President Donald Trump has actually proven to be capable in many areas. The potentially transformational India policy highlights the sharp strategic thinking he portends.
His substantial outreach to India will help to balance China and create a new engine of economic growth in the newly christened Indo-Pacific, reassuring many nations unnerved by Beijing’s autocratic instincts and hegemonic impulses. India is the best possible counter to this.
The fact is the 21st century will be dominated by the trio of China, India and the United States. They are projected to be the three largest economies by the 2030’s by both nominal and purchasing power parity (PPP) GDP. China’s rise to become the world’s largest economy has actually created acute discomfort across much of the rest of the world. The reason for this: it’s unreasonable and provocative behaviour, with territorial claims against nearly all of its neighbours. Furthermore China has a history of backing its claims against neighbours with force. Only recently it ended in a tense border stand-off with India, underlining how it continues to cause tension.
Balancing China is proving increasingly challenging for the US, weighed down as it is by deficits, debt and a long global struggle against militant Islamism. Beijing is dictatorial with a terrible human rights record. However it’s economy is booming, and military fast modernising. The old allies of the US such as France, Germany and the UK by contrast face their own obstacles including shrinking and ageing populations- barring Britain which will be grappling with Brexit for the foreseeable future. In any case, they are geographically far removed from the emerging Chinese threat. By contrast India is young dynamic and fast growing, and it shares a long, unsettled border with China. Delhi’s cumbersome defence acquisitions system also means the Indian military is often well trained yet under-equipped. This is one of many challenges the US can help India to solve.
Greater security collaboration with India is something that both Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State and Defence Secretary Mattis have put on the anvil. In stark contrast to the past, the US appears to be ready to part with advanced defence technology including drones, aircraft carrier technology and fighter jets. This will boost the Indian military’s ability to counter Chinese deployments in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. As well as to develop a formidable presence in East Asia in the near future. This defence collaboration will give China pause for thought, lighten the strategic burden on the US and enable Delhi to build comprehensive partnerships with like-minded powers such as Japan and perhaps Australia.
The possibility the US could also sell India armed drones (for which the two powers are in negotiations) is especially poignant. It underlines the dramatic change in Washington’s policy, from trying to ensure a balance of power between India and Pakistan to actively leaning toward India. This reflects intense frustration with Pakistan’s ties with terrorism in Washington as well as implicit recognition of the fact India’s economy is 10 times that of Pakistan. Delhi has leverage and if it uses that leverage skilfully, it could gain significant counter-terror capability as well as actively co-operating with America to cajole and compel Pakistan to stop support for terrorism.
Enhanced India-US co-operation therefore has multiple benefits. It balances China in the Indian Ocean and South/Central Asia. It will also help set the context for further Asian consolidation against China, possibly in the form of a US-India-Japan-Australia ‘quad’ together with smaller Asian neighbours. Lastly it will strongly enhance global counter-terrorism by combining high tech US assets with the intuitive Indian understanding of terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Trump has begun to distinguish himself from his predecessors by unambiguously backing India. While the US has wooed India with positive rhetoric before, this Administration has actually begun to do much of what India wanted. From the provision of advanced military technology to contrasting the different approaches of China and India as they rise. This Administration can make a great contribution to global security and stability by walking the talk with India. American strategy in the 21st century starts with engaging Delhi.