India-US relations have been in the spotlight lately, mostly due to President Donald Trump’s unpredictable and erratic actions, which leave not just South Block mandarins, but most of the world scrambling to make sense of it all. Trump’s protectionist policies have led to some bilateral friction over trade and tariff concessions, as well as immigration, given his plans to cut down and restrict visas for work in the US. Strategically, Trump’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran and Russia have led to concerns in New Delhi, given that it directly impacts India’s military and energy security.
“Granted, the broad bipartisan support we enjoy in the US has been of immense help, but given Trump’s mercurial nature, our diplomats are often left wondering about the course this relationship is taking,” says a former diplomat. Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, who also served as India’s ambassador to the US during the George W Bush presidency, however, believes that over the past decade, not just the strategic relationship, but even the economic relationship between the two largest democracies has grown dramatically since the days of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
According to Mansingh, it began with former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who overcame a challenge to his government from his Left partners over the nuclear deal with the US. “Today, it is an established part of our political wisdom that a strategic partnership with the US is good for us, irrespective of which party is in power,” he says.
Asserting that the nuclear deal was a symbolic deal, Mansingh says, “The reason why we went to the extent of forging a strategic partnership was not because we need America’s help for nuclear power. In fact, our scientific community was not convinced about it. The reason why we went there was because with the nuclear deal, all the sanctions against India for the nuclear tests of 1974 and then in 1998 were removed.”
Over the past decade, the nuclear deal has receded almost completely in the background, because nuclear power itself has come under a cloud after that the Fukushima debacle in Japan, and defence and security have now become the most important components of the relationship.“Now, the doors are open for the highest technology that America has… so, if India has the money to buy it, the Americans are willing to sell it,” the former diplomat says.
“The security aspect has become more important in the past 10 years because of China. We have a non-aligned mindset. The fact that in actual practice that has never been achieved is another matter. But now there is virtual unanimity that the long-term threat to India comes not just from Pakistan but from China. And if India doesn’t have the strength to match China at this moment, which it clearly does not, it needs a backup and a strong friend who can help in standing up to China. The nuclear deal has turned into a strategic partnership, which is actually an insurance policy against China’s erratic and aggressive behaviour.”
The US has also become India’s largest economic partner. “In terms of trade, investment and access to technology, the US is indisputably the number priority for India. And unlike in the case of China, which is our largest trading partner, this is not a trade which is tilting in favour of the US. In fact, it has constantly given India surplus trade balance, which is why it is attracting a bit of anger from Trump. The new element here is that the NRIs are now an official factor in India’s foreign policy. This was almost exclusively due to Modi because while Vajpayee regularly went to the US and addressed larges rallies of NRIs, it was clearly understood it was in the party interest and not of government interest,” says Mansingh.
“Earlier, under PM Nehru, for instance, embassies were specifically told to stay away from the affairs of Indians settled abroad. Today, every embassy is involved in organising receptions for NRIs and PIOs, as a part of official policy. Our ambassadors no longer feel embarrassed to attend these rallies because that is a focal point of Modi’s visits.”
Strategically, India and the US are increasingly cooperating in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. But it is in the Indian Ocean region, where there has been increasing Chinese naval activity. Chinese submarines are being seen more frequently in the Indian Ocean area, and they have turned up several times in Colombo and other Indian ocean ports.
The Indian Navy is transitioning from being a coastal nay to a blue water navy and still doesn’t have enough carriers, submarines or battleships to challenge China. Which is why New Delhi is aggressively forging bilateral and multilateral tie-ups with other maritime countries, with the US being the principal partner.
“So, the strategic partnership has grown stronger, particularly under Modi, the economic partnership is growing well, despite pretty serious problems with the Americans on the trade front, over trademarks, so-called tax terrorism, regulatory issues, and the defence partnership is growing,” concludes Mansingh.
1.2 million US tourists visited India in 2015, accounting for over 15% of all international visitors, and contributing over $3 billion to the Indian economy. 1 million Indians travelled to the United States. As the 7th‑largest source of visitor spending in the United States, Indian tourists contributed USD 11.4 billion to the US economy. Thirty-one US states saw an economic impact of $100 million or greater from spending by Indian visitors. Non-stop flights connect 5 American cities to Delhi and Mumbai. More than half of the passengers travelling on direct flights to India departed from Newark, New Jersey. The first flights connecting Washington, DC and Delhi began in 2017.
Remittances by Indian Americans
Indian Americans are the 3rd largest Asian ethnic group in the US following Chinese and Filipinos
Indian immigrants are among the largest foreign populations becoming American citizens, ranking 2nd in US naturalizations in 2015.
Indian Americans are among the wealthiest ethnic groups in the US with a median household income of over $100,000 in 2015
India is the 3rd largest recipient of remittances from the US with an estimated $12 billion sent in 2015
$11.7 billion sent in remittances by Indian Americans to India
(Sources: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey; US Dept of Homeland Security; World Bank; Pew Research Center)