Despite the swirl of anxiety in the U.S. media about President Donald J. Trump’s big Asia trip, one thing went right in Manila: continued progress with India.
On Monday, Trump met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila. The meeting reportedly lasted forty-five minutes, and according to the White House readout covered the “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and resolved “that two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s greatest militaries,” in a nod to the rapidly strengthening U.S.-India defense partnership. They also discussed Indian oil imports from the United States (now more than ten million barrels), and the upcoming Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, India. (Ivanka Trump will lead the U.S. delegation, and the Hyderabad police are already relocating streetside beggars in a citywide drive.)
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs provided a press briefing with further details. According to Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar (video via India Today’s Geeta Mohan), Trump and Modi also discussed North Korea, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the supply line India has developed to Afghanistan through the Chabahar port in Iran, since Pakistan blocks Indian overland access. The first wheat shipment through the Chabahar route arrived last week.
What attracted the flurry of media attention, however, was not so much the Trump-Modi encounter but a lower-level meeting of officials from the United States, Australia, India, and Japan on Sunday—the “Quad.” This gathering at the assistant secretary level showcased a meeting of four great democracies committed to ensuring a “free and open” region, with “enhanced connectivity,” “respect for international law,” and “the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.” These quotes draw from the slightly different press statements each country released following the meeting (individual, not joint statements), but the general intent seems clear. Greater coordination among all four countries—two of them U.S. treaty allies (Japan and Australia), and one (India) a “strategic partner” of the other three—has the potential to be the most significant strategic response to China’s challenge of the rules-based international order.
How the Trump administration works to realize the full potential of the Quad, and of a larger regional Indo-Pacific vision encompassing India and the Indian Ocean, will be the strategic question to watch. I’ve written recently about my concerns that the U.S. economic approach does not cohere with the strategic framework, for example the absence of a policy to incorporate India in economic groupings such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC).
I hope the Trump administration seizes this moment to recognize the strategic potential of supporting India’s economic growth by helping it achieve greater linkages across the entire region. The president is wise to bet on India, but a successful strategy toward New Delhi will depend on getting both the strategic and the economic vision right.
My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, will be out in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).