On the 2016 campaign trail, now-U.S. President Donald Trump assured an Indian-American audience: “There won’t be any relationship more important to us.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo periodically reminds everyone of India’s centrality to U.S. Asia policy.
Growing warmth toward India is one of the few policies to have survived the change in administrations intact. With India now the world’s sixth-largest economy, and growing fears in Washington about a rising China, New Delhi is looking like an increasingly attractive partner—especially as the two nations, at least theoretically, share similar values: democracy, rule of law, and entrepreneurship. But just as the United States is warming up to India, India is starting to get cold feet about the whole idea.
Bilateral relations in recent years have begun to reflect America’s eagerness to get close to India. High-level security conversations have sprung up, like the so-called 2+2 dialogue—a first—between Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and their Indian counterparts scheduled for Sept. 6.
In India’s honor, Asia strategy is increasingly being framed as “Indo-Pacific.” The Pentagon renamed its regional combatant command in the same fashion. Defense trade appears poised to skyrocket as both sides make progress on agreements facilitating military communications, interoperability, and geospatial situational awareness, and India takes advantage of easier access to U.S. defense technology. Potential U.S. secondary sanctions over Indian arms purchases from Russia and oil buys from Iran continue to bedevil the relationship. But these irritants can be managed with a heightened appreciation of each other’s interests and a touch of creativity.
Despite efforts by Mattis and others to impose a strategic direction and invest in strengthening ties, there are plenty of fresh doubts in New Delhi. In the short term, that unease has been stirred by Trump’s economic nationalism and the White House’s unreliability. But something more significant—the longer-term direction of U.S. foreign policy—may be making India cautious.
Since the 1990s, the U.S.-India relationship has grown steadily, with every president from Bill Clinton and every prime minister from Atal Bihari Vajpayee viewing each other as natural allies and partners. India’s strategic community and permanent bureaucracy have taken longer to adjust. Some still harbor suspicions about closer ties and view Washington as unreliable. The Trump administration’s erratic behavior may be inducing latent tendencies to resurface.
Trump’s trade rhetoric, tightened H-1B visa rules for high-skilled workers, metals tariffs (imposed on spurious national security grounds), and the threatened removal of developing-country trade benefits portend a rough patch, whether or not ongoing negotiations produce a cease-fire.
In Asia, the White House leadership has shown an interest in trade and North Korea—and that’s about it. (Despite a lot of tough talk on China, there has been a lack of investment or strategic planning outside of a misguided trade war.) The region has already witnessed whiplash-inducing U.S. policy changes on Taiwan and North Korea.
That has quietly raised plenty of fears in New Delhi beyond just trade. To their west, Indian diplomats struggle to rule out a self-confident president who is overlooking Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex and relying instead on the earnestly spoken words of a new civilian leadership. Some worry that Trump’s desire for a quick, domestically saleable exit from Afghanistan, based on negotiations with the Taliban, could result in Delhi being asked to reduce ties with Kabul.
To its east, India must adjust to the White House’s ever-changing China policy. Today, the president is lobbing verbal grenades at China. Tomorrow, some Indian analysts fear, he could be working for a far different endgame: a “G-2” alliance to carve up the region with Asia’s ultimate deal-maker, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Not surprisingly, India is starting to respond to all the uncertainty by rebalancing its strategic portfolio, showing the early signs of someone living in a tough neighborhood who’s not sure who has their back. As a post-colonial, developing nation, India has always been most comfortable in a multipolar world, where it isn’t forced to choose between great powers. Trump has made it easy for India to slip back into the habit, learned in the Cold War days, of pandering to as many sides as possible.
It’s possible these moves just reflect the typical ebb and flow of diplomacy or possibly the government’s desire for tranquility outside its borders with next spring’s approaching national elections. But that assumes Delhi interprets what is happening in Washington—the flip-flopping, blustering, and realpolitik in its rawest form—as a passing flight of fancy.
Seasoned diplomats and America watchers in India don’t seem so sure. Sifting through the detritus of the president’s recent European trip, columnist C. Raja Mohan observed: “Trump is widely seen as an aberration in US politics. There is much hope that things will return to normal after he departs the scene. May be or may be not.”
