Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump in Houston, Texas, September 2019
2020 images / Alamy Stock Photo

Under President Donald Trump, the United States’ relations with many of its closest friends have deteriorated drastically. Longtime allies and partners in Asia, Europe, and North America have been reeling from the president’s trade disputes, decisions to withdraw the United States from international treaties, allegations of free-riding, and “America first” approach to the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke for many spurned allies when she said in 2017, “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

Yet some countries have had a very different experience. Governed by leaders who share Trump’s worldview and politics, they have accepted the Trumpian terms of engagement and strengthened their ties with the United States as a result. Like Trump, these leaders see diplomacy as more about giving and getting favors than finding a common purpose. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman—all fit this mold. Yet the best example of the phenomenon may be Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another leader who has resorted to ultranationalism to compensate for his divisive domestic agenda. Like the others, Modi has sought a closer relationship with Trump, and in this, he has succeeded.

Since Trump took office, Washington’s relations with New Delhi have gone from strength to strength. U.S.-Indian defense and intelligence cooperation has reached new heights, and the two countries have anchored their work on maritime security in new agreements. Bilateral trade has grown steadily. At a personal level, the relationship between Modi and Trump is, in the words of India’s foreign ministry, one of “friendship,” “mutual esteem,” and “exceptional warmth.” In September 2019, the two leaders appeared together in Houston, Texas, at “Howdy, Modi!”—a mega-rally attended by some 50,000 Indian Americans. Months later, when Trump visited Ahmedabad, India, he was greeted by a crowd of more than 100,000. That so many would turn out was hardly a surprise in a country where, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of the population has confidence in Trump to “do the right thing regarding world affairs”—compared with the global median of 29 percent.

This may seem like a rosy picture. But the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies is now also much narrower. Where India and the United States once collaborated on a wide range of issues in pursuit of common goals, they now cooperate on security to the exclusion of much else. For India, as well as the countries making a similar bet, this is a risky gamble: the very policies that create comity in the short run are eroding the foundations that will stabilize it over the long run.

INTO EACH OTHER’S ARMS

Looming above everything, of course, is China. Whether because of a belief that its time has come or a result of internal stress, China has grown markedly more assertive over the past decade, and even in the past year. Chinese state media have called the new no-holds-barred approach of 2020 “Wolf Warrior diplomacy,” after a pair of popular action movies. India is one of its targets. New Delhi has bristled at Beijing’s expanding military presence in the Indian Ocean and stepped-up commitment to India’s antagonistic sibling, Pakistan. India has also been frustrated by China’s political meddling in Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and its opposition to Indian interests in the UN and other international institutions.

Then there is the simmering border dispute. Beginning in April 2020, China escalated its efforts to redefine the Line of Actual Control, the boundary between the Ladakh region of India and Tibet, an autonomous region of China, a line that the two countries formally agreed to respect in 1993. On June 15, a skirmish broke out, killing 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese ones—the first deadly clash on the Chinese-Indian border in 45 years.

In many ways U.S.-Indian relations are in better shape than ever.

This is not the first time that Chinese assertiveness has given India and the United States a newfound incentive to cooperate. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, China and India butted heads over Tibet, which the Dalai Lama had fled for asylum in India. They even fought a one-month war over their Himalayan border in 1962. The United States, for its part, came to see democratic India as a regional counterweight to communist China. But that wore off under the Johnson administration, as the United States sought parity between India and Pakistan. Once U.S. President Richard Nixon began the process of normalizing relations with China—an outreach brokered by Pakistan—the nascent partnership with India petered out. Washington feared that nonaligned India was drifting too close to the Soviet Union. “By 1971,” Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, later wrote, “our relations with India had achieved a state of exasperatedly strained cordiality, like a couple that can neither separate nor get along.”

Today, India and the United States share a broad view of the challenge that China poses. They also agree on the specifics of what to do about it in the vast expanse of ocean stretching from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States, a region that both now call “the Indo-Pacific.” In 2017, India and the United States, along with Australia and Japan, revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad—a dormant forum focused on keeping the Indo-Pacific safe, free, and open. U.S.-Indian relations have also been aided by the removal of the Pakistan factor: the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is limiting the American impulse to court India’s foe.

