US Prez Donald Trump’s Visit: Need for Cautious Optimism!


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

President Donald Trump’s visit to India raises hopes to reinforce and strengthen India’s evolving bilateral strategic relationship with the U.S. However, it must be tempered by cautious optimism. Wish lists and great expectations betray lack of knowledge of international affairs.

Donald Trump’s visit needs to be reviewed holistically from all angles of national security and interests of India and the U.S. to include political, diplomatic, social, economic, technology and military affairs; but not myopic-centric to indulge in Modi bashing.

Relations between the U.S. as the Oldest Democracy and India as the largest democracy – natural allies -continue to remain an enigma. Dennis Kux had called India and the U.S. “Estranged Democracies.” In the past, love-hate syndrome haunted relations between the two countries. Now, there is greater understanding of each other’s constraints and opportunities to strengthen relations.

India needs to view holistically to contend with challenges, opportunities, choices and options: U.S. China-Pakistan policy, strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific H1B Visa and green card quotas, tariffs, FDI, removal of India from the list of “Developing Nations”, technology transfer and strategic partnerships what with the last two being critical from people’s point of view. Hopefully, Donald Trump relaxes renewal of H1B rules and Green Card quota!

Donald Trump’s visit is aimed at multiple objectives: to reinforce strategic partnership in all fields; to tilt Indian Diaspora’s in Trumps favor in November elections; and, to promote Ivanka’s interests. He is visiting India following Senates acquittal in the impeachment trial.  He is politically strengthened on the domestic scene and more powerful what with 49% in a Gallup presidential approval poll recently.  He exercises extraordinary control on his own party. As on date, Donald Trump is the front runner to get re-elected as President for the 2nd term.

Ipso facto, Donald Trump likes winning. He tweets and boasts of his prowess. Yet, Donald Trump has lost many battles on the foreign affairs front to include: stalled North Korean nuclear talks; estrangement of NATO allies; partial trade agreement with China; stalemate bordering on reverses in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. So, Trump needs to retrieve “Make America Great Again” image.

At the present stage, Trump views India as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies as an opportunity to exploit to regain credibility in international affairs. Recently, the U.S. has invested in India what with ongoing 2+2 talks to put the U.S.-India strategic partnership in a win-win situation.

During the 2+2 meeting, India has fulfilled a longstanding U.S. wish by signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). COMCASA details the legal framework surrounding the transfer of sensitive U.S. technology. The agreement duly enables encrypted communications between the countries’ militaries on American-made systems, which include the Sea Guardian drone, the M777 ultra light howitzer and the Apache AH-64E attack helicopter. COMCASA aims to promote interoperability between the two militaries, but India’s heavy reliance on Russian weapons systems challenges that aspiration.

Can the Houston’s “Howdy-Modi” bromance further consolidate strategic partnership between the two countries? Surely, Donald Trump objective of his visit is to emerge as statesman by remaining focused on “Make America Great Again”.

In retrospect, the U.S. faces many challenges to its dominant status in international affairs. “Rising China” threatens U.S. interests not only in the Pacific particularly in East and South China Seas, but also in Latin American countries, Africa, the European Union nations, Central, West and South Asia, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and also the Arctic. China’s stakes in Iran and Afghanistan are more complex.  Both Tehran and Kabul remain vital components of Beijing’s BRI strategy.

Even “Resurgent Russia” is attempting to regain its influence not only in Ukraine, but also in West Asia and the Baltics besides developing ‘gas pipelines’ to EU nations. Syria, long closely allied with Iran, is under Russian security umbrella. The U.S. has almost retracted from Syria. Even Turkey, an erstwhile ally of the U.S., is now building its relations with Russia. Russia is, therefore, on the threshold of dominating West Asia.

The Arab-Israeli peace process is making vexatious progress despite bilateral declaration by Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. The U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations are in a dynamic flux.

The clash of interests between Turkey, Iran and the Saudi Arabia for gaining supremacy in West Asia is yet another irritant for the U.S.  Turkey’s fast-improving relations with Russia in recent years have alienated Western allies deepening Turkey’s vulnerabilities. But, Turkey faces dilemma in balancing its relations with Russia and the West.

Even the avowed strategic objective of Islamic militants, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and groomed in fundamentalist universities in Pakistan, to assert their supremacy in the above Islamic region poses a threat in being. After all, Islamic terrorists are bent upon launching terrorist strikes at American targets anywhere in the World.

Following the U.S. pullout from the JCPOA, Iran has been driven closer to China and Russia. Iran remains a thorn in West Asia. China’s stakes in Iran are more complex, but Tehran remains a vital component of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI/OBOR) strategy.

Russia, China, Turkey and Pakistan have good reasons to draw even closer to Iran. Over the long term, the great power competition could challenge the India-Iran relationship in new ways. India may face a distinct disadvantage in the jockeying over Afghanistan.

