After his election last year, at a thanksgiving rally in Florida, Donald Trump claimed that he would be India's "best friend" in the White House. Now, nearing completion of one year of his presidency, India-US relations look robust and upbeat, notwithstanding Trump's unpredictable and disruptive decisions that have left his friends and foes alike, at home and abroad, bewildered and clueless. Interestingly, India seem to enjoy a "normal" relationship with Trump's America; the two countries' positions are in sync on more global issues than ever, except on the Paris Climate Change agreement and Jerusalem.
The unorthodox president conducts foreign relations at the furious pace of Twitter rather than through a cool, comprehensive and dispassionate analysis of issues. Trump's blow hot, blow cold approach to China and Russia opens up better prospects for India-US relations. Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in April 2017, reiterated the 'One China' policy and underlined China's role in tackling North Korea.
After a red carpet reception in Beijing and enjoying Chinese opera and a rare banquet in the Forbidden City, the first US President to be so honoured, in November 2017, he hailed the Chinese President as a great leader. A few days later, at the fifth Asean-US Summit, Trump's reiteration of America's commitment to Asia and a strong emphasis on the need for unobstructed access to trade lanes through South and East China seas, overflights as per international laws, and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes without intimidation wasn't music to Chinese ears.
During his election campaign, Trump had made positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin and felt that good relations with Russia could help address hotspots like Syria. After stoutly denying Russian meddling in the US presidential election for months - even as former FBI director Robert Mueller expanded his probe, called into question the role of Trump's son and son-in-law, and Trump's former NSA Gen. Michael Flynn admitted to having lied on the issue - Trump is shifting his stance on Russia. In his National Security Strategy (NSS) speech on December 18, he described both China and Russia as America's strategic rivals, and they, in turn, denounced his "Cold War mentality".
Trump has gone beyond his predecessors George Bush and Barack Obama's references to India's regional role. His NSS speech says, "We welcome India's emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner...we will expand our defence and security cooperation with India ....and support India's growing relationships throughout the region."
Concerns about China's Belt and Road Initiative and its growing influence in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan, and exasperation with Pakistan's inability or unwillingness to neutralise terrorist groups operating from its soil and worries about her nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of such groups have prompted the US to look at India more favourably. Without naming China, the NSS stresses that America would help south Asian countries "maintain their sovereignty."
Trump's speech puts considerable pressure on Pakistan. "We must see decisive action against the terrorist groups operating from their territory...we make massive payments every year to Pakistan. They have to help." The US also expects Pakistan to assure it about the safety of Rawalpindi's nuclear arsenal. CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned Pakistan sternly that it must act against terrorist safe havens on her soil or the US would be forced to destroy them on its own.
During his visit, Defence Secretary James Mattis conveyed the same message to Pakistan in a more nuanced manner. These warnings should be taken with a pinch of salt; after all, Jaish-e-Mohammed head Masood Azhar roams around in Pakistan freely; US efforts to put him on the UN list of terrorists have been repeatedly foiled by China's veto. And with a reward of $10m on his head, Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed openly operates from Pakistan. Obviously, Pakistan exploits American vulnerability in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has developed his unique recipe for striking an instant rapport with world leaders. He has gotten along famously with Trump from their first encounter in June 2017. They have met and talked to each other several times, including at the G-20 and the Asean Summit, and exchanged notes on bilateral, regional and global issues.
After their recent meeting in Manila on the margins of the Asean Summit, Navtej Sarna, India's ambassador to the US, said, "President Trump and the Prime Minister have again underlined the closeness that they have between them and the strategic convergences both in geopolitical terms as well as in economic terms that India and the US have been working on."
Bilateral trade at $115 billion (2016), with the balance in favour of India by $29.6 billion, is far below the ambitious target of $500 billion by 2020. Recently, Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu had rough sailing in Washington. Besides the trade deficit, issues of market access, problems of Indian pharma firms, totalisation, the H1B visa have caused wrinkles in the bilateral economic relations. There are differences on a range of trade and environmental issues - India and the US are contesting 18 issues at the WTO - and the latest WTO Ministerial in Buenos Aires collapsed on account of US inflexibility regarding food security, an issue so vital to India.
Modi and Trump will have to resolve these differences imaginatively. Inviting Ivanka Trump to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad and giving her a special reception and banquet at Falaknuma was a smart move. A visibly flattered Ivanka paid fulsome tributes to the Indian PM. Hopefully, this shortest shortcut to the man in the Oval Office might facilitate an amicable resolution of some of the current frictions in US-India economic relations in 2018.
The US-India strategic convergence of interests on Asia and South Asia, Afghanistan and fight against terror should grow in 2018 while defence cooperation will remain the engine of bilateral relations.
(The writer is a former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)