Ashley J. Tellis, one of the nation’s foremost experts on international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues, particularly pertaining to India, South Asia, and China, and who was a key protagonist in the negotiations that led to the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, is cautiously optimistic on the recent first face-to-face summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump.

The Mumbai-born Tellis, 55, senior fellow and the recently-minted Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., said he believes the carefully nurtured U.S.-India Strategic and Commercial Partnership over the past decade-and-a-half will endure in the administration of the mercurial Trump, but not without some intermittent hiccups.

In an exclusive interview with India Abroad, he pulled no punches in warning that if the Modi government does not rein in the extremist elements, such as the cow vigilantes, it could cause serious ruptures in U.S.-India relations, besides the toll these incidents are taking on India’s international reputation.

Tellis, who served as a senior official in administration of President George W. Bush, both in the State Department and the National Security Council, and also did a stint in the U.S. embassy in New Delhi as senior adviser to then-Ambassador Robert Blackwill, also said these continuing incidents could endanger New Delhi’s goodwill with key constituencies in Washington, including Congress. He said India could well appear similar to Pakistan and China with respect to the violations of human and civil rights, particularly of minorities.

Here are some excerpts from his recent interview with India Abroad:

Beyond the hugs and comfort level, what did the Trump-Modi summit achieve? Is India’s optimism and euphoria misplaced?

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis is the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
More >

A: The outcome of the Trump-Modi meeting should be judged first against the expectations prior to the visit. There was a high degree of uncertainty on both sides, higher than I have seen in bilateral meetings since the last years of the Clinton administration. On the U.S. side, it was difficult to discern how President Trump personally viewed his meeting with Prime Minister Modi. But the president’s impulsive personality, his strong instinctive reactions to his fellow leaders, and his lack of knowledge about India left many in the administration wondering how the meeting would turn out — and hoping for the best. Prime Minister Modi too was uncertain about the outcome, but for different reasons. He had a lot riding on its success. He had bent backwards to deepen the Indian strategic investment in the United States, had built a strong relationship with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and in general, viewed the relationship with Washington as singularly critical to the achievement of India’s global aims. Now Modi faced the prospect of meeting an American president who seemed to have little regard for protecting Washington’s own global interests, let alone assisting India’s rise. Obviously, much was at stake for the prime minister: he had to convince Trump — despite his disdain for other friends and allies--that India was “worth it,” that strong relations with New Delhi were an asset to Washington, and that India could deliver on the things that mattered to the president.

So it’s a no-brainer that the first face-to-face exceeded all expectations?

A: I think it is safe to say, in fact with a sense of relief, that the visit exceeded the expectations on both sides. The one-on-one meeting between the president and the prime minister went way beyond the scheduled time, as did the meeting between the prime minister and the secretary of state. The delegation meetings were incredibly cordial and free-wheeling and there was a sense of camaraderie that was hard to imagine given the apprehensions before the visit. So the comfort level established between the two leaders was a vital outcome, one not to be underestimated. I have always argued that although personal ties between principals are not a substitute for favorable policies, one cannot underestimate how often the latter are produced by the former. I saw it with both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and I think that even if it does not pay off in the same way with Trump, having him well disposed towards Modi and India is far better than the opposite. The fact that the visit ended with Trump thinking of India as a friend to be cultivated, not as a problem to be managed, is a great outcome. It could have gone the wrong way easily, but Modi’s charm pulled off a winner. So even though there was no obvious reason for optimism before the visit, the outcome has left both sides with the sense that the relationship can flourish even amidst the changed circumstances.

How would you describe the changed circumstances? Can the personal chemistry overcome the contentious issues that will definitely come down the pike, what with an unpredictable Trump?

A: The substance of the discussions and the character of the joint statement both testify to the nature of the changed circumstances. Under both Bush and Obama, India’s value was judged by how it fitted into a larger U.S. geopolitical vision of the world. The fact that India is a democracy, that it matters greatly to the emerging U.S. competition with China, and that it could become an important partner in the provision of global public goods, all made India worth the investment for the United States. I have argued that these benefits were so important to the United States that they justified the strategic altruism displayed by both Bush and Obama towards India, clearly by Bush most of all. Under Trump, things are going to be different: India is judged to have value because it is seen as a friend by the president of the United States, and not because of its potential to maintain a favorable balance of power in Asia or globally or because it is a great fellow democracy. This means two things: on one hand, the foundations of the relationship could be more precarious because they depend on the whims of one man, but on the other hand, the partnership could also turn out to be very fruitful for India because it depends on the decisions that Trump personally makes, decisions that as the visit showed can and will be influenced by his connection with Modi in particular. Obviously, I expect India will do its damndest to show that it is responsive to U.S. interests as Trump defines them, but the important point is that India can still profit immensely from close ties with the United States even under a Trump administration, even if the logic that drives the relationship is now very different from that previously. Particularly under a personalized presidency, the chemistry between Trump and Modi matters more than ever before. Even if it does not overcome all the contentious issues, it can mitigate them while providing opportunities for India to benefit from Trump’s idiosyncratic partiality whenever possible.

Is the “strategic” partnership then over? Does it all come down to Modi shrewdly doing a Saudi Arabia: purchasing drones, co-production of F-16s, giving Trump a win-win on jobs?

