Trump in India: Why Now?

Mohamed Fayez Farahat | 26 Feb 2020

Despite the advanced level US-India relations have reached since the end of the Cold War, there is still debate over the timing and motives of President Donald Trump's recent visit to India (February 24-25). The underlining motives may include the U.S. presidential elections race, peace-making efforts in Afghanistan, the growing Chinese challenge and reining in an Indian rush toward Russia.

The India Factor in the U.S. Elections

It is clear that Trump is relentlessly trying to garner as much successes as possible before the presidential elections at the end of this year. Although domestic issues largely determine the outcome of U.S. elections, foreign policy remains of paramount importance, especially in light of the Trump administration's failure to manage some of them, such as North Korea and Middle East issues. Accordingly, strengthening the partnership with India, as one of the important Asian allies, will represent an asset that Trump will add to the liquidation of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Qasim Soleimani. This is in addition to the trade agreement with China signed in mid-January, which obligated China to purchase additional U.S. goods worth $200 billion during 2020/2021, and putting an end to the war in Afghanistan.

The relationship between strengthening the strategic partnership with India on the one hand and the U.S. elections scheduled for next November, 2020 on the other, becomes clearer in light of the growing importance of the Indian lobby’s role in the U.S. and its success in accessing important U.S. political and economic centers. This is in addition to the positive perception of Americans Indians decent compared with other Americans of Asian descent (they are the most educated, and enjoy the highest incomes in the U.S.). Moreover, Indian Americans have succeeded in accessing key U.S. institutions in recent years, foremost of which is membership in both houses of Congress. This is in addition to the strong relationship between the Indian lobby and its Jewish counterpart in the U.S., and the role each plays in strengthening U.S. relations with Israel and India, and Israeli-Indian ties.

In other words, strengthening the strategic partnership between the U.S. and India at this time will in turn enhance the Indian lobby's role in the upcoming elections, both politically and economically. This is particularly important if we know that the vast majority of Indian Americans (65%) tend to vote for the Democratic Party.

Also in the same context, another key motive behind Trump's recent visit to India is strengthening economic and trade relations between the two countries, under the influence of two main factors. The first relates to the novel Corona virus crisis and its possible repercussions on Chinese demand for U.S. goods, which risks reducing the importance of the U.S. China trade agreement signed in mid-January. The second factor relates to upbeat prognosis of India's economic growth, which may help the U.S. offset the expected decline in demand from China, at least during 2020.

Afghanistan and the Chinese Challenge

Trump's visit to India is of additional importance given the rapid developments in Afghanistan. Recently, the U.S. and the Taliban held direct talks that culminated in a violence reduction agreement that took effect on February 22, to be crowned with a peace agreement on February 29. The success of the peace process in Afghanistan requires a number of conditions, the most important of which is the support of regional neighbors, led by India. But most importantly, strengthening the U.S.-India coordination on Afghanistan at this stage is a necessary condition for balancing or even downsizing the Pakistani role, a role that the U.S. perceives with negativity despite Pakistan's support for the U.S. dialogue with the Taliban in 2018-2019.

There is another important factor to consider when analyzing the motives for Trump's visit to India. This factor relates to the ongoing global race for dominance in Central and South Asia, as part of a growing global polarization and quest for supremacy. This is exemplified by the strong Chinese presence in the Belt and Road Initiative (four economic corridors, out of the six planned in the initiative, are designed to link Russia and Central Asia: the “New Eurasian Continental Bridge”, “China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor”, "China-Central and West Asia Economic Corridor", "China–Pakistan Economic Corridor"). The success of the peace process in Afghanistan will open the door to adding Afghanistan to these corridors and then linking it with the Chinese spheres of influence. It will also deepen the alliance-building policy currently underway in the region.

Thus, strengthening U.S.-India coordination at this stage has become an important condition for ensuring the success of the new U.S. project in Afghanistan, in general, and for balancing the expected Pakistani influence during the next stage, and confronting China's sphere of influence in Central and South Asia. Add to that - and as many analyzes suggest - if we assume that one of the primary goals of the planned U.S. exit from Afghanistan is to have the time to confront China - which may be the main theme of President Trump's second term - one of the basic conditions for this approach is to strengthen U.S. alliances in the region, especially with India. Both the U.S. and India share deep concerns about the Belt and Road Initiative in general and the implications of this initiative for Central and South Asia in particular.

Curtailing India’s Rush towards Russia

Finally, it is important to keep in mind the important developments in Indo-Russian relations in recent years, when analyzing Trump's visit to India. Despite the strong strategic partnership between the U.S. and India, this did not preclude the latter from developing its military and economic relations with Russia, driven in this regard by four basic determinants:

The first is a strong and growing Russian presence in the immediate neighborhood of India. Second, the major joint strategic projects that bring the two countries together, notably the International North-South Transport Corridor, which is a multiple network of international trade routes - maritime, land, and railways - linking the regions of South Asia, Western and Central Asia, the Caucasus and Russia all the way to northern Europe. Its basic agreement was signed in September 2000 between Russia, India and Iran before other countries came aboard. Although the project faces several obstacles, the three countries look forward for a speedy implementation as soon as the U.S.-Iran standoff is resolved.

The third of these determinants is the nature of the Indian military arsenal, a large proportion of which is still Russian-made (60-70%), which forces India to rely on Russia for modernization and maintenance. The fourth determinant, and perhaps the most important, relates to India's foreign policy since the beginning of the 1990s, which is based on diversifying regional and international partners and allies with a great degree of independence from Washington. While India's strategic relations with the U.S. have evolved, this has not prevented India from developing strong ties with Iran, and the same applies to its relations with Russia. The most important indicator is India's purchase of the S400 missile system from Russia in 2018, despite U.S. opposition. Rather, it was striking that India at the time asserted that it would not allow a third party - in a clear implicit reference to the U.S. - to interfere in its relations with Moscow.

Although Trump's visit to India at this time may play a role in controlling India's rush towards developing its relations with Russia, but it will certainly not succeed in stopping or limiting these relations, given the four parameters mentioned above.

Conclusion

Despite its importance, Trump's high-profile visit to India remains governed by interim electoral calculations for the Trump administration during the remainder of 2020. It also comes within the framework of managing a set of transformations and strategic interests in Central and South Asia. The visit derives its significance from all of these facts, but at the same time it is likely that it will not serve as a game-changer in India's relationship with other main actors and strategic partners in the region. It is also difficult to speculate that it could play an influential role in changing India's role on the global arena. Although Trump's visit and subsequent follow-up between the U.S. and Indian administrations may lead to an expansion in India's regional role, especially in containing China, and allowing more room for New Delhi to play on the Afghan arena and balance the Pakistani role there, it is unlikely that such a visit would discourage New Delhi from forging a strong partnership with Russia.

 

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