Foreign Policy Watch: India-United States

An agenda for Modi-Trump


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much.

Mains level: Paper 3-Security cooperation with the US, security concern for India over the US withdrawal from the Middle East.


With the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and other regions, India must think about its new role in the region.

The US plans for Afghanistan and the Gulf-cause of concerns for India

  • Why it matters? Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be eager to get a first-hand briefing from the US President on his plans for the Af-Pak region and the Gulf.
    • These two regions are vital to India’s economic, political and military security.
  • End of an important era in northwestern frontier: The impending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the downsizing of the American security role in the Gulf region mark the end of an important era in India’s northwestern frontiers — both land and maritime.
  • Can India overcome the past reluctance? The question is whether Modi and Trump can overcome the past reluctance in both capitals to collaborate in the regions west of India.
    • Suitable for both the countries: There is a good fit between-
    • America’s downward adjustment in the region under Trump, and-
    • India’s ambition to play a larger role in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Broad understandingIndo-Pacific and extending it to the West

  • Development in the last three years: Over the last three years of the Trump presidency, Delhi and Washington had developed a broad understanding of how to secure the Indo-Pacific that the US had defined.
  • Need to extend the same to Western Indian Ocean: Officials in Delhi frequently complained that these common perspectives did not extend to the Western Indian Ocean.
  • In recent weeks, though, senior US officials have said the Indo-Pacific region extends to the east coast of Africa.
    • Question of strategic cooperation: Extending Indo-Pacific is not a question of defining geography but finding ways to secure common ground through strategic cooperation.

Elevation of South West Asia to the top of America’s security concerns

  • Filling the vacuum created by the British Empire: As the sun set over the British empire in the east after a century and a half, the US stepped in to fill the breach.
    • What began as a cautious entry into the Indian Ocean became a full-blown military power projection at the end of the 1970s.
  • Other events that played an important role? The dramatic rise in oil prices, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and its threat to export it to the Arab World, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, saw the elevation of South West Asia to the top of America’s security concerns.
  • Events after Gulf War: The First Gulf War during 1990-91 saw the US intervene to restore the sovereignty of Kuwait that was swallowed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
    • 9/11 attacks: The terror attacks on September 11, 2001, invited a ferocious response from the US that ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.

The Iraq and Afghanistan war-Endless wars

  • Costly failures: Notwithstanding the initial successes in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a growing consensus in the US that these occupations have been costly failures.
    • Trump has been among the first political leaders in the US to call these wars initiated by a Republican predecessor in the White House as “stupid”.
    • The promise of ending the endless wars: During his presidential campaign in 2016 and since Trump has promised to end the “endless wars” in the Greater Middle East and bring the boys back home.
    • It is an idea that has found considerable resonance among Democrats.
  • Focusing on great power competition instead of small wars: While the security establishment is not willing to give up, US is now focusing more on the great power competition with Russia and China than the small wars that had preoccupied it over the last three decades.
  • The Oil factor: The steep decline in US energy dependence on the Gulf, too, has reduced the salience of the region in Washington.

Three consequence of the change in the US policy

  • Cutting down the military commitments
    • The Middle East and Africa: Trump has been cutting down military commitments in the Middle East and Africa.
    • His officials are about to sign an agreement with the Taliban that provides for American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
    • Maritime front: On the maritime front, Trump has called on all major powers, especially those importing oil from the Gulf, to contribute to the security of shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
  • How it matters for India?
    • Challenges of limiting the consequences: The challenge for Indian policymakers has been to limit the consequences of what seems a definitive turn in US policy.
    • Chance to extend the own role: It should also be about seizing the possibilities for expanding India’s own role in the western marches of the Subcontinent.
  • To expand its role Delhi needs to make a few important shifts in its own thinking.
    • One, it must overcome the still powerful belief in sections of the Indian establishment that the US-Pakistan relationship is unchanging.
    • The US tilt toward India and away from Pakistan: Over the last two decades, there has been a tilt in US policies away from Pakistan and towards India.
    • For instance, the US pressures on Pakistan to vacate the Kargil heights, an exclusive nuclear exemption to India and efforts to rein in Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism during the Obama years.
    • Support in Trump period: Trump went further to acknowledge that Pakistan is part of the problem in Afghanistan and turned up the heat on Pakistan’s support for terrorism.
    • He has supported India’s efforts at the UNSC to bring Masood Azhar to book in the face of Chinese resistance.
    • Helped India isolate Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force.
    • Prevented the UNSC from discussing Kashmir.
    • But India must also recognise: That there will be a measure of cooperation between the US and Pakistan.
    • Delhi’s focus should, instead, be on expanding its own security cooperation with the US in the troubled lands to the west of India.
  • India needs to prepare for a larger security role in Afghanistan
    • Question of being at the next-door: Trump has been asking a simple question: If India is next door to Afghanistan, should it not be doing more for Afghan security?
    • Need to explore the options: The NDA government has stepped up security assistance to Kabul. As Afghanistan enters a turbulent phase, regional and other powers are bound to fill the vacuum left by the US.
    • There are many options–  between doing nothing and sending the Indian army into Afghanistan- that Delhi and Washington could discuss.
  • Need to increase Naval activity
    • Increased role as regional security provider: Delhi has already stepped up its naval activity within the Gulf and beyond as part of its emergence as a regional security provider.
    • Cooperation with others: Effectiveness of India’s role will rise manifold if it acts in concert with the US and other partners.
    • Modi and Trump could begin by laying the political foundation for such cooperation.


At the beginning of Trump’s term, sceptics dismissed the prospects for India-US security cooperation in the eastern Indian Ocean and the Pacific, but progress has been steady. That cooperation can and must be extended now to the Western Indian Ocean.


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