That undercurrent of skepticism reflects certain continuities in U.S. foreign policy across both major parties. Former President Barack Obama and Trump have very different world views, but both find wisdom in extricating the United States from multiplying overseas commitments. Leading political figures on the left and right question globalization, open markets, and military force overseas.
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the left, as well as Trump, all came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement during the 2016 campaign. In military affairs, two incredibly different administrations have shown great antipathy toward U.S. interventions from Afghanistan to Syria, favoring antiseptic drones, bombs, and special forces, as well as “offshore balancing” (think allies and partners picking up the slack). Sen. John McCain’s death last week serves as a stark reminder that the ranks of internationalists in national politics are thinning, at least for now, as he and statesmen such as former Sens. John Kerry, Richard Lugar, Joe Biden, and Chuck Hagel leave public life. (McCain, not coincidentally, was generally seen by India as an all-weather friend.)
Worries of a lack of U.S. commitment are pushing India back toward the strategies of nonalignment. At an April summit in Wuhan, China Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made nice with Xi. A diplomatic course correction was arguably overdue after a brutal period in India-China relations highlighted by a tense, 73-day border standoff in the Himalayas. But India appears to be modulating its diplomacy with China precisely as attitudes in the U.S. establishment are hardening over Beijing’s expansionism.
At Asia’s signature annual security dialogue this June, Modi delivered a carefully measured keynotespeech that took pains not to cross Asia’s other giant and featured the milquetoast lexicon of nonalignment alongside more forward-leaning messages. In recent months, India has also sought to reassure an old ally and longtime defense supplier, Russia, that closer U.S. ties don’t signal abandonment of Moscow.
Delhi slow-rolled the big idea to come out of one of the most unequivocally pro-India speeches delivered by a senior U.S. official. In describing the country as a linchpin of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific vision last fall, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revived the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, composed of four of the Pacific’s large democracies: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. China likes the Quad 2.0 as much as the prototype—not very much. So, when India declined Australian participation in high-profile military exercises with the rest of the Quad this summer, the decision raised a few eyebrows.
Delhi has also appeared reluctant to stoke perceptions of a formal military alliance—especially when everyone’s full commitment is in question. This preference for strategic autonomy continued this month with India reportedly opting out of a joint project launched by other Quad partners to present high-quality infrastructure alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Add in new concerted Indian efforts to expand diplomacy with European powers such as France and underscore Southeast Asia’s importance to the region, and it all begins to form the outlines of a classic hedging strategy, reflecting the pursuit of maximum options with minimum restrictions.
If some measure of continuing U.S. retrenchment—well short of Trump’s “uni-solationism” and closer to Obama’s circumspection—is in the cards, India will need to build closer ties with natural friends and hasten its transition to a leading power. In the meantime, Delhi may feel a compulsion to tread carefully with a stronger China.
But this isn’t all bad news for the United States and its allies. Washington and most Asian capitals want to see an Indian foreign policy with more teeth. Any successful hedging strategy would require building closer ties with fellow democracies—all U.S. allies—in Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and recognizing the centrality of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members to the region’s balance (also consistent with U.S. policy).
India is fundamentally different from traditional allies for whom the United States was and is the key security provider. India doesn’t want to depend on security guarantees, but a more confident and independent India that enjoys strong relationships with leading countries helps U.S. interests in preserving Asia’s balance and freedom, even if the United States takes a step back from the region over the long term.
Finally, just as India’s edging away from America doesn’t mean Delhi is turning against it, a recalibrated Indian approach to China is similarly unlikely to change their fundamentally competitive dynamic. In fact, the countries’ growing capabilities and ambitions—and the current asymmetry in both in China’s favor—may produce imbalances that create frictions in India’s neighborhood. Beijing’s recent expansionist activities in and around the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean—and India’s often annoyed reactions—reflect the early stages of this dynamic.
U.S.-India ties are likely to grow more complicated, but any realignment in Delhi may yet offer a satisfactory—if not thrilling—outcome, buying time until the United States gets its house in order.