The U.S. and India Seek Common Ground
By: Analysis | Stratfor.comJune 27, 2017
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Washington, D.C., for his first visit with U.S. President Donald Trump, and the June 26 meeting comes on the heels of various developments highlighting points of both conflict and cooperation in the U.S.-India relationship.

Especially recently, areas of dispute between Trump and Modi have risen in prominence. Trump singled out India during his June 1 speech withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, claiming that New Delhi supports the fight against climate change only as long as it is receiving billions of dollars in foreign aid for its efforts. Modi swiftly denied Trump's charge and emphasized the need for all nations to fight climate change, embracing the opportunity to make India a vanguard of the debate. India has also come under criticism from Trump regarding the U.S. H1-B temporary visa program. Calls in the United States to reform the program, which has been a boon to Indian information technology professionals, certainly preceded Trump. But the U.S. president has amplified the issue, emphasizing his stance that the program enables foreign workers with lower salary requirements to supplant Americans. For India, the world's largest IT-sourcing destination and the country with the most H1-B visa recipients, this is disconcerting to say the least. As part of New Delhi's trade negotiation strategy, Modi has prioritized efforts to expand opportunities for Indian IT professionals, both in the United States and elsewhere.

Still, diplomacy is the art of maneuvering around disputes. Though their countries have much to disagree about, there are many subjects on which Modi and Trump's points of view converge, such as defense. Just days before Modi's arrival, the United States approved the sale of 22 Guardian surveillance drones to India in a deal worth at least $2 billion, indicating that Washington is invested in bolstering New Delhi's defensive capacity. That deal followed an announcement that U.S. firm Lockheed Martin, one of the world's largest defense contractors, would be partnering with India's Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. in an effort to win a $12 billion Indian defense contract by year's end. That contract is aimed at shoring up India's aging air force fleet by jointly manufacturing F-16 fighter jets. Even though the jets would be built under Modi's vaunted "Make in India" initiative, designed to create domestic manufacturing jobs in support of industrialization, Trump's tacit support for the deal likely comes from a desire to revive the United States' dying F-16 production line, as orders for the jets have been drying up for some time now. If the contract pans out, at least some supporting jobs would be created in the United States, even if production moves to India.

The United States has long sought closer military cooperation with New Delhi, evidenced by last year's Logistics Support Agreement between the countries. (Two other interoperability deals are also moving glacially through New Delhi's policymaking apparatus.) In July, U.S.-India defense ties will be on full display in the Bay of Bengal, where the two nations will be joined by Japan for the annual Malabar naval exercises.

New Delhi's preference for strategic autonomy inherently limits its cooperation with Washington, but Modi and Trump's relationship is fortified by a shared desire to curb the rise of China. New Delhi is especially worried about the port projects in South Asia that are part of China's Belt and Road Initiative. It fears that those ports could expand the reach of the increasingly assertive Chinese navy. After Trump's aggressive pre-election rhetoric against China shifted to a more constructive engagement of sorts with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it left New Delhi unclear about where the United States' relationship with China is heading. Modi's meeting with Trump gave the two leaders the opportunity to clarify the U.S. stance on China, specifically on various disputes in the South China Sea.

Combating terrorism is also a shared interest between Washington and New Delhi, making India's archrival Pakistan a particularly relevant subject in U.S.-India relations. India is interested in urging the United States to more effectively pressure Islamabad, both for its use of militant proxies in Kashmir and for its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. As their relationship progresses, Modi will also be hoping for Trump's approval of a tough Indian approach toward Pakistan, which may include more military action in the future, along the lines of 2016's "surgical strike" in Pakistan-held Kashmir. Modi's exhortations are especially relevant now. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is currently retooling Washington's strategy in Afghanistan, and he recently announced a heavy regional approach to the 15-year war. This suggests the Trump administration is prepared to take a harder line against Islamabad, currently the most important external actor in Afghanistan.

Recent events make it clear that the relationship between the United States and India, just like any between two nations of their size, is not without its disagreements. But Modi and Trump share plenty of common ground, especially as far as defense cooperation goes.

This article originally appeared on Stratfor.com