A: The “strategic” partnership is not over for the simple reason that U.S. interests require close ties with India at a time when the geopolitical challenge from China is not going away. The objective reasons that drove the U.S.-Indian relationships to begin with will only intensify in time, even if Trump does not understand these or correctly assess their significance. I think it is important to understand clearly what has and what has not changed. China is, and will remain, a strategic rival of the United States. That has not changed and that makes the U.S. relationship with India important. What has changed under Trump however is how the United States manages the rise of China: Trump wants to deal with China primarily through building up American strength and, to the degree that allies matter, through renegotiated bilateral ties involving major U.S. partners. Trump wants these ties to contribute towards strengthening the United States and perhaps strengthening the allies. But all these are viewed primarily through a dyadic lens. What Trump seems to overlook is the need for a vision involving the larger Asian balance of power, where different U.S. allies and partners play varied but interlocking roles in balancing the rise of Chinese power, strengthening the U.S. network of alliances and partnerships collectively and, in the process, buttress American primacy globally. Bush and Obama both understood this, Trump does not seem to — at least not yet. So the strategic dimension of the partnership with India has not disappeared, because the need for it still persists. But Trump views it largely in bilateral terms, rather than as part of an effort to create a particular regional architectonic that serves the interests of peace, freedom and democracy in Asia and globally. This narrow conception of self-interest will hopefully not survive Trump. So it is in India’s — and the United States’ — interest to sustain their relationship on whatever terms prove useful at the moment, while continuing to remain hopeful that the original drivers of the relationship will once again assert themselves after the Trump presidency runs its course. If that requires India in the interim to buy American products as the price of sustaining the partnership, India should do so--so long as it comports with Indian self-interest. Hopefully, the Trump administration will respond in ways that enhance Indian interests as well: the fact that it released the Sea Guardian system prior to Modi’s visit, which India will hopefully purchase, suggests that the administration understands India’s importance and the value of being seen as a worthwhile partner. This dynamic could make the relationship a win-win for both, even if the terms of endearment have in fact changed, at least for the moment.

Of course the elephants in the room, namely H-1B visas and climate change, were scrupulously eschewed. Was this a strategic and tactical move? But won’t this come up and can’t be avoided?

A: I think India has made a strategic decision not to make a capital case of the visa issue. The issuance of visas is a sovereign right and I think India would be well-served by not protesting the changes in U.S. visa policy. If Trump does not understand the value of international labor mobility for his America First agenda, then it is better that American business educate him on the issue than India. Climate change is a different matter: Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris will not take effect until around the next U.S. election and could be rescinded in any case depending on how that election comes out. Until then, many states, businesses, states and civil society in the United States seem intent on advancing climate change goals irrespective of what Trump says or does. India will continue to make its own contributions as well, as it should. So what’s the point of getting into an altercation with Trump on this issue? In some cases, discretion is indeed the better part of valor.

The tough statements on Pakistan — the first-time cross-border references — and the [Kashmiri militant Syed] Salahuddin designation [as a global terrorist by the State Department] on the eve of the visit — does this indicate a new toughness toward Islamabad and a clear-cut pivot?

A: The tough statement on Pakistan and its incubation of terrorism as well as the designation of Syed Salahuddin as a global terrorist are indeed signs of more acute discomfort with Pakistan in U.S. policy. It represents a sharper protest against Pakistan’s duplicity in fighting terrorism and especially its role in undermining U.S. operations in Afghanistan. But I do not think the administration has made a decisive shift on Pakistan just yet. There are some within the administration who are inclined to cut Pakistan slack because punishing it would undermine their institutional equities and there are others who are tempted to satisfy Pakistan’s myriad grievances vis-à-vis India in an effort to solicit Rawalpindi’s cooperation on terrorism. So the last word on Pakistan policy has not yet been uttered.

Will the likes of [Lisa] Curtis [director, South Asia in the National Security Council], [H.R.] McMaster [National Security Adviser], [Jim] Mattis [defense secretary] keep the relationship on an even keel with continuity, with these policy guys keeping the political types under wraps, or are there dangers ahead?

A: I hope the strategists in the administration finally carry the day. The fact that the president now views India as a “true friend” should help, but keeping India policy on an even keel will take constant work and will require periodic “wins” for Trump to feel that his — and American — interests benefit from this relationship.

Congressman Ed Royce [Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee] and others are also concerned about the NGO [non-governmental organizations] ban and the evangelical base is also exercised over Compassion International and other Christian charities. The problems of cow vigilantism are also gaining attention here — an these become issues?

A: I think there is a high likelihood that such issues will become serious problems in the relationship going forward. Obviously, these issues pose dangers for India itself as a liberal democracy, and the Modi government’s inability to control extremist elements, such as the cow vigilantes, in India is troubling. The toll these incidents are taking on India’s international reputation is something that New Delhi should be concerned about. And the goodwill they are losing India with key constituencies in the United States, such as the Congress, is also troubling. For the moment, India’s well-wishers in Washington are hoping that these are all aberrations. But if they represent an illiberalism that makes India look similar to Pakistan or China, the difficulties of sustaining strong bilateral ties, even in a Trump administration that couldn’t care less about liberal values, will increase substantially.

The North Korea reference and also speculation that there is a combined signal to China — is this imagined or real?

A: The North Korea reference was a Modi freebie to Trump! The language on the Indo-Pacific was a veiled criticism of China, but it represented the limits of what both sides could say in the current uncertainty about U.S. policy towards China. I expect that this will not be the last word on China —or better or worse, both the United States and India are condemned to wrestle with China for many decades to come. Hopefully, they will do so as partners rather than on their own.

This interview was originally published in India Abroad.