President Donald Trump’s first official visit to India produced all the right optics for him and his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Tens of thousands of flag-waving Indians lined the streets, and well over 100,000 came to the cricket stadium in Ahmedabad to hear Trump speak.
Clips from the Namaste Trump extravaganza—shots of a charismatic American leader addressing a cheering foreign crowd—are already inserted in the President’s campaign videos. “This has been a very special visit—unforgettable, extraordinary,” a visibly pleased Trump declared before departing Delhi.
For his part, Modi was finally able to get some positive media coverage. He had faced weeks of sustained criticism over his Kashmir policy and after his contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) triggered a wave of deadly intercommunal violence in Delhi and other cities. To Modi’s delight, at a press conference at the end of his visit Trump flatly rejected the accusation that the new citizenship law was unfair to Muslims. He also supported Modi’s approach to the relations with Pakistan, especially on the issue of cross-border terrorism.
Trump’s position was remarkable considering the fact that successive U.S. administrations had treated the regime in Islamabad with kid gloves. Trump did say that he had a good rapport with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and offered his unspecified good services in some future negotiations over Kashmir (an issue India considers closed), but it was obvious that he regarded his Indian host as America’s main partner in the region.
Trump’s performance on this key subcontinental issue was eminently praiseworthy. Pakistan is an inherently unstable and destabilizing entity. It cannot be otherwise because it was founded, 73 years ago, on the pernicious ideology of Islamic supremacy. Its many decades of hunting with the Western hounds and running with the Islamic hares is a scandal largely unknown to the American public. Its military intelligence service, the ultra-Deep-Statist ISI, has aided and abetted the Taliban and other Islamist terrorist movements for decades, costing the U.S. thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
India is not just “the most populous democracy in the world” with which America supposedly shares many worthy values, principles, etc. Far more importantly, India is a real country, a state with very ancient roots, with a complex culture and a coherent identity. Pakistan, by contrast, is a massive infidel-hating madrassa whose chief industry is the promotion of Islamic fanaticism. It is an ugly, dysfunctional conglomerate of coarse, premodern local identities pretending to be a country. A Pakistan-free world would be a better world.
Trump’s visit did not result in the signing of a new trade deal, following a tariff war last year over India’s $25 billion trade surplus with the U.S., but both leaders said they were confident that one would be reached later this year. Several defense agreements were signed instead, which will include orders worth over $3 billion for Seahawk and Apache helicopters. Russia still remains India’s main arms supplier, but Modi’s government has made an effort in recent years to diversify its sources of supply.
In addition, India has agreed to increase her imports of liquified natural gas from the U.S. Both deals cement America’s position as India’s largest trading partner, ahead of China. They also ensure that India will not be on Trump’s list of countries to be punished with new tariffs while a comprehensive new agreement is negotiated.
The real significance of Trump’s visit is that it cements the “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership” between the U.S. and India at a time when both feel apprehensive about the rising power of China. Trump made several veiled remarks critical of Beijing, notably in reference to Huawei’s 5G technology: “We discussed the importance of a secure 5G wireless network and the need for this emerging technology to be a tool for freedom, progress, prosperity, not to do anything with where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship.”
More importantly, Trump made several references to the Indo-Pacific region, which was also mentioned in the joint statement and in the White House briefing at the end of the visit: “United States–India defense cooperation contributes to the prosperity and security of the entire Indo-Pacific region.”
Trump first used the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of “Asia-Pacific” during his October 2017 Asian tour, pointedly making references to the concept in Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi, and Manila. This was a significant novelty in Washington’s geopolitical mapping of the world. It heralded the designation of China as a global competitor. Its unstated but clear goal is to broaden the Asia-Pacific region of yore—in which China was clearly dominant, by hook or by crook—into a more evenly balanced pan-region which would include India. As I noted at the time, the intent was to give an impetus to cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India in order to counterbalance China.
The notion of India as a silent bulwark against China—the southwestern bookend in a chain of containment which would have Japan at its northeastern edge—has not captured India’s imagination, however. It may correspond to the geostrategic preferences of Modi the Hindu nationalist, but the complex nature of India’s Westminster-based yet locally corrupted political system does not condone the rise of a strongman capable of imposing his strategic vision on the country as a whole.
A comprehensive U.S.-Indian strategic alliance which would include military and security commitments is as unlikely now as it was at the time of Trump’s first Asian tour in the fall of 2017. With India’s long history of nonalignment and traditionally close ties with Russia, the country’s policy-making elites do not want to take risks. They are loath to compromise India’s strategic autonomy for the uncertain gain of America’s temporary benevolence. To be sure, they are uneasy about China’s rise, but they are also aware that China’s direct access to the Indian Ocean is precarious in the extreme, and that Beijing’s geopolitical clout is still limited to the First Island Chain.
The Straits of Malacca are as vulnerable as the Suez Canal, and China’s putative overland corridors to the sea via Pakistan to India’s west, or via Burma to her east, are dependent on the unpredictable political developments in those unstable countries. India can afford to take full advantage of the “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership” with the United States without letting it advance to anything resembling a formal alliance.
With a growing and increasingly assertive blue-water navy India can exploit her central position in the Indian Ocean, astride the second-busiest sea-lanes in the world, without entering the risk of a formal alliance with the prime maritime power in the world, the U.S. Modi is comfortable with Trump as he is, but he won’t risk any long-term commitments with a country theoretically capable of electing a Sanders. This is just fine with the Trump White House. It should also be OK with all Americans opposed to the extension of their country’s costly and self-defeating global commitments.