The result has been vastly improved bilateral defense cooperation—more equipment sales, more joint exercises, and more technological collaboration. Since 2008, U.S. defense exports to India have gone from zero to a cumulative $20 billion, and the United States now accounts for 15 percent of India’s military equipment purchases. During the Trump administration, India has signed the type of defense agreements with the United States that eluded previous Indian governments, arrangements promoting the interoperability of the two countries’ forces and covering everything from logistics to communications. Since 2005, the Indian armed forces have conducted more exercises with the U.S. military than with all other countries’ militaries combined. The annual Malabar naval exercise, which began with India and the United States, now includes Japan and is expected to include Australia after a 13-year hiatus.

New Delhi and Washington are now linked by tighter economic bonds, too. In 2019, the United States overtook China as India’s largest trading partner. While India’s two-way trade with China declined for the second successive year in 2019, to $84 billion, with the United States, the figure grew to $143 billion. India is the United States’ ninth-largest goods trading partner, and U.S. exports to India in goods and services support some 200,000 U.S. jobs.

THE GREAT NARROWING

In many ways, then, U.S.-Indian relations are in better shape than ever. But they are also different from what previous U.S. and Indian governments had envisaged. Above all, they are now much narrower, encompassing a smaller set of issues. Once vibrant exchanges in education, agriculture, and science and technology have atrophied. Indian immigration to the United States has declined, and in June, citing the pandemic, the White House suspended H1-B visas, which allowed Indian technology professionals and their families to come to the United States. Thanks in part to Trump’s more restrictive immigration policies, the number of Indians studying computer science and engineering at U.S. graduate programs fell by 25 percent between 2016 and 2018. Cumulatively, these trends will slow the growth of one of the biggest sources of comity between the two countries: the nearly four million Indian Americans.

The real narrowing has been in the mind, with both sides now conceiving of the relationship in transactional, rather than principled, terms. Trump’s disdain for world order, international institutions, and multilateral cooperation has been met with a shrug by Modi’s government. Neither side seems to have a long-term strategic vision for the relationship. Unlike the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the Trump administration has never displayed the conviction that India’s rise is in the United States’ interest. Modi’s government, for its part, prioritizes domestic politics in its handling of foreign policy issues, and its international engagement focuses more on events and symbols than processes and outcomes.

The aftermath of a riot in New Delhi, India, February 2020
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Under Modi, India has excluded Muslim immigrants from the path to citizenship and limited the autonomy of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region. Uninterested in human rights and democracy, Trump has given the Modi government a free pass on its controversial domestic agenda. It has largely been Democrats, including Indian American members of Congress, such as Pramila Jayapal of Washington State and Ro Khanna of California, who have expressed public disquiet about some of Modi’s domestic policies. The bipartisan consensus in the United States on strengthening ties with India is in danger.

A growing source of friction in the U.S.-Indian relationship concerns trade. Like Trump, Modi has turned toward protectionism. India has raised tariffs on imports for four years running, and in 2019, it opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a proposed free-trade agreement among Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—just as eight years of negotiations were coming to a close. Already, the United States has pushed back against India’s approach to intellectual property rights, its restrictions on dairy and agricultural imports, its requirement that manufacturers source components locally, and its rules regarding data privacy. Nor is it happy about India’s commercial links with Iran and defense imports from Russia.

All in all, U.S.-Indian relations have benefited from the Trump effect, building on a 20-year effort to improve relations that has survived many changes of government in both countries. That should give one confidence for the future of the relationship. But it’s also imaginable that things could get worse. If global economic growth slows, protectionism rises, and China’s economy remains strong, there is a real possibility that the current Indian government could turn even further inward. Modi’s calls for self-reliance could extend to import substitution, the strategy of discouraging foreign imports and encouraging domestic production, which India tried unsuccessfully beginning in the late 1950s. That strategy is unlikely to work any better this time around. And it could spell difficulty for the U.S.-Indian partnership in the long run, as two inward-looking countries will need each other less.

ROUGH NEIGHBORHOOD

Even on the central issue that has brought India and the United States closer together—China—there may be less overlap than meets the eye. Modi has walked a fine line on Beijing. Even as his government has moved closer to Washington, it has tried not to offend Beijing. Since 2017, India has toned down its criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive global infrastructure project, which Indian officials privately resent as entrapping many regional neighbors. It has refrained from commenting on China’s treatment of the Uighurs, its crackdown on Hong Kong, or its militarization of the South China Sea. Nor has India spoken up about China’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Modi’s hope for a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” which he outlined in 2018, differs from the American vision: it includes a place for China and concentrates on uncontroversial, win-win issues.

