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Eisenhower and Trump in India: A tale of two visits, 60 years apart

A man applies finishing touches to paintings of U.S. President Donald Trump and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a wall as part of a beautification along a route that Trump and Modi will be taking during Trump's upcoming visit, in Ahmedabad, India, February 17, 2020. REUTERS/Amit Dave - RC2E2F9D35NB
Editor's note:

Strategic convergence drew the President Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru together and formed the basis of an India-U.S. partnership. Six decades later, President Donald Trump’s visit to India signals another strategic convergence between the two countries. However, Tanvi Madan argues that for more stable and sustainable partnership, it takes more than shared strategic interests. This piece was originally published by the Hindustan Times.

Sixty years ago, India rolled out the red carpet — and the crowds — for American President Dwight Eisenhower. American and Indian differences, including on economic policy, the Soviet Union, or Pakistan had not disappeared. But India and the United States (US) were drawn together by growing strategic convergence. With Sino-Indian boundary skirmishes, the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, and concerns about Beijing’s influence in Nepal, Delhi increasingly saw China as a challenge. This called for domestic strengthening and external balancing, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saw the US as helpful in both regards. The Eisenhower administration, in turn, had bought into the idea of India as a counterbalance and democratic contrast to communist China, and of, therefore, helping Delhi win “the fateful race” with Beijing. This convergence provided the basis for an India-US partnership, as well as the impetus for Eisenhower’s trip—which was also useful for two leaders who were facing questions at home.

Fast-forward six decades later and President Donald Trump’s trip. Much like the Eisenhower visit, the Trump trip will be heavy on optics, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi rolling out the red carpet. But substance will not be missing. This visit, too, will reflect the convergences between India and the US. That it is happening at all is in no small part due to these shared interests. Trump is not fond of foreign travel, but has clearly been persuaded that it is a trip worth making, even if, for him, it is for more transactional reasons than for some of his officials. As in the Eisenhower trip, India-US divergences will be apparent as well. But the Trump trip will also reflect Delhi’s understanding that it is dealing with a very different president than it has in the past.

In terms of convergences, the progress in the diplomatic and security relationship over the last few years has been remarkable, spurred in no small part by shared US and Indian concerns about China’s actions in the region. Over the last three years, this has resulted in “deliverables,” including new dialogue mechanisms (2+2 and quadrilateral), upgraded platforms (India-Japan-US trilateral), enhanced interoperability thanks to the signing of agreements (for instance, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement), and an upgraded and expanded set of military exercises (for instance, Tiger Triumph). The Trump administration has also supported India during two crises (Doklam in 2017 and after the Pulwama attack in 2019), and at the United Nations Security Council and the Financial Action Task Force.

During this visit, there is likely to be some progress in an area where recently there has been little: Defence deals. A deal for multi-role helicopters for the Indian navy seems imminent. Others could also be discussed or even finalised (for instance, for additional Apaches or P-8is). Beyond that, watch for signs of progress on the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, which would facilitate geo-spatial information sharing. And more broadly, expect to see reaffirmation of the US and India’s free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific visions.

Also look for progress in various areas of cooperation in the joint statement, which will also make the breadth of the relationship apparent, whether in terms of sectors (counterterrorism, cyber, nuclear, science and technology, space, and energy and water) or stakeholders (ministries, public, business, diaspora). This document can seem like a laundry list, but this is the stuff of which sustainable partnerships are made.

The missing deliverable seems likely to be the one both countries sought, albeit for different reasons — a trade deal. This has eluded them whether because of negotiating styles, lack of political will, different priorities, changing goalposts, or political sensitivities. Could they still pull a rabbit out of a hat? Possibly, if the two leaders decide that it is a priority. But if they cannot at least reach a trade ceasefire, economic frictions could spillover into areas of strategic convergence.

In some part to make up for that, Modi will likely make an extra effort to produce another deliverable for Trump — optics. While Trump might get a US-Taliban deal on his way to, or from, India with an unannounced stopover, Delhi will want to ensure that the US President does not leave India empty-handed. So, beyond defence deals, he will get the large audience that he craves and visuals that his election campaign will use. However, the Indian government will have to be careful that their actions are not seen as a political endorsement — and it is aware that it needs to restore the bipartisan perception of the relationship. Nonetheless, both Modi and Trump, grappling with unwelcome headlines at home recently, will be hoping the trip gives them a public relations boost.

The optics, even knowing that they might be used politically, will be just one aspect of the trip that will show how much India has had to make adjustments for Trump to keep a crucial partner on side. Defence deals, rarely announced during India-US leader-level summits, are being timed around the visit. Unusually, India has, reportedly, also agreed to procurement commitments in trade talks. And Delhi is also likely to downplay differences on Russia and any off-the-cuff Trump statements on Pakistan or Kashmir or China or 5G, to which it would have normally taken exception.

But whether with this leader or a more traditional one like Eisenhower, during and after this trip, India — and the US — will have to keep in mind that it is not healthy to depend on just the strategic drivers in the relationship. A more balanced relationship, with strong strategic, economic and shared values legs, will make for a more stable and sustainable India-US partnership.