Indo-US Relations in the Second Decade of the 21st Century: The Way Ahead

Donald Trump, the President of the United States undertook his first official trip to India since he assumed the Presidency in 2016. His 36-hour trip was marked by activities which ranged from travelling across Ahmedabad to Agra, to culminate his trip to Delhi. In the words of Trump himself, “Nobody else got the reception that I got yesterday. We had thousands of people. That was an incredible scene.”

His trip, which took place in the last week of February, may be considered to be an extremely significant political gesture ahead of the United States presidential election due for November this year. This had been the fifth meeting between the two global leaders in the last eight months, indicating a maturity of the two nations’ diplomatic ties. The reception accorded to Trump may be reminiscent of the crowd gathered to welcome Dwight D Eisenhower, the United States President in 1959.

Indo-US Ties Down the Ages

Indo-US relations can be traced from the time prior to the independence of India in 1947. Prominent leaders of the national movement including M N Roy (one of the leaders of the Indo-German conspiracy), had settled in the US. However, in the initial decades of the Cold War, when the US had made Pakistan a CENTO ally (Central Treaty Organization), India had developed a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union. Yet, with the crystallisation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 at the Bandung Conference, India embarked on an attempt to distance itself from the prevalent Cold War power politics. And there was a gradual deterioration in the relationship between India and the US, with Richard Nixon’s administration extending its support to Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 (in which India was an ally of Bangladesh). Moreover, India signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union in 1971.

The Indo-US ties soured further in 1974 when India detonated its first nuclear device. This strategic move ensured two decades of estrangement between the two nations. However, in 1982, the then US president Ronald Reagan did meet with the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi where the latter proclaimed, “We should find a common area, however so small.” The thaw in relations was prevalent till 1991, the year which marked the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With the adoption of India’s new economic policy in 1991, under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and with Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister, Indian foreign policy adapted itself to the unipolar world with the US as the champion of capitalist global domination. The adoption of the policies of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation cemented the economic ties of the two nations. Bilateral trade and investments increased, and one saw the strengthening of India’s decision-making powers in global governance via its introduction of India into multilateral export control regimes such as the Australia Group, The Missile Technology Control Regime (2016), the Wassenaar Arrangement and so on. In fact, the US offered assistance to India in joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group and in July 2006, the US Congress had amended the US law to accommodate civilian nuclear trade with India. Indo-US relations reached a zenith when India was declared a major defence partner of the US in 2016, under the Presidency of Barack Obama.

In Matters of Military and Economic Development Post The 1990’s

On May 11, 1998, the Indian government had declared the successful completion of a series of underground nuclear tests at Pokhran, Rajasthan- close to the North-Western border shared by the two nations. The act drew widespread international criticism with Bill Clinton, the then US President, recalling the US ambassador to India and further imposing economic sanctions, leading to severe diplomatic tensions escalating between the two nations. However, in an amazing turn of events, in March 2000, Clinton became the first US President to visit India since 1978. With a fledgeling global economy, Clinton’s visit signalled a US foreign policy shifting its priorities from its Cold War ally Pakistan to India. In the areas of energy security, the 2005 visit of Condoleezza Rice, the United States Secretary of State initiated a dialogue on this primary core economic sector. This step had gained international significance as there had been mounting tensions over the US sale of fighter jets to Pakistan. Further, the signing of the Civil Nuclear Deal ensured a clear demarcation between India’s civil and military nuclear facilities, leading to India’s civil resources being placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

In terms of economic developments, out of India’s largest direct investors, the US ranks number 1. India’s major exports are in the manufacturing sector, closely followed by non-financial services, which predominantly includes the software development industry. The US Department of State mentions that the major American items that have been imported by India include aircraft, fertilisers, computer hardware, scrap metal and medical equipment. The US accounts for a direct investment of $10 billion to India annually. Yet, the hindrance posed by tariff and non-tariff barriers includes agreement on the insecticides manufactured by US companies that may be sold throughout India.

Donald Trump’s Presidential Visit and its Diplomatic Repercussions

The population of the Indian diaspora living in the US accounts to 4 million, which constitute slightly over 1% of the US population. Considering the US election due for November 2020, many international observers have regarded this visit as an attempt to secure the vote bank of the Indo-Americans. India and the US have issued a joint statement by proclaiming the US-India ties to the level of “comprehensive global strategic partnership.” An attempt to make defence manufacturers part of each other’s supply chains and an assurance to strengthen homeland security to resist global terrorism was made. A twin arms deal amounting to $3.5 billion for 6 Apache attack helicopters and 24 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters have been inked. Further, a $1.9 billion for missile defence system awaits in the pipeline. There have been talks to revitalise the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (US, India, Australia and Japan) initiative on areas such as counter-terrorism and maritime security. Moreover, a collaboration for the Blue Dot Network and escalating tensions over China’s Belt and Road initiative has strengthened collaboration on regional infrastructure projects.

The World Affairs Survey conducted by Gallup (US Analytics and Advisory company) in 2015 states that “Americans perceive India as their 6th favourite nation in the world.” 74% of Americans viewed India favourably in 2017 and 72% in 2019. While all aspects of the economic relations between the two countries are improving, the people-to-people relationship is also getting better. In the words of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “Relations between India and US aren’t just between two governments, but are people-centric and people-driven.” The bonhomie between the two nations may become stronger if besides military and energy, other areas of cooperation are explored. Much may depend upon the US election results.


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

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