The recent border clash with China has persuaded even fence sitters in India of the value of closer ties with the United States, but the risk is that India may come to expect too much. In the years after the 1962 border war between China and India, U.S.-Indian cooperation foundered. The United States decided it needed to bring Pakistan into its fold, and it considered a nonaligned India an unreliable partner in the fight against communism. India, meanwhile, saw its politics turn leftist and populist. Today, the United States is unlikely to offer complete solutions to India’s two main security problems, China and Pakistan. New Delhi and Washington see eye to eye on maritime strategy, but not on what to do on the Asian mainland.

More broadly, partnership will be harder in an increasingly tense Asia. The list of hot spots now includes China’s Xinjiang Province, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, the South China Sea, the Chinese-Indian border, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Ukraine. To make matters worse, in the past dec­ade, China, India, and the Philippines have seen the rise to power of authoritarian leaders who have been unable to deliver the rapid growth and prosperity that their predecessors did. Deriving their authority from ultranationalist politics and personality cults, these leaders are less interested in the give-and-take that is so essential for diplomacy.

India and the United States need to adjust to a poorer, smaller world.

At its root, however, Asia’s volatility is a result of the shifting balance of power in the region. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a broad free-trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific, left the field open to China to organize the regional economy. Not only is China doing that through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership; it is now also willing to join the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And Trump’s direct negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and the lack of any meaningful outcome have weakened U.S. extended deterrence and raised the odds that first South Korea and then Japan could go nuclear.

China has worked diligently to change the military balance of power off its shores, attempting to convert the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. It has sought to demonstrate that the U.S. alliance system does not provide an answer to Chinese behavior, thus inducing countries in the region to enter into bilateral arrangements with China. The doubts that China is raising about the United States’ willingness to exercise power are falling on receptive ears, particularly in Southeast Asia. At the same time, China has not been shy about using all forms of power itself—imposing a new national security law on Hong Kong, increasing its military presence around Taiwan, and waging a tariff war with Australia.

Chinese assertiveness on the Indian border has hardened opinions in India, and it will drive the country closer to the United States. China’s “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” is unlikely to spark the creation of a NATO-like group of allies in Asia, for all the countries active in the region, including India and the United States, have too much at stake to truly cut ties with China. But it would be reasonable to expect that the Quad will expand its activities and attempt to involve other Asian powers in them and that states in the region will broker stronger security arrangements.

THE COVID EFFECT

Some in China have suggested that as the world settles into the COVID-19 pandemic, it will divide in two: a group of East Asian countries led by China that are relatively successful in suppressing the pandemic and staging an economic recovery and a West mired in repeated waves of disease that has trouble regaining its economic momentum. This prediction seems self-serving and unlikely to come true. What has in fact happened is that the pandemic has diminished every major power’s economy, reputation, and influence. Not one has been unscathed. The more likely future is thus one of greater protectionism on the part of all the major powers and a fragmented, slowly growing global economy. Asia, in particular, is in for considerable turbulence.

India and the United States need to adjust to this poorer, smaller world. If the two turn inward and prove unable to act together and with other partners, both will suffer. But because the two countries’ domestic politics have become so polarized, no matter who wins the U.S. presidential election in November, it is hard to imagine U.S.-Indian relations returning to the glory days of the early years of this century. Moreover, as U.S.-Chinese tensions grow, as they almost inevitably will, both China and the United States may ask Asian countries to choose between them. That would be an awkward choice for India. Its logical posture has always been to seek better relations with China and the United States than each has with the other. But if push comes to shove, self-interest will likely compel India to choose the United States.

For the present, then, India will continue to seek security in a strengthened military partnership with the United States. Yet it would be a shame if that continued to be the extent of the relationship. Ideally, their cooperation would go far beyond military questions. On so many transnational issues—cybersecurity, freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean, counterterrorism, and climate change, to name a few—New Delhi and Washington are natural partners linked by common interests and values. With imagination and vision on both sides, one hopes, India and the United States will someday attain the relationship they deserve.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SHIVSHANKAR MENON is a Distinguished Fellow at Brookings India and former National Security Adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
  • More By Shivshankar Menon