Opinion

Tehran and the Taliban Threaten Modi and Trump's Flourishing Friendship

Hug or collision course? India and the U.S. have pivoted towards each other significantly, not least to confront China. Can the two leaders' apparent rapport resolve differences over Iran, Pakistan, trade and migration?

US President Donald Trump with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during 'Namaste Trump' rally in Motera, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. February 24, 2020
AFP

There will be plenty to discuss when U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally sit down to talk, after the full-throated welcome event in a 125,000 seater stadium in Ahmedabad, and the visits to the Taj Mahal and Mahatma Gandhi's compound.

Relations between India and the United States have been on a roller coaster ride for the last couple of years. In some areas, the relations have improved dramatically, while in others, the two – the superpower and the regional power, aspiring to global power - are still at loggerheads.

Both India and the U.S. have pivoted towards each other in significant ways. For the U.S., a key factor is China’s growing power-projection capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, which have forced Washington to sit up and take notice. One more than symbolic expression of this is the renaming of American armed forces' command in the region from the United States Pacific Command to the United States Indo-Pacific Command.

That is an endorsement of India's strategic significance, but also a recognition of India's growing regional ambitions, and its new-found confidence in projecting its own interests. As a senior administration South and Central Asian Affairs official noted last month: "India’s broadening strategic horizons over the past two decades have resulted in a shift away from a passive foreign policy into one that more vigorously advances Indian interests. Nowhere is that more true than in the Indo-Pacific region."

That this growth in India-U.S. ties has coincided with what appears to be a genuine personal bonhomie between PM Modi and President Trump is both fortuitous and unsurprising. The question remains as to whether both leaders' enjoyment in showmanship and performative friendship will have influence, major or marginal, in resolving the issues that still threaten an even closer partnership.

There are several key foreign policy priorities where some American and India priorities elide but others diverge, most notably in relation to Iran and Afghanistan.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomes Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Tehran, Iran. Dec. 23, 2019
Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

Iran is clearly a potential flashpoint. Under Trump, the U.S. has ratcheted up the pressure on Tehran, not entirely to Delhi's satisfaction. India has huge investments in the Chabahar port in Iran, and would be more than loath to see those investments go up in smoke. Chabahar is a crucial strategic gateway for India to Afghanistan and Central Asia, given that Pakistan denies India transit rights through its territory.

As the U.S. prepares to pull back from Afghanistan, India has the potential to be an important player, especially given its huge military and intelligence presence in the region. But India's cooperation will depend on how close Trump gets to Pakistan, an essential part of the U.S. withdrawal strategy and for stabilizing Afghanistan.

While New Delhi understands Washington’s compulsions vis-à-vis Pakistan, it would be strongly displeased if the two get too close – and if the Trump administration legitimizes groups that pose a terrorist threat, such as the Taliban, with whom the administration was in negotiations before talks broke down last September. India would be put in a particularly awkward situation if President Trump asks PM Modi to contribute Indian troops to peacekeeping in Afghanistan.  

The force of that displeasure, both on official and grassroots levels, was clear when, at the Ahmedabad rally, Trump noted that America's "relationship with Pakistan is a very good one; thanks to these [counter-terrorism] efforts, we are beginning to see signs of big progress with Pakistan." The crowd did not applaud. Within no time at all, the major Indian newspaper, The Hindu was running a news analysis piece: "Is Donald Trump soft on Pakistan?

A tableau from Jammu and Kashmir is displayed during the full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, January 23, 2020
ALTAF HUSSAIN/ REUTERS

That tension, barely beneath the surface, is liable to spike again in relation to the future of the territory of Kashmir. President Trump has serially offered to mediate between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, to Delhi's disgust; India sees the issue of Kashmir as an internal matter and would never countenance negotiations based on equal claims with Pakistan. On the other hand, New Delhi seeks crucial U.S. backing for its revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir last year, a move that was received with significant international criticism.

In their economic relations, India and the U.S. also have points of close proximity but also potential conflict. It still remains to be seen if the two sides can sign a much anticipated mini-trade deal during the Trump visit.

There have been trade tensions in the very recent past. When the White House refused to exempt India from steel and aluminum import tariffs in March 2018, India retaliated by imposing tariffs on 28 imported American items. The Trump administration has also withdrawn preferential access for Indian imports under its Generalized System of Preferences, the U.S.'s largest, oldest trade preference program, on the grounds that India had failed to provide assurances for "equitable and reasonable access" by U.S. firms to its markets.

The Trump White House has to calculate the cost of rocking the boat – losing Indian contracts vs how concessions to Delhi could backfire in an election year. Modi also has a delicate set of considerations: how far to push and how far to concede, with the backdrop of a slowing Indian economy.

Indian school children wearing masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump to celebrate Trump's first official visit to India. February 24, 2020
AFP

Trump, though, certainly won't want to threaten the growing bonanza for U.S. weapons manufacturers in the Indian market. India is one of the biggest arms importers in the world, and the revenues and jobs that are accruing and could further accrue to the U.S. economy  are not lost on the administration, not least in an election year. The display of U.S.-made weaponry in India’s Republic Day parade last month - including the Apache and the Chinook helicopters – already marks a new, very public phase in the defense ties between India and the U.S. 

What started as a trickle – after economic sanctions, imposed on India in the wake of its 1998 nuclear tests, were lifted has now grown into a flood worth $18 billion last year, a sign of a fully-fledged commitment. It's a far cry from the many decades when the former USSR and its successor state, Russia, were the Indian defense establishment's supplier of choice.   

Both leaders hope to amass not only foreign policy wins and trade victories, but also electoral capital. Both leaders seem to thrive at mega-events, and both have always conducted their political calendars as if they were engaged in a constant campaign for re-election.       

Just as last year's "Howdy Modi" rally in Houston boosted his popularity especially among the increasingly significant Indian-American community, Monday's rally, held in Modi's home state of Gujarat, is expected to spike his attractiveness to that community at the 2020 polls. Modi, equally, is hoping for a Trump bump; the Ahmedabad rally was held in his home state of Gujarat. Modi's party faces a series of state (provincial) elections next year.

But one potential irritant for both leaders in their domestic policies and with their electoral bases is migration. The Trump administration has been consistently hostile to immigration, visas and work permits. But Indians are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the H-1B visa program for highly qualified professionals. Since he took office, Indian IT companies have found it increasingly difficult to service U.S. clients in person. Rejection rates for Indians applying for the H-1B visa have jumped from 6 percent in 2015 to 24 percent in 2019.

From arms sales to a deepening strategic partnership, Trump and Modi have much to celebrate – and plenty of political motivation to capitalize on every photo opportunity afforded by the current presidential visit.

But from Tehran to trade to the Taliban, there are still weighty issues that could put India and the U.S. on a collision course. How and if those clashes can be overcome will be the true test of how deeply the two states' national interests are really synchronized.

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. Twitter: @rupakj