Trump’s visit to India has been a considerable success, in spite of the ghastly engineered riots in Delhi which overshadowed it. The transformation of the Indian military which Trump is contributing to will have a significant strategic impact on the Indo-Pacific and the world.
It is a moment of great churn in geopolitics. The Chinese economy – and global economy more broadly- is reeling from the impact of the dreaded coronavirus. The impact of that emerging potential pandemic on the Chinese political system may well turn out to be considerable. Even so, international moves to balance China are now afoot, in the face of perceived Chinese aggressive designs on East Asia. It is democratic, fast growing India which is at the heart of the plans to counter China. It is against this backdrop, and the looming American withdrawal from Afghanistan, that Narendra Modi’s India takes centre stage.
Firstly, a word about Western media hostility to Modi. The media in the West, while hitherto robust and energetic in holding their governments to account, have begun to show signs of being in tow to vested elite interests, many of them long hostile to India. They despise Modi, which is perhaps unsurprising given that he represents a tectonic shift in global power. The determination to pin the unfortunate Delhi riots on Modi and claim they were a pogrom, as sections of the Western media tried to do this week, is bizarre in the face of mounting evidence that this was a riot that hurt both communities involved. Sections of both communities suffered losses and the Indian Home Ministry brought the rioting under control in two days. The resentment about India’s rise shows. In any case, the protests were clearly ideological in nature; they were never really about opposing the poorly named Citizenship Amendment Act (poorly named because the Act simply speeds up the process of giving Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian asylum seekers in India, who are seeking to escape Pakistani persecution. It has nothing to do with Indian citizens).
Back on topic, the reality of a changed world is clear in the constant US moves to reach out to India, starting with President George W Bush in 2006, through to the Obama Administration and now Trump. Washington needs Delhi more than Delhi needs it. To spark global economic growth, balance China and shift global growth away from China. Not to mention the strategically important role of fighting terrorism. It is indeed with balance China and combating terrorism in mind that the mercurial and unpredictable Trump arrived in Ahmedabad on the 24th February.
Having hundreds of thousands of people listen to Trump’s speech was excellent psychology on Modi’s part, appealing to Trump’s ego and need to be appreciated. This is important because personal chemistry counts in international relations. Trump now has a very good impression of India and as a sitting US President will be more amenable to accommodating Indian interests. It used to be the case that American Presidents visited once in a generation. Now it is probable that they will visit once every term, such is India’s geo-economic and geopolitical importance.
What did India and the US gain out of this visit? Not a trade deal, not yet anyway, although one is under negotiation. Perhaps the biggest gains were for the major American aerospace companies such as Boeing and Raytheon, who got to sell over $3bn in weapons to India. Arms exports are seldom purely commercial. There is always a geopolitical angle to them. In this case, balancing China and punishing Pakistan for its support of terrorism. The US has now confirmed the sale of MH-60R anti-submarine warfare helicopters and Apache attack helicopters to the Indian military.
These can be used effectively to curtail Chinese shipping and submarine activity in the Indian Ocean, and launch attacks on enemy armour concentrations on land respectively, co-ordinating with other Indian aviation assets to lethal effect. This is not good for China’s strategic position in Tibet and the Indian Ocean region. Significantly, President Trump confirmed that a deal for armed and drones is close in his Ahmedabad speech. These drones will have a significant psychological and physical impact on terrorists situated anywhere near Indian borders when experience Indian drone strikes.
The US military has of course used such drones to devastating effect against terrorists around the world. It is notable that Trump has deepened the engagement with India, pumping ever more combat power into India’s military, since the Modi government made the part of Kashmir that it holds an official part of India on August 5 2019. Given the important maxim that what governments do is more important than what they say, this is significant. The US is supporting India’s moves in Kashmir, possibly in exchange for support in leaving Afghanistan.
The US drawdown from Afghanistan is another key reason for the Trump administration to engage India. Delhi has the manpower, but not the logistics needed to stabilise Afghanistan post the NATO withdrawal. Co-operating with the Americans to secure its interests makes great sense for New Delhi. India can maintain a continued close working relationship with the Afghan governments and the US to mitigate the impact of the Taliban (which remains allied to al-Qaeda) returning to power in much of Afghanistan. Given American moves to up-gun and arm India’s military, it is likely that the US will provide diplomatic support to India to reduce terrorism emanating from Pakistan, Afghanistan’s meddling neighbour.
Trump’s visit to India is strategically very significant. $3bn in arms sales herald a major US tilt toward India, as Delhi emerges as the key global pivot in the Indo-Pacific. These US weapons also indicate the start of a major capability for the Indian military to respond robustly and effectively to terrorist attacks supported by Pakistan and China. Asia will change for the better, under the aegis of an American empowered India.