Enhancing US-India Relations in a Trump Administration

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Washington, DC – US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, in his last trip abroad as secretary, highlighted the importance of the growing US-India security relationship. Built over multiple administrations in both Washington and Delhi, it has started to blossom in the past three years. As President-elect Donald Trump and his national security team identify key priorities for his administration, continuing to strengthen US-India ties should be near the top of their agenda.

India is an ascendant nation and a unique partner of the United States. The two countries have the potential for much closer cooperation. From the signing of a joint strategic framework in January 2015 to a cybersecurity framework several months ago, the United States and India are finding a deeper convergence on fundamental security issues than we have seen at any time in the past.

At the same time, India’s history of strategic independence provides it avenues by which to reach out to countries with whom the United States has difficult histories—particularly Iran, but also Russia and North Korea. India can provide insights into these potentially challenging relationships, and it may also reinforce the US position on the global stage when the two countries’ interests are aligned.

Early outreach by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States signaled to both Washington and his own bureaucracy that he was serious about engagement. Similarly, President-elect Trump could send an important early signal of his intent to cooperate closely with India by arranging a meeting with Prime Minister Modi in the first 100 days President Trump is in office.

The benefits to the United States of stronger ties with India are growing with each new avenue of cooperation. Over the past three years, thanks largely to the joint efforts of Secretary Carter and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, the two countries have advanced cooperation on issues ranging from military exercises to defense trade. US defense firms have sold over $10 billion in defense equipment to India in the last decade, making India one of our largest defense markets. These acquisitions in turn, benefit India by giving its armed forces a significant capability boost while simultaneously increasing interoperability with the United States and other regional partners.

Underscoring the importance of developing new ways to work with India, Secretary Carter created new mechanisms within the Pentagon to directly support the accelerated implementation of US-India cooperation: the “India Rapid Reaction Cell” and the “Defense Technology and Trade Initiative.” These initiatives have played a critical role in breaking through traditional bureaucratic roadblocks, enabling the two countries to sign an important agreement on logistics cooperation, and they have demonstrated to the Indian government that the United States is truly committed to India as a partner worthy of priority treatment. The Trump administration should commit to continuing and possibly expanding these programs. It could create further momentum by making an early push for additional meetings of the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation.

This good news story is underscored by the growing convergence of US and Indian interests around the globe. In the Middle East, both nations seek long-term regional stability and should consult with each other more regularly about achieving this mutual goal. The United States remains concerned about the grave terrorist threats present in the Greater Middle East, the reintegration of Iran into the international community, and existential threats to the safety and security of Israel. India’s concerns in the region are bound up in the substantial population of Indian guest workers employed in countries throughout the Gulf States and the risks instability poses for Indian citizens and energy supplies.

In Southeast Asia, US interests in a strong and free Asia-Pacific region dovetail with India’s “Act East” policy. Greater coordination and cooperation on issues ranging from supporting international law to military exercises with countries in Southeast Asia can bolster the image and the interests of India and the United States in this vital region.

In greater South Asia, the United States increasingly sees India as a partner for solving enduring challenges. This is not to say that US relations with Pakistan or Afghanistan will neatly align with Indian positions or that the two countries will agree on every action. However, the strategic challenges facing both nations are drawing them closer as they seek ways to reach common objectives. Communication on shared interests and capabilities in South Asia is critical to ensure that the United States and India cooperate instead of compete in the region.

Similarly, India and the United States share common concerns on many “homeland security” issues, including the reality of porous land and sea borders, the challenges of developing technology and personnel to reduce the risk to such borders, and the need to ensure that law enforcement has the training and equipment necessary to respond to significant acts of violence or terrorism.

With such a wide range of issues to address, the change in personnel that comes with a new U.S. administration, combined with typical turnover within India’s government, could lead both countries to “forget” the patterns of engagement and cooperation that have been so fruitful over the past two years.

Establishing an early connection with a rising, and like-minded, India could be an early win for the Trump administration. It will take regular efforts from senior-level officials across government departments and agencies to bring India and the United States closer together. As Secretary Carter’s trip to India highlights, both countries stand to benefit greatly from deeper engagement.

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Kathleen H. Hicks is a senior vice president, directs the International Security Program, and holds the Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. Dr. Hicks previously served in the Department of Defense as principal deputy under secretary for policy, a Senate-confirmed position.

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Richard Rossow is a senior fellow and holds the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at CSIS.

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John Schaus is a fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he focuses on defense industry and Asia security challenges.

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