The best strategy for U.S.-India relations may be to have no new strategy at all. Whether dealing with an ally or adversary, this White House has been unpredictable to say the least. Yet thus far, India has stood out for being largely unremarkable. This is a good thing. Success in the relationship might be best served by keeping India out of the headlines and just getting down to business. After all, making deals is something that President Donald Trump has touted as his forte.
Following the successive efforts of past administrations, the previous administration doubled down on the relationship with India, bolstered by strong bipartisan Congressional support. Calling it a “defining partnership for the 21st century,” former President Barack Obama saw that the United States’ future – both strategic and economic – will increasingly rely upon how we interact with the larger Indo-Pacific region. As one of the fastest growing large economies in the world that aligned with our interests and values, India would play a key role in that future.
As a result, the Obama administration (of which I was a part) made a number of strategic overtures, including committing to a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region and calling India a Major Defense Partner, to lay the groundwork for both broadening and deepening our strategic ties. So far, Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have had a good, albeit modest, beginning to their relationship. With an invitation for the prime minister to come to the U.S., there is now an opportunity to identify the priority areas of cooperation that could form the basis of such a visit. In this context, crafting more of a transactional relationship with India to complement the strategic framework already in place would be a welcome approach – at least for the time being.
The following three areas offer a way to focus U.S. efforts in the coming months:
Deepen Defense Cooperation
At a time when international norms and institutions are being tested, the U.S. and India have stood steadfast in supporting an Indo-Pacific region that protects freedom of navigation and the sovereignty of states – large or small. The U.S. has recognized that a defense partnership with India will be critical to safeguarding these values. As India seeks to modernize its defense capabilities, Washington should become India’s defense partner of choice by continuing to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation.
It is a good sign that within days of being confirmed, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar have already gotten off to a good start in agreeing to build on the tremendous progress in bilateral defense cooperation, noting for example that continued cooperation in the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) is in both countries’ interest. Beyond DTTI, there are additional areas that require robust engagement to give meaning to the label Major Defense Partner, a unique status conferred on India that was even endorsed by the U.S. Congress. From streamlining export procedures to moving forward on the two remaining foundational agreements to continuing joint exercises, there are many more ways to deepen defense cooperation.
Ultimately, these efforts will allow the U.S. and Indian militaries to work more closely together and open the door for increased cooperation on defense platforms and technologies that will enhance mutual security postures. It will also, however, require interagency cooperation and leadership from the highest levels in the U.S. government. Without cabinet-level commitment and engagement across agencies – Defense, State, Commerce, and others – bureaucratic inertia in the system and a reluctant yet persuadable set of Indian counterparts will make changing the status quo extremely difficult.
Pursue Bilateral Economic Deals
In the coming decades, Asia will be the growth engine for the world, and India will be one of the fastest growing large economies contributing to that growth. This presents an immense market for U.S. goods and services, and an opportunity for India to benefit from greater trade and investment – leading to employment and growth for both countries. However, this requires being able to put in place the necessary policy frameworks that give confidence and certainty to the private sector.
The Trump administration has indicated that it is more interested in negotiating bilateral trade and investment relationships than creating large, multilateral trade pacts. This may be well suited for a partner like India, which in the past has been a challenging negotiator in multilateral settings. A first Trump-Modi meeting could announce the start of negotiations for a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), realizing that a bilateral arrangement could be less contentious, though perhaps less ambitious as well. In any case, providing safeguards to U.S. businesses through a BIT could open up new lines of investment, which would be valuable for workers in the U.S. and India.
In addition, there is more that Washington could be doing to focus on the key ingredient that will drive both economies in the coming decades: innovation. Much can be discussed as a part of an innovation agenda, and there is a ready-made platform in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which the U.S. and India are co-hosting later this year, to focus on those efforts. Economic negotiations with India are never easy, but given India is poised to surpass the U.S. economy in purchasing power parity terms by 2040, forging greater economic ties and creating a more level playing field for U.S. firms is absolutely in the United States’ economic interest.
Invest in Connectivity
It is difficult to find a concept that has such widespread support such as improving connectivity, both within India and across the region. Whether it be improving people-to-people ties, economic and development cooperation, physical infrastructure, energy security and access, or collaboration to address transnational threats, greater connectivity can create tremendous security, economic, and geopolitical value to the United States, India, and countries in the region.
Fortunately, a lot of work has already been done to identify areas where the U.S. could support and benefit from improved connectivity. To name just three opportunities: (1) Strengthen U.S.-India cooperation to address regional challenges that have global repercussions, ranging from transnational terrorism to trafficking-in-persons. (2) Create pathways where U.S.-based innovation and technology can play a critical role in contributing to the region’s development. For example, U.S. leadership in the energy sector can have a transformational effect on energy security and access, where India has set an ambitious goal of bringing online 175GW of renewable energy by 2022. Given the leadership the U.S. has shown in this sector, there is an opportunity to unleash the power of U.S. innovation to grow employment and prosperity in both countries. (3) Continue to use the U.S.-India strategic partnership as an anchor to engage others in the region. Building on the successful trilateral relationship between the U.S., India, and Japan, there are other opportunities to collaborate for peace and prosperity in the region. For example, the U.S. and India should partner with Sri Lanka on maritime domain awareness to help ensure that the Indian Ocean remains an ocean of peace.
For an administration whose foreign policy seems to be focused on getting good deals, no bilateral relationship may be better positioned to take advantage of that mindset than the U.S.-India bilateral. By making tangible progress on transactions that seek to realize the full potential of security and economic cooperation, Washington will bring further meaning to a strategic partnership painstakingly built over the past several years. But it will require a leader-level summit, this year, to put these ideas into motion. Let’s get to work.
Manpreet Singh Anand is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.