Not to be left out of consideration is the great power competition over the Afghan conflict. The Taliban now has an upper hand in America’s longest war. Any negotiated settlement is likely to legitimize the Taliban’s hold on power. Ironically, traditionally anti-Taliban Iran has, along with Russia, has become a supporter of the Taliban.

And, North Korea remains intransigent over the denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.

Finally, there are large deposits of natural resources in the Central Asian Republics (CAR) and also Afghanistan. But they lack technology and finances to exploit them. China through its OBOR/BRI initiative has already established itself in the CAR.

In sum, the international and regional geo politics are in extraordinarily dynamic flux. And, the lesson of mankind is clear – “Today’s Enemies can become Tomorrow’s friends; and, vice versa”; and “No Permanent friends; but permanent National Interests”.  Bygone are the days of unipolarity; multi-polarity is the way to maintain stability and peace in international affairs.

India, as “Swing Power or Strategic Pivot” that is “Rising” from its elephantine slumber, offers an opportunity to the U.S. to deter and dominate not only the IOR region, but also the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. can ill afford to see India joining the Asian Strategic Grand Alliance: China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan etc. Caught between the two contending blocs, India cannot but help to adroitly and sagaciously balance its strategic partnerships/alliances with both blocs as at present.

Let me highlight in broad outline the evolution of U.S. security strategic shifts in international affairs as a backdrop to gain a balanced perspective of U.S. strategies for today and tomorrow.

From European colonial consolidation of 18th century, the U.S. moved to anti-colonialism followed by isolationism by the later part of 19th Century. During the World War I, U.S. shed its traditional isolationism posture; but reverted to isolationism soon after the war. During World War 2, the U.S. shed its isolationism posture followed by ‘containment of communism on the door step’ strategy. But, the U.S. shifted to ‘strategic triad’ in early 1970s when the U.S. forged relations with China after Henry Kissinger’s “Ping Pong Diplomacy”.

In the post Cold War scenario in 1990s, the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower and assumed “Global Policemen” role in the name of ensuring its national security interests particularly to safeguard its oil/energy interests in the Gulf region. Furthermore, the U.S. national security objectives and strategy remained focused on consolidation of democracy world over, human rights, counter terrorism, non-proliferation and economic and technological superiority.

During the Cold War period, the Islamic region of Saudi Arabia, Gulf Nations, Iran and Pakistan remained key strategic concerns for the U.S. due to its dependence on oil. Now, the shale gas discovery in the US continent has reduced its dependency on the Middle East/West Asia. However, the U.S. now contends with a far more complex economic situation.  It cannot take markets for granted in other nations. It has to collaborate to remain ahead, but cannot unilaterally dictate terms.

But, the West Asia region remains cockpits of conflicts and in a dynamic flux.  Following the U.S. involvement in long wars – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere – there is grudging realization in the U.S. that it has failed to assert its political hegemonic will even on less powerful nations after inflicting crushing military defeat.

If Donald Trump believes that the U.S. cannot perform the difficult global policemen’s role in perpetuity, he is certainly not wrong. Its focus on myopic Euro-centric security perspective is changing slowly and steadily. Not only Donald Trump is forcefully advocating the principle of ‘sharing of burden of costs’ by all European allies and also Japan and South Korea with a view to reduce its liability.

In retrospect, U.S. with all its ingenuity and initiative, may not also forever police, arbitrate and assure strategic equilibrium in human affairs, peace and stability without eventually falling into the security over extension trap. At the same time, U.S-centric initiatives will continue to govern international affairs in the foreseeable future.  US will stem the tide of opposition to its pre-eminence, expressed as national interests, with all the techno-eco-diplomatic-military might at its behest.

Thus, the subtle shift in U.S. postures is clearly discernible. The U.S. is drifting away from its traditional way of viewing opponents as ‘enemies’ into ‘potential adversaries’, strategic partners and strategic competitors. It is adopting ‘strategic engagement and enlargement’.

Let me broadly review the state of India’s relations with the U.S. since 1947: Love-hate-love relationship. India’s founding fathers never viewed the Americans in adversarial terms. In fact, they drew inspiration from the founding principles of the US. During the Dulles period of 1950s, many diplomatic irritants developed. Up to 1952, both the U.S. and the USSR drubbed India’s foreign policy goals based on peaceful co-existence and non-alignment as ‘international fellow travelling”. When India refused to join the CENTO and the SEATO as part of ‘containment of communism on the door step’ strategy, the U.S. developed antipathy towards India. When Pakistan joined the Western bloc, U.S. gave arms in exchange of base facilities for the American U-2 flights over Russia.

