India and the United States in the Trump era: Re-evaluating bilateral and global relations

As Trump-Modi Summit is planned for June 26th, the bilateral relations between India, the largest democracy and US, the most powerful nation on earth has come under scrutiny. The Donald Trump’s election at a time of growing and converging interests between India and the United States necessitates a re-evaluation of several aspects of Indian domestic and foreign policy, wrote Dhruva Jaishankar, a political analyst and foreign policy fellow at Brooking New Delhi. He has identified four areas in which Trump’s election affects Indian interests: bilateral relations (encompassing trade, investment, immigration, and technological cooperation), the Asian balance of power, counterterrorism, and global governance.

Marshall M. Bouton, senior fellow for India with the Asia Society Policy Institute, says all variables point to the Trump administration “seizing the opportunity decisively” to strengthen ties with India on shared interests vis-a-vis China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the economic front. In a recent paper entitled “The Trump Administration’s India Opportunity” he argues both President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi  are “highly nationalist and pro-business” with their ‘India First’ and ‘America First’ slogans. They consider themselves dealmakers. Couple that with bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for a strong relationship with India, and you have a recipe for success at the bilateral talks scheduled for June 26.

The meeting between Modi and Trump has been described as a get-acquainted meeting and a personal one, an aspect important to both men. Trump puts a great deal of importance to how he is seen and treated,” she said. The two leaders see themselves as having certain similarities – being outsiders to the traditional political power system; being sneered at by many political observers; yet managing to win. Nevertheless, Modi has traveled around the world and established personal relations, even with a person as different from him as former President Barack Obama, which is not yet an opportunity Trump has grasped, if anything, to the contrary

Jaishankar argues that India needs to continue to engage with the Trump administration and other stakeholders in the United States—including the U.S. Congress, state governments, and the private sector—in all of these areas. New Delhi must attempt to convince Washington that India’s rise is in American interest. This idea provided the underlying logic behind the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations’ engagement with India, but it will be more difficult to sustain given the United States’ new political realities and impulses.

According to him, India must insure against the prospect of a more “normal” America, an imbalance of power in the Asia-Pacific, divergent counterterrorism priorities, and a relative vacuum in global governance. While in many instances U.S. power cannot be fully replaced or replicated, India will have little choice but to invest in relationships with other countries to achieve its desired outcomes, while more forcefully projecting its own influence and leadership. This will mean deepening bilateral economic, social, and technological relations with the likes of Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia, as well as smaller powers such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Canada, and Australia, especially in areas where they boast comparative advantages.

Jaishankar also notes that New Delhi must double down on its “Act East” policy in order to preserve a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. This will mean enhancing its military capabilities, deepening its Indo-Pacific security partnerships, assuming greater regional leadership, developing eastward connectivity, and participating more actively in Asian institutions, even while continuing to seek opportunities for sustainable economic and commercial cooperation with China. On counterterrorism, India will have to convince the United States to adopt policies that compel the Pakistani state to stop its support and tolerance for terrorist groups. India must also consider the possibility of contributing more in military terms to support the Afghan government in Kabul. Finally, without harboring unrealistic expectations, India must continue efforts to advance its entry into apex institutions of global governance, in order to position itself to play the role of a leading power.

However, experts acknowledge the lack of India expertise in the Trump administration which to-date has not named an ambassador to India, leave alone an assistant secretary of state for South Asia to replace Nisha Desai Biswal, who stepped down when President Trump was elected.

“Clearly they don’t know each other and the major purpose is to develop a personal relationship,” said Walter Andersen, director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, D.C. in the first one-on-one meeting at the White House. Plus of course, reviewing important issues, he added.

Trump and Modi are showmen who go with the gut. and both are expecting a good relationship. Andersen even speculated that in the few days left for the June 26 meeting, Trump would appoint an ambassador or even an assistant secretary of state for South Asia. Bouton sees a convergence of U.S. and Indian security interests in his perceived similarities between the two leaders, qualities that have potential benefits for both nations. “President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both highly nationalist and pro-business in their orientation, are likely to find common ground,” Bouton says. Especially as each prides himself as a dealmaker, and somewhat of a rebel within their party folds. Add to all these, the bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, for strong U.S.-India ties.

Bouton urges in his May essay that Trump first of all, develop a common strategic view of the U.S.-India relationship, especially as it relates to shared interests in China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; then make India a clear strategic and diplomatic priority; demonstrate American commitment to India’s expanding role in Asia; develop new avenues for U.S.-India cooperation on defense and security; and lastly, manage economic relations, especially on trade and immigration issues, positively while looking for ways to expand ties.

A Brookings Institution paper published this month authored by Dhruv Jaishankar, urges Modi to continue to engage with Washington, even if it is more difficult in a Trump administration, in the areas of trade, investment, immigration, technological cooperation, the Asian balance of power, counterterrorism, and global governance.

India is in a good place with the U.S. as the bilateral takes place, analysts say. Despite the political divide in the country, members of the Indian-American community on both sides of the divide hope for and expect a positive outcome to the first meeting between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their overarching concern however, is the status of H-1B visa holders and future applicants, who they say make up a significant part of the Indian-American community and are invaluable to the American economy and brain trust in the 21st century.

“I have conservative expectations from the meeting – not too high and not too low,” said Shekhar Tiwari, a Washington, D.C.-based businessman, supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party, founder of the U.S-India Security Council and the American Hindu Coalition.

Mahinder Tak, a leading Indian-American Democratic political activist and fundraiser in Greater Washington, D.C., however, was very upbeat about the upcoming bilateral. “I am very happy about the meeting. It is critical. President Trump must respect India as the largest democracy,” she said. “I hope Prime Minister Modi will ask about H-1B visa regulations. We need technology experts and India has such bright young people who can contribute to this economy,”  Tak said.

Ohio’s only Indian-American state representative Niraj Antani, a millennial, told News India Times via a text statement that he expected a “productive and great meeting between the leaders of the two most important democracies in the world. I am confident President Trump and PM Modi will strengthen the relationship between the United States and India,” Antani said.

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