The assertion that the India-US strategic energy partnership is becoming stronger finds validity in the fact that the US replaced China as India’s largest trade partner, with indications that energy could replace defence as the strongest link in India-US relations

American President Donald Trump’s visit has deepened the confidence that his predecessors had built in India-US relations. India and the US held talks on defence and security, energy, technology and people-to-people contacts, with Trump underscoring defence collaboration. However, the one area that stood out was the cooperation over the Indo-Pacific region.

Quad And Blue Dot

The joint statement between the two countries underscored the importance of cooperation through the ‘Blue Dot’ network, an important component of the Indo-Pacific infrastructure network. The Blue Dot network is an initiative launched among multiple stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region to strengthen the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ concept and to foster a rules-based order in this region. Trump showed a strong US resolve to bolster Blue Dot, which is part of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and is aimed at providing alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative to regional countries. It is aimed at creating globally accepted standards and norms in debt, financing/lending, infrastructure and environment. As such, Blue Dot would prevent regional countries from China’s “predatory lending” tactics and would include private players as funders for projects, as against China’s massive State-funded BRI.

A clear reference to “revitalizing the Quad mechanism” in the joint statement suggests that there is a roadmap to take the Quad forward, the dialogue having been upgraded to ministerial level in September 2019. As India has often been identified as the most unsure of the Quad members, the Blue Dot network provides Delhi with the necessary bandwidth to shape the nature and pace of its Quad participation at its own pace, especially as Blue Dot involves not just governments, but private players and civil society, too.

Among the important people in Trump’s delegation were US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and NSA Robert O’ Brien, the point person for Blue Dot in the US, Adam Boehler, CEO of the US International Development Finance Corporation (USIDFC). This signals some behind-the-curtain developments in taking India’s participation in the group forward. With Australia and Japan already in the Blue Dot network, there is strategic overlap between it and the composition of the Quad.

Buy American

In another step that is likely to bolster the combined resolve in the Indo-Pacific for both countries, India signed up to pay over $3 billion to buy US military equipment, including six more Apache helicopters, in addition to the 22 already bought, and 24 MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters from Lockheed Martin. These helicopters are expected to provide a shot in the arm for the Indian Navy to boost its role in the Indian Ocean Region by significantly enhancing anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities. They will augment and support the navy’s P8-I reconnaissance planes. Besides these, the reference to the “Totalisation agreement for bilateral security cooperation” between the two sides suggests an across-the-spectrum approach to security cooperation, with maritime security being the main plank going forward.

‘Energising’ Ties

India also signed up to step up imports of US oil and gas, with an MoU on building pipeline infrastructure for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) between ExxonMobil, gas transportation technology company Chart Industries, and Indian Oil Corporation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that America had become an important source for oil and gas. The assertion that the India-US strategic energy partnership is becoming stronger finds validity in the fact that the US replaced China as India’s largest trade partner, with indications that energy could replace defence as the strongest link in India-US relations. Besides, mutual investment in the energy sector has increased significantly, with India-US energy trade reaching $20 billion in the last four years alone.

Purposeful Nuances

Trump's visit packed a range of agendas, varying from cultural symbolism -- signified by the visit to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi's legacy at Sabarmati Ashram and laying the wreath at Raj Ghat to taking a trip to the Taj Mahal -- to concrete deliverables in the defence deals that further solidifies the already strongest pillar in bilateral relations. The rationales for the choice of venues for Trump's visit and certain decisions that were taken even in the midst of the visit reflect some careful thought on the part of the Indian government. Beside the fact that visiting Sabarmati Ashram and Raj Ghat were obvious choices as anything related to the ‘father of the nation’ provides a cushion in India's current turbulent times.

That the government sought to inject a sense of normalcy in life in Kashmir on the same day as Trump arrived, too, seemed far from being a mere coincidence. It would appear that Trump agreed to gloss over issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act and Kashmir on certain conditional quid pro quos, or at least assurances. Among such pressures from the US were reportedly the lifting of restrictions in Kashmir and the finalization of the defence deals. The rather late decision by the Cabinet Committee on Security to put its seal on the defence deals seems to bear this out. 

Thankfully, the apprehensions that Trump might go off-script on Kashmir and the CAA did not come to pass even as there was violence and unrest in parts of New Delhi. A shared understanding and common approach to handling terrorism by both leaders along with an understanding on internal security may have prevented Trump from commenting on the security situation in India. Perhaps, a visiting Democrat president wouldn’t have been as forgiving. Towards the end of his visit in 2015, former President Barack Obama did not forget to remind Modi to “protect human rights.”