Followed U.S. view of India tilting towards the Eastern Bloc due to India’s postures on the Japanese Peace Treaty, the recognition of China, the Cuban Crisis, Complete Disarmament, Test Ban Treaty, support to the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat and Viet Nam. Yet, not to be brushed aside is the U.S. support in the midst of 1962 war in supplying arms and carrying out Joint Air Forces exercise immediately thereafter and the PL-480 food aid. However, India’s real tilt towards the USSR happened when the U.S. rejected arms supplies on favorable rupee repayment terms in 1963. India had no alternative but to buy arms from USSR on deferred payment schedules.

Ipso facto, the real Indo-U.S. estrangement took place in 1971. First, the U.S. diplomatically aided by Pakistan, befriended China by deft ‘Ping-Pong’ diplomacy. Second, Pakistan Army’s repression in East Pakistan led to exodus of over 10 million of Bengali refugees into India. Yet, the U.S. failed to respond to India’s pleas to restore normalcy. The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship was concluded just before the outbreak of war in 1971 for strategic reasons. Finally, the deployment of the USS Enterprise at the end of the 1971 war attracted considerable public indignation in India.

Next, the estrangement became compounded after the fall of Shah of Iran in 1974. Pakistan emerged as the frontline ally of the U.S.  What Israel was to the U.S. in West Asia, Pakistan was to U.S. in Central and South Asia? The U.S. also considered Pokhran 1 in 1974, and opposition to the CTBT and the FMCT Treaties as intransigence and reverse to its global objectives. Even the outbreak of Afghan crisis, the USSR’s military intervention and the American ‘proxy war’ riposte through Pakistan further embittered relations. In contrast, the U.S. viewed India as hegemonic power and persisted with the “Balance of Power” policy in South Asia.

The “proxy war” in J and K since 1989 became major concern for the U.S. The U.S. postures consistently favored crisis resolution through bi-lateral talks. The U.S. diffused a potential war-like situation in May 1990 by active intervention. The U.S. has considerable sympathy for the people of the Kashmir Valley. But, it has no sympathy for Pakistan’s desire to detach Kashmir from India. The U.S. downplayed its keenness to play a mediator’s role after Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1997. But today Donald Trump has expressed unequivocally to play the ‘mediator’s role’ if both countries agree.

The nuclearization of India and Pakistan after Pokhran 2 in 1998, the holy terrorist consolidation in Pakistan with Osama Bin Laden Al Qaeda-Taliban-ISI nexus and the “Kargil Crisis” brought about a sea change in U.S. postures. However, despite repeated Indian pleas, the U.S. has not brand Pakistan as a ‘terrorist state’. There was growing realization that South Asia cannot remain insulated from the developments of Central and West Asia regions, besides South East Asia. Add to it, the U.S. concern about the Russian initiative to forge “Strategic Triad” with China and India.

Most important is the shifting U.S. relations with China – from strategic partnership to competitor or potential rival status over trade disputes, East and South China Sea, 5G, Taiwan, Japan, Korean Peninsula, human rights and nuclear arms limitation, non-proliferation and CTBT issues. The U.S. can ill afford to abandon China as a strategic partner, particularly after massive financial investments and technological inflows.  At the same time, the U.S. faces the core challenge of China’s economic and military assertiveness and its manifest desire to create a Sino-centric Asian order. After all, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of conflict.

  1. Raja Mohan, an eminent strategic analyst, succinctly recorded his views to include: no indications to suggest US dumping Pakistan in favor of India; American struggle against Islamic fundamentalism is far too complex to be reduced to India-Pakistan terms; and U.S. belief that Pakistan must be saved from India. Also, Muchkund Dubey, a former Foreign Secretary, sums up the imperatives lucidly: “USA needs China and China needs USA. Both do not want Pakistan as a failed state”. So, a radical policy shift by the U.S. appears a fantasy until its Afghan disengagement in a short term context.

The subtle U.S. strategic initiatives in South Asia need to be, therefore, viewed in such dynamic geo political complexity. The U.S. can only have a robust, consistent footprint in the IOR at a great cost. The collapse of ASEAN unity since 2012 has significantly eroded ASEAN centrality in regional security. Rationally, therefore, the U.S. needs to join hands with India and work more closely with countries in the region to develop a security architecture that underpins free and open trade, preserves sovereignty, and designed for the IOR to remain a vital connector of the global economy.

No wonder, the U.S. National Security Strategy describes India as central to U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and an essential component of Indo-Pacific security architecture. In such a complex scenario, the U.S. will play their role best suited to fluid South Asian strategic drama to the mutual benefit of willing collaborators be it be Pakistan or India. If Donald Trump offers a strategic tilt, the opportunity must not be squandered away by India; but still maintain balancing equations with Russia and China.

As on date, India still remains the second largest importer of military hardware accounting for over 9% of global total. Russia accounted for 58% of Indian arms imports in 2014–18, compared with 76% in 2009-13. However, the Russian share in Indian imports is likely to go up sharply as India signed several big-ticket deals recently to include: S-400 air defense systems, four stealth frigates, AK-203 assault rifles, a second nuclear attack submarine on lease, and deals for Kamov-226T utility helicopters, Mi-17 helicopters and short-range air defense systems.

