Looking past the economy: What Modi and Trump cannot ignore in hopes of strong U.S.-India relations

With just one day to go until Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump meet, hope and anxiety are in the air about whether the two will be able to cultivate a relationship beneficial to India and the U.S. Although both leaders are known for their bold decisions, this meeting cannot afford audacious tactics, as they will cripple any existing ties.

While the most important part of the U.S.-India bilateral relationship is economic, Modi and Trump cannot forget other pressing topics that still exist, specifically energy and defense. Modi should strategically place India at the top of America’s interests, advocating that India’s support is beneficial to the Trump presidency in these two major ways.

Energy partnership

Trump may have pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, but the U.S.-India’s partnership in the energy sector must continue. There have been key efforts from the two nations in the past, beginning with the Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) in 2009, which the Obama administration created to collaborate on clean energy technology through research, deployment, and access. The energy initiative grew through 2014 and 2015 during the Obama-Modi summits, shaping the U.S. and India’s joint legacy on the fight against climate change.

More recently, the United States Energy Department announced 30 million dollar in funding for clean energy research as part of PACE, playing a pivotal role in transforming the production and consumption of electricity and carbon emissions. In order to continue these efforts and create new ones, Modi and Trump must take a moment out of creating a close, personal friendship and understand that India can accomplish more than simply reaching an energy goal of 175 GW by 2022.

Although Trump has never been the most reliable partner in combating climate change, there is no reason that the U.S. cannot help itself and India, through increased natural gas exports. With the recent crackdown on Qatar, a major natural gas exporter to India, the U.S. should seize an opportunity to use its position as the world’s largest natural gas producer and to consistently export to India. Not only would this give India’s economy a much needed, new source of energy but it would also greatly expand the U.S.- India joint energy vision.

Defense procurement

Before moving onto bilateral defense procurement, it is critical that Modi and Trump first address their individual efforts in promoting internal growth through their respective “Make in India” and “America First” campaigns. As India strives to turn itself into an arms manufacturing hub through foreign suppliers, a conflict might occur, as the U.S. is strongly  advocating investing domestically instead of investing abroad. Without resolving this rising issue, defense cooperation between the two countries might be impeded.

With the number of foreign arms suppliers increasing in the defense market, the U.S. lacks the control it once had over equipment, a fact that that Trump’s defense policies must take into account. India could just as well find another supplier in the competitive market - especially in an age of advanced defense technology - but the reality is that both countries are best secured by each other.

One strategy to facilitate closer defense ties would be to change the U.S. export control system and making the purchase of arms more efficient. By doing so, the U.S. would be get rid of any disadvantage that it grapples with in defense trade unlike foreign competitors such as Russia whose exports on technology are not as controlled. A first step that Trump could make is to follow through with his expected approval of India’s drone purchase, a key agreement in deepening defense ties.

Furthermore, it is imperative that Modi and Trump attend to the issue of the South China Sea, particularly because the rising Chinese militarization dampens India’s influence in the region. A commonly discussed strategy is joint patrols of the area, but that would come with the possible consequence of angering China. Although joint patrols in the interest of maritime safety should be a priority, Trump’s growing relationship with China - one that India must take caution of- could easily disengage any cooperation.  

In the end, there should be no expectation that either nation will change from this meeting. The point of any bilateral relationship is not to find measures for drastically altering the nature of a country, but rather to find a connector that fits in between the two. It must be a give and take system. Political realities may clash between Modi and Trump on June 26th, but that simply means rhetoric must be stepped up. All eyes are on you, Mr. Modi.