Momentum behind US-India strategic ties remains on firm footing in the wake of President Donald Trump’s first meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office this week. Labeling Modi a “true friend” in a tweet ahead of their talks, Trump largely side-stepped his frustration over America’s $30.8 billion trade deficit with the subcontinent and avoided contentious bilateral issues like climate change and visas. This enabled the shared goal of deepening US-India security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to dominate the agenda, marking a notable point of continuity with Obama-era foreign policy.
Cooperation in the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism”, including enhanced intelligence sharing, was a key priority for both leaders. India faces a range of domestic and cross-border threats, particularly from Pakistan-based militant groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which have carried out attacks on Indian territory in recent years. Trump, for his part has made the eradication of ISIS one of his foreign policy priorities. According to the White House, Modi and Trump jointly called on Pakistan to “ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”, while the State Department imposed sanctions on the leader of Kashmiri militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which India has sought for some time. Increased US-India cooperation on fighting South Asian terrorism will further complicate Washington’s already frayed relations with its erstwhile ally Pakistan, which is increasingly looking to China to provide strategic and military support.
While China’s growing military presence in the Indian Ocean wasn’t specifically identified as a concern in the joint statement, the two leaders emphasised the need to enhance military cooperation in the region. Trump highlighted the importance of next month’s MALABAR naval drills, which he noted will see US, Indian, and Japanese forces undertake the “largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the vast Indian Ocean”. Modi offered strong support for the United States to become a permanent observer at the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium – a forum for regional nations to discuss maritime security challenges – signaling his desire to ensure that Washington remains committed to Indian Ocean security.
Where Trump’s transactional approach to security partnerships became apparent was in the discussion of US-India defence and aviation sales. The president explicitly thanked Modi for India Airlines’ recent order of 100 American aircraft, which he said will “support thousands and thousands of American jobs”. American arms sales to India are another bright spot for US jobs. In addition to purchasing 13 C-130 Hercules aircraft and 12 anti-submarine warfare jets in recent years, the Trump administration has just approved a $365 million sale of 10 C-17s and a $2 billion sale of 22 sophisticated surveillance drones – the first sale of this platform to a non-NATO partner.
These transactions, of course, are a two-way street. Washington has lifted restrictions on the transfer of sensitive technology to India in the dual hope of winning defence contracts and enlisting New Delhi as a capable strategic counterweight to China. Although New Delhi’s appetite for strategic alignment remains luke-warm – for instance, it has so far refused to bring Australia into the burgeoning US-India-Japan security partnership – symbiotic US-India strategic ties remain very much on track.
- with Ryan Hawkins.