China and its inroads into South Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that India has understood that managing a sphere of influence is not simply telling others what to do but being able to expend resources to deny space to competitors.
The NSS 2017 states that the U.S. will encourage “the economic integration of Central and South Asia” as well as “encourage India to increase its economic assistance in the region.” This will achieve the goal of assisting South Asian nations to “maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region.”
Both Washington and New Delhi view the other as strategic and economic partners and have spoken of common interests in the South Asian region and beyond. For the United States that means the Indo-Pacific, for many in India it also includes the Middle East. The NSS 2017 is the culmination of Washington’s desire for India to shed its age-old reticence and act as a closer American strategic partner both in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. While New Delhi would like to play a greater role, and Indians have always viewed India as a future great power, there limits beyond which New Delhi has traditionally been reluctant to go.
What needs to be seen is how will the two sides resolve the key issue of how does the United States deal with a country which is not a military ally and does not need American security guarantees and yet seeks to be a strategic partner and how will India become closer to the United States unless it agrees to create a multi-layer institutional relationship which is something that New Delhi has traditionally avoided.