- U.S.-India Relations under President Trump:Promise and Peril
The structural conditions in Asia are ripe for closer U.S.-India strategic relations. China's rise and aggressive behavior, coupled with the massive imbalance of power between China and India, leaves India with little choice but to attempt to balance China. Moreover, its choice of partners is limited. India could attempt to create a regional balance by banding together with the many other Asian states that share its concerns about China, but this promises to be difficult and may not work. The United States' dominance over Asia, an essential component of its global role, is also under threat from China. Though the United States can probably still counter China by itself, it would be a lot easier to do this in concert with other Asian powers such as India.
This strategic picture suggests significant promise for U.S.-India relations in the longer term. But whether this will lead to a closer relationship during the presidency of Donald Trump is less clear. The Trump administration's transactional approach to its strategic partners, the nonstrategic focus on Pakistan by both India and the United States, economic nationalism in both countries, and the potential for deepening domestic political chaos in the United States all complicate the outlook for U.S.-India relations over the next four years. The following essay will first examine the strategic rationale for closer ties and then assess the challenges confronting the partnership under the Trump administration.
The Strategic Rationale
China's rise is the central strategic challenge facing India. India's economy was larger than China's in 1962, the year that India suffered a devastating military defeat at China's hands. By the late 1970s, however, China had overtaken India. The Chinese economy had become twice as large as India's by 1995 and is now four times the size.1 This gross imbalance itself should be worrisome for India, but what makes the situation even more [End Page 39] troubling is that it is married to many active disagreements between the two sides. India and China have a significant unresolved territorial dispute that simmers and occasionally boils, which more than a dozen rounds of negotiations over two decades have not brought any closer to resolution. China's relationship with Pakistan is seen in New Delhi as not just political balancing but as a military threat so grave that Indian defense planners are now seriously considering a two-front war contingency.2 China's relations with India's other South Asian neighbors are likewise interpreted as an effort to undermine India. New Delhi refused to send a delegation to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May because it regards the initiative as a Chinese design for Asian dominance. China's scuttling of India's bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and its refusal to support India's permanent membership in the UN Security Council are also seen in New Delhi as part of China's efforts to undermine India.3
India's options to balance China are limited. China's defense budget is at least four times as large as India's and its infrastructure in Tibet is far superior, allowing China much greater ease in military operations along the disputed border. To balance China, India has improved defense relations with other countries in Asia. It is developing a trilateral partnership with Japan and Australia, which seeks to enhance defense ties between the three and is clearly focused on China. India is also stepping up defense cooperation with Vietnam and Singapore. But though these efforts can supplement India's other balancing efforts, they cannot by themselves provide sufficient ballast to right the Asian balance of power. For one, even when these countries' capabilities are combined, China still significantly outmatches them in defense spending. For another, the geography of the region is an obstacle to mutual support because of the great distance of these secondary powers from each other. Finally, there is no history of mutual security cooperation between India and these countries, and it will take a while for cooperation to reach a level that can provide domestic...