The first bilateral meeting between US President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi went better than expected. While there was a lot of attention given to it, the practical expectations of the visit itself were quite modest. The biggest priority on the Indian side was establishing a rapport between Modi and Trump.

Darshana M. Baruah
Darshana M. Baruah is a fellow with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where she directs the Indian Ocean Initiative. Her primary research focuses on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific and the role of islands in shaping great power competition.
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Indo-US ties gained significant momentum under the previous US administration. Following years of hard work from both sides and several milestone developments such as the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the nuclear deal, the relationship under Modi and Obama was on an upward trend.

But this progress was cast under serious doubt as Trump took office. India was quick to embrace the uncertainty that came with the new administration and their foreign policy direction. This is why Modi’s visit had very low expectations for any substantial collaboration — the priority is simply to keep the relationship on track, even if it comes with slow progress.

While the Trump-Modi joint statement lacks real substance compared to Obama-era statements, it still indicates some serious US diplomatic support on a few key areas for India.

China’s expanding connectivity initiatives in South Asia and the Indian Ocean is a growing area of concern for India. Delhi looks at the Belt and Road Initiative with suspicion and as a Chinese foreign policy tool to advance its strategic goals. Of particular concern is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir and, according to Delhi, violates India’s sovereignty.

During the meet, Delhi managed to gain Washington’s support on the issue. The statement notes that both sides ‘support bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment’ and ‘call on other nations in the region to adhere to these principles’.

The sentence captures all of India’s concerns, doubts and protests on the lack of clarity, debt financing and unilateral action occurring in the disputed area. Although there is no direct mention of China, the implications are quite clear.

In terms of maritime security, while the Obama administration pressed on freedom of navigation operations, the Trump-Modi statement did not mention the South China Sea. But both sides did commit to the UN Charter, international law, and the right to freedom of navigation and overflight — an underlying reference to those waters.

This too is a favourable development for India. Delhi has been trying to distance itself from any possible joint patrols in the South China Sea with Washington while still supporting the principles of international law. The statement allows India to continue to take its current and preferred stand on the South China Sea dispute — that Delhi is only concerned with freedom of navigation and respect for international law.

Washington’s relationship with Pakistan has always been a sticky point in the India-US relationship, but Delhi was able to garner Washington’s support for its call on Pakistan to stop sponsoring terrorism. According to the joint statement, Pakistan should ‘ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries’ and ‘expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups’.

Lastly, as with other sections of the statement, the paragraph on defence cooperation also emphasised diplomatic support. Washington reiterated its commitment to recognise India as a major defence partner and confirmed the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems (predator drones). Both sides also committed to implement White Shipping relating to information sharing and to support Washington’s bid to join the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium as an observer.

An interesting development was the sentence on commitment ‘to explore new exercises’. Indo-US  bilateral interaction in the Indian Ocean is limited to the annual Malabar naval exercises. Given the statement lacked any other new bilateral developments, this commitment perhaps signals greater military rather than political US-Indo engagement in the future. The decision to explore new exercises could reflect the Trump administration’s support for India’s willingness to play a more active security role in the region.

The uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration has created a space for India to take more of a lead in the region. As the security environment continues to change rapidly in the Indian Ocean, key players are acknowledging the need to act more independently of US decision-making while they continue to study Trump and his policies. And as countries like Japan and Australia begin to accept an uncertain role for the United States in the region, collaboration with India is increasing.

Delhi has been gearing for a more active role in the Indian Ocean and now has an opportunity to step up and establish its credibility as a security actor in the region. For its collaboration with Washington, the key will be in maintaining a close working relationship while pushing on small but significant bilateral developments.

This article was originally published in the East Asia Forum.