America Shouldn’t Miss Its Chance With India

Trump's neglected a vital relationship—but it's not too late to make things right.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 26: U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands while delivering joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House June 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Image)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 26: U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands while delivering joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House June 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Image)

President Donald Trump likes winning. He tweets about it, boasts of his prowess, and is quick to remind all who will listen of his purported successes. Unfortunately, when it comes to the U.S. president’s foreign policy, he’s losing battles far too often, with stalled North Korean nuclear talks, tattered trust with NATO allies, and a poorly planned trade war with China. Added together, the United States is losing credibility and allies around the world.

If Trump wants to win, he should think “huge.” He should think about the largest democracy in the world, which is also one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. He should build a relationship that can get China’s attention while speaking to a powerful Indian diaspora at home. A president’s time is an invaluable resource; where and how it’s spent can affect war and peace. Trump should invest his time into India, where the 2+2 talks, which start on Thursday, are a perfect opportunity to put the U.S.-India partnership back in the win column.

It’s a telling sign of how little the Trump administration has prioritized India that this critical relationship—one where both sides stand heavily to benefit—isn’t already moving steadily forward.

Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations understood the weight of a strong and vibrant U.S.-India partnership on the world stage and crossed party lines to strengthen it. Bush introduced the historic civil nuclear agreement, and Obama accomplished crucial new initiatives on counterterrorism cooperation and homeland security dialogues. Both recognized India’s potential to serve as a steady, reliable partner and global problem-solver on counterterrorism and defense, while opening doors on cybersecurity and energy issues.

While the partnership has stalled in Washington, it is still seen as critical in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political and foreign-policy interests in deepening U.S. ties are clear. While he is delicately balancing relations in his geographic neighborhood with recent tensions with China in Doklam and arms sales with Russia, Modi sees a bright future with the United States. He displayed savvy instincts during visits to America, meeting and courting the Indian diaspora with packed town meetings. He has also valued the United States as an advocate for India’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, sought out access to cybersecurity cooperation to ensure progress in a growing e-commerce sector, acknowledged a growing reliance on U.S. liquefied natural gas to bring clean energy to an overly polluted country, and emphasized a mutual commitment to democratic values.

There are various opportunities, and a successful 2+2 meeting between the top diplomats and defense chiefs of the United States and India will go a long way to jumpstarting this stalled partnership. But the meeting by itself won’t be enough.

Both countries should start where the relationship has been strongest: defense and counterterrorism. India, designated as a major defense partner, now must be raised to the highest level with the benefits and pending agreements fully implemented. The United States can strengthen ties between the two countries by increasing military cooperation, military sales, and military exercises. These activities can include other key partners, such as Japan and Australia, to extend their reach and serve as a critical check against an aggressive and contentious Chinese thrust into vital land and sea areas in Asia.

The United States and India are cooperating more in the Indian Ocean domain on naval security, anti-piracy efforts, and unfettered trade route security. In a recent joint statement, both countries also expressed concern about China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea.

At home, the U.S. Congress must step in and perform its constitutional role to push the Trump administration to focus, prioritize, and attain more in the months and years ahead. There is very little bipartisan cooperation in Congress these days, but one issue where Democrats and Republicans have consistently found common ground is in strengthening the U.S. relationship with India. In a time of extreme gridlock and dysfunction, members of Congress should hold the administration to account and ensure that progress from the 2+2 meetings is not squandered.

What’s been missing in the U.S.-India partnership over the past 15 years has not been new ideas or political support, which have rarely been lacking, but acute attention to the relationship, robust personnel resources, and successful execution on the agreements. Congress can allocate needed resources, push for the appropriate priorities, and perform its oversight function over the executive branch.

The symbolic power of the presidency is one of the best potential soft power tools to bolster ties. President Barack Obama visited India twice while in office, including during its Republic Day, and a similar trip by Trump in January would go a long way to demonstrate true commitment to the relationship. With Trump and Modi soon facing their voters, this provides a window for the world to view the two leaders of great democracies exchanging views on human rights, rule of law, and free elections.

While the United States and India have made tremendous strides on defense cooperation and counterterrorism efforts, that progress has not translated into smooth and successful trade relations. Current U.S.-India trade tensions have been exacerbated by U.S. imposed tariffs, under which the South Asian nation is facing a $240 million price tag to continue business as usual while also dealing with rising oil prices and the potential for higher interest rates. To retaliate, India levied its own tariffs but, to restabilize its economy and avoid an all-out trade war, deferred implementing them until early August.

The United States has legitimate concerns about fair trade, access to agricultural markets, and intellectual property protections, and India must be more flexible and cooperative on trade issues. Both countries can lay out plans and set future dates to directly address these issues during the 2+2 talks, but the political complexity goes deeper than any one meeting can fix. It will take a dedicated effort to calm both sides, find common ground, and avoid inflammatory rhetoric. The United States and India should attempt to set a new model for truly fair and free trade, as globalization has taken on deeply negative meanings for the world middle class. Because Trump has disregarded the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bilateral free trade agreement with India might help overcome some of these gloomy perceptions from skeptical domestic constituents.

The future is very bright for both countries, but the United States must fully prioritize and expertly execute on this relationship. It is essential that it devote sufficient time and consistent effort toward anticipating problems and implementing an overall strategy that helps deepen this growing relationship and facilitate abiding trust moving forward.

The United States and India share numerous values and work toward common global goals. Both countries’ leaders have a shared investment in ensuring the relationship is not simply maintained, but significantly grown in the years ahead. If this is achieved, U.S.-India relations could be a cornerstone of both Trump’s and Modi’s foreign policies and their future legacies.

Tim Roemer is a former U.S. ambassador to India and a former member of the U.S. Congress from Indiana.

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