US President Donald Trump will not be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade of India in January 2019 due to his “scheduling constraints,” said a White House spokesperson on Tuesday, according to Indian news website Livemint. Some sources attributed this to the State of the Union address that Trump is set to give that month. Former US president Barack Obama attended the Indian event in 2015. In that sense, Trump’s rejection of the Indian invitation may go beyond just scheduling issues.
Many would link Trump’s refusal to India’s deal with Russia to purchase S-400 missile defense systems in late September despite US opposition. Before New Delhi signed the agreement, Washington had threatened to sanction India. It’s fair to consider that Trump intends to warn New Delhi by rejecting the invitation.
Going by international practice, the two sides must have had ample communication and agreed mutually before sending an invitation publicly.
US deliberately rejecting the invitation would embarrass Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and put the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party under domestic pressure. The Indian public is likely to feel offended by the US move and think that Washington treats India only as a pawn. This will undermine bilateral relations.
In fact, although India and the US are getting closer, a growing number of problems seem to have cropped up between them, some of which concern their core national interests and thus affect ties.
Washington thinks India hasn’t fully sided with the US over major strategic and regional issues. For instance, despite its participation in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, New Delhi so far hasn’t taken a public stance against China. Despite their two plus two dialogue, India has been unwilling to join US moves to sanction and criticize Russia. While collaborating with the US over the Afghanistan issue, India didn’t do Washington’s bidding over oil trade with Iran and voted in the UN against the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. To the US, India is a half-hearted accomplice rather than a true ally or partner.
On the other hand, for India, the US doesn’t care about its economic needs or immediate interests. Although the US is willing to share with India part of its military technology, it doesn’t want to share the key civilian technology with New Delhi to develop its economