Last Monday, the Trump administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS) to the public. The document dubbed China and Russia as “revisionist powers”: threats to the United States and its security goals. China, in particular, was singled out. As a senior Trump administration official noted, “China is seen as a strategic competitor because China competes effectively across the political, economic, military, and informational domains in ways probably not duplicated by our other competitors.”
According to noted international relations scholar Paul Kennedy last month, in addition to the United States, there are three other great powers. While Russia and China are seen as potentially hostile to American interests, there are any opportunities to be found in the document for India, the fourth great power, to enhance its relations with the United States.
Geopolitically, the NSS places the greatest emphasis for American interests on the Indo-Pacific region, an area that includes India. It is interesting to note that the NSS uses this term, instead of Asia-Pacific, indicating that the United States has as deep an interest in South Asia as it does in East Asia. The document explicitly includes India in its definition of the Indo-Pacific, which stretches “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, [and is]the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world.” In fact, about half of the world’s population lives within this Indo-Pacific region.
On one hand, the Trump administration sees China as both an economic and security threat to America’s interests:
China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.
On the other hand, the administration portrays India in a positive light:
We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.
Furthermore, the document states that the United States will “expand our defense and security cooperation with India, a Major Defense Partner of the United States, and support India’s growing relationships throughout the region…[and] deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.
While India has its own national interests, which it naturally desires to itemize at its own convenience, the current U.S. administration’s NSS represents a good opportunity for India to enhance its influence and security. In particular, American and Indian security goals align, and India’s traditional security partner, Russia, is not at all averse to growing Indian power either. India maintains good relations with a variety of Asian and Middle Eastern states, including Japan, Vietnam, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Other than China and Pakistan, few other countries would oppose India taking on a greater role in the Indo-Pacific. If another great power, the United States, wishes to facilitate this, then all the better for India to capitalize on the attitudes of the American government. Furthermore, while India is a thriving democracy, the current NSS document does not frame U.S.-Indian cooperation in ideological terms, but in terms of mutual benefits that are more appealing to Indian leaders, who are always wary of perceived foreign pressure on domestic issues.
In order to work better with the United States, there are several things that India ought to consider.
India must be less unequivocal in partnering with the United States, Japan, and Australia for the explicit purpose of preserving maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, even if this action ruffles Chinese feathers. India ought to treat maritime security as a separate issue from its border dispute with China, and its concerns over Chinese influence in South Asia (including Chinese military relations with Pakistan and incursions into Bhutan). While it can continue to work with China at its own pace on border and regional disputes, firm cooperation with other powers to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific could improve relations with other Indo-Pacific powers and lead to fruitful economic and security exchanges down the road.
India can also partner more firmly with the United States in South and Central Asia, and in particular take more of an initiative in Afghanistan. Despite deep links between India and Afghanistan, and India’s interest in seeing the Taliban defeated, India has ceded much of its economic and security leverage in Afghanistan to powers that arguably have less of an interest there, such as China.
Finally, as Alyssa Ayres notes at the Council on Foreign Relations, both the United States and India provide economic opportunities for one another. With the current U.S. administration wary of China’s economic practices and infrastructure spending spree throughout Asia under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative, India is in a good position to seek out American investment. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative needs more foreign — in particular, American — investment in order to work, and replicate China’s manufacturing boom. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in a good position to implement laws and policies to incentivize American investment, seeing as the BJP weathered some concerns over its monetary and tax policies (including the implementation of a new Goods and Services Tax designed to facilitate economic growth) to win recent elections in Gujarat, a prosperous manufacturing state. Ultimately, Modi has promised economic growth for India, and working with the United States to invest in India is an excellent opportunity for his government to deliver on this promise.
As the analyst C. Raja Mohan notes, “aligning India’s economic strategy with the changes unfolding in Trump’s America is the key to an enduring and productive bilateral partnership.” India now receives more foreign direct investment (FDI) than China. India could do well to capitalize on this since it needs U.S. investment for its military modernization and manufacturing goals; it ought to create a more favorable environment for U.S. investment. The Modi government, particularly Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry, Suresh Prabhu, and the United States Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, should work together to insure that the “Make in India” initiative is carried out in a manner that incentivizes American investment in India. In particular, barriers to trade and entering Indian markets could be removed, subsidies slashed, and concessions expedited.
India should, of course, be cognizant of its national interests. But Indian national interests align with those of the United States, and India can benefit from the favorable climate toward it in the United States by implementing security and economy policies that benefit both countries. By continuing to secure the support of the United States for economic growth and its security position in Asia, India first and foremost pursues its own national interests; after all, no similar amount of investment or geopolitical support could be gained from China or Russia. India can still maintain its strategic autonomy while working more closely with the United States, since it is not as though China will cease treating India as a rival if India resists patrolling the Indo-Pacific’s waters with Japan, Australia, or the United States.