The recent economic slide notwithstanding, India is seen by the United States as the anchor of regional economic and security cooperation not only in South Asia but beyond it. That was one of the most important messages from President Donald Trump's 36-hour visit to India on February 24-25—which coincided with renewed clashes over the controversial new citizenship law in Delhi that killed at least 23 people and injured more than 150 so far.
India is the only South Asian country that Trump has visited in his first term as president. That is as much because India is a huge market for American defence hardware as because of its strategic position as a bridge between South East Asia and Central Asia where China and Russia are increasingly assertive. The focus of Trump's visit, as evidenced by the joint statement issued late on the night of February 25, was almost equally devoted to the bilateral content of India-US partnership in areas like defence, energy, trade and technology as to the regional security and development, including the Indo-Pacific.
Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during their talks at the Hyderabad House, decided to upgrade the bilateral relations to a comprehensive global strategic partnership, and in keeping with that, the joint statement contains the "vision and principles" of this partnership. Part of the new facet of the enhanced ties was also reflected when Trump and Modi spoke to a crowd of about one lakh people in Ahmedabad's Motera Cricket Stadium on February 24.
From a South Asian point of view, the India-US joint statement was an unstated but emphatic response to China's growing footprints in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), covering the infrastructure sector of all countries except Bhutan.
According to the joint statement, India and the United States remain committed to sustainable, transparent, quality infrastructure development in the region. Since China's financial assistance through loans for BRI projects across the world has sparked concerns about the possibility of the beneficiary countries landing in debt traps, the statement mentioned a new framework of cooperation between New Delhi and Washington to cover development projects. The framework, called "Blue Dot Network", has been projected as "a multi-stakeholder initiative that will bring governments, the private sector and civil society together to promote high-quality trusted standards for global infrastructure development" in order to "contain the build-up of sovereign debt in developing and low-income countries" and "ensure responsible, transparent, and sustainable financing practices for borrowers and creditors." This was the first time that this new template of third-country projects has figured in talks at the highest political level between the US and India.
The concept of Blue Dot—essentially a US proposal into which it has already roped Australia and Japan—is expected to assess development projects using certain yardsticks like funding transparency, environmental norms and debt sustainability, and to facilitate not only government but also private finance. Clearly, Blue Dot is being projected as an alternative to BRI because no one country can match the financial clout of China when it comes to projects under BRI. It is also in the context of BRI that one has to view the agreement reached between Modi and Trump on a new partnership between USAID and India's Development Partnership Administration for cooperation in third countries as a development solution across the world.
Over the decades, particularly during the long years of the Cold War, the US and India have differed and remained mired in suspicion and mistrust of each other over the shape of global trade and political orders, India's ties with Soviet Union and later Russia, inclusiveness of global nuclear regime and transfer of sensitive technology with military and civilian uses. But what has remained constant and uncontested is their concern over the rise of China as an economic and military power and the threat it poses to the interests of India and the US. Arun K Singh, India's former ambassador to the US, rightly points out that the strategy towards China is one of the four factors that have "historically affected the India-US relationship at any point of time." Secondly, India and the US have travelled a long way in their bilateral ties in the last two decades and signed a civil nuclear cooperation deal in 2008 when a Congress government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was in power in India and talks for which were launched during the BJP rule under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Today, New Delhi and Washington are talking about the purchase of six nuclear reactors from the troubled US multinational Westinghouse, advanced training and expanded exercises between all services and special forces and closer collaboration on co-development and co-production of advanced defence components, equipment and platforms. The US sees "a strong and capable Indian military" supportive of peace, stability and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. India and the US have reached some kind of understanding on India's role in the South Asian neighbourhood in order to contain China's footprints, a far cry from 1971 when Richard Nixon, a president from the Republican Party to which Trump belongs, not only backed Pakistan during the Liberation War of Bangladesh but also sought to pressurise India through an outreach to China through Henry Kissinger's hush-hush visit to Beijing.
The US wants India as an important component of its pivot to Asia policy and central to a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region underpinned by the recognition of ASEAN's centrality as a counter-balancing force to China. When the US and India agree on support for safety and freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the seas, and advocacy for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in accordance with international law, both have China's claim of sovereignty over South China Sea. The US also wants India's role as a net provider of security as well as developmental and humanitarian assistance in the Indian Ocean, a region where China is increasingly assertive.
There is also a convergence between India and the United States on efforts towards a meaningful code of conduct in South China Sea so that "legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law" are upheld. Then, Modi and Trump decided to strengthen consultation through the India-US-Japan trilateral summits, the India-US-Australia-Japan quadrilateral consultations, a mechanism which was revived in 2017 after remaining dormant for about a decade in the face of China taking up the issue separately with Tokyo and Canberra. Beijing has in the past made no secret of its suspicion of the Quadrilateral as an effort to gang up against it.
It remains to be seen how far and at what pace India travels with the kind of role envisaged to it by the US. After all, Modi is also engaged in ramping up ties with China and held two informal summits with President Xi Jinping in 2018 and 2019.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.