In contrast, U.S. sales are at an all time high to include: P-8s, C-130Js, and C-17s, AH-64s, CH-47s, M777 Howitzers and the U.S. $2.1 billion purchase of MH-60R multi-role Sea-based helicopters besides other systems. But, American weapons exports to India from 2013 to 2017 increased 557 percent over the previous five-year period – currently stand around $18 billion, and could climb substantially in the years ahead from its less than 10% exports.

Strategic analysts must remember that India needs to strengthen its defense partnership with both Russia and the U.S. until final resolution of India-China border dispute.  Thus, India faces hard choices on many fronts: maintaining robust strategic partnership with the U.S. and Russia; maintaining peace and tranquility with China on its borders; and cooperate with Iran on energy and regional security convergence on Afghanistan.  Instead of open differences and rigid postures on such key issues with the Trump administration, Modi will have to offer concessions in other areas like greater imports of U.S. energy, defense and other products.

A key question today is whether the U.S. and India can, or should develop closer ties as a way of countering China’s desire to be the dominant power in the broader Asian region. History shows such a partnership is neither inevitable nor impossible based on shared perceptions of an external threat from China. If New Delhi wants to compensate its military imbalance against China, India must bolster its partnership with the U.S. despite its overarching reliance on Russia for arms and on Iranian oil. Experts must also remember that even Donald Trump would certainly like to use “stronger India card” as a strategic counterweight against China, particularly in the IOR.

So, India faces major foreign policy challenges in consolidating relations with the U.S. Options include: bilateral alliance with the U.S. or Pro U.S; strategic triad alliance with Russia and China (Pro Russia-China) or strategic equidistancing; and strategic multilateralism based on QUAD – informal consultative mechanism comprising the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India quietly opposed to China.

Modi’s political and foreign-policy interests in deepening U.S. ties are clear. Modi values Donald Trump friendship overtures. Yet, Modi led BJP cannot make a swift fundamental shift in the conduct of India’s foreign policy. While he is delicately balancing relations in his geographic neighborhood with China, arms sales with Russia and oil supplies from Iran, Modi sees a bright future with the US. All Modi can attempt is to focus on technology transfers from key U.S. defense suppliers, cyber security, space and civil nuclear energy cooperation and collaboration based on indigenous production (Make in India), permanent seal on the UN Security Council, and facilitate closer people’s relations with relaxation of H1B Visa renewal rules and green card facilitation in return for import of  U.S. liquefied natural gas to bring clean energy to an overly polluted country, and dairy farm products.

Anyway, Modi-bashers, particularly leftist parties, may cry foul over consolidating Indo-U.S strategic partnership/alliance at the cost of time tested Indo-Soviet strategic alliance and also estranging from China and Iran.

Of course, strategic equidistancing is vital for maximizing strategic autonomy. After all, retaining strategic autonomy in international affairs as the “Swing Power” is not so easy in geo strategic flux. Therefore, the U.S. must deal with India accepting India’s foreign policy constraints and compulsions in the present context. So, it is best left to Modi and S Jaishankar (foreign policy professional as Minister – suave and articulate) to project India’s viewpoints to convince Donald Trump and his bandwagon of experts to progressively – step-by-step – build up, reinforce and strengthen strategic partnership based on shared threat perspectives, challenges and opportunities.

On predictable lines, Indian media is already agog with news coverage of forthcoming Donald Trump’s two day visit. Even partisan media outlets would seize the opportunity to raise “Great Expectations” from the visit myopically to subsequently to indulge in Modi-bashing.

To sum up, timing of Donald Trump visit is quite significant. It is also intended to address the Indian Diaspora vote banks in key states like New Jersey, California, Texas and others as ‘true and dependable friend of India and Indians”. Should Donald Trump want majority of Indian Diaspora votes, he needs to resolve the H1B visa renewal and green card quota issues.

Otherwise, Trumps “Mediator Role” offer in the Kashmir issue remains contentious.  QUAD initiative will continue. With Ivanka Trump accompanying her father, FDI investments particularly in Real Estate deals is quite possible as also in other fields. FDI investments are bound to increase what with the “Big Names of Indian Industry” in talks with their counterparts.

Of course, the “Trade Deal” that lent hopes for growth of Indian economy has been kept on hold what with U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer putting off his trip to India. As per media, the U.S. wants India to open up its market for dairy products and chicken.

In India’s interests is to ensure transfer of technology to make advanced jet fighter engines meant for Gen 5 or 6 fighters among other high tech items. Arms deals are on the table that would benefit firms like the Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics Corporation, Northrop Grumman and Safran Group weighing against each other besides Raytheon and others.