Written by Katharine Adeney.
Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States was lauded by Donald Trump as a meeting of the two world leaders in social media (Narendra Modi is also a prolific tweeter). India is the world’s fastest growing economy and Modi is keen to secure FDI from the US and build up the bilateral links that are so favoured by Donald Trump. Trump in his turn is keen to increase the export of American goods into India. Relations between the US and India have warmed in recent years. The Indian media heralded the obvious chemistry between the two leaders while pointing out the points of continuity in the relationship: in terms of condemning terrorism sponsored by Pakistan and an increased emphasis on ‘trade and economic ties’.
However, this should not obscure the real differences between the foreign priorities of the two leaders and the concerns Indian foreign policy makers have regarding the United States’ engagement in the region. Although the personal rapport may be on show in public, as the New York Times opined: ‘India faces new uncertainties with Mr. Trump, who has shown less interest than his predecessors in maintaining a web of trade and security alliances in Asia’. This has implications in relation to India and China. Although Trump’s relations with China have fluctuated, the language in relation to China in the 2017 joint statement compared to the 2016 one has been watered down. As The Hindu noted, the statement ‘appears to have softened some of the language on China’s actions in the South China Sea’. India has major concerns about China’s dominance of the region, not only in the South China Sea, but also in the Indian Ocean Region, through CPEC and the port of Gwadar. India has also refused to participate in the One Belt One Road project promoted by the Chinese, on the grounds that the planned route goes through part of Indian territory (areas of Kashmir claimed by India).
Despite these differences however, the US recently approved the sale of surveillance drones to India, which would enable India to monitor China’s movements in the Indian Ocean (and have been criticised by China as a result). The forthcoming joint naval exercises between Japan, the US and India are an important development of multilateralism in the Indian Ocean. The concern however must be that increased defence ties between the US and India, regardless of US relations with China, will likely deepen the relationship between China and Pakistan, potentially leading to a proxy conflict in the Indian Ocean in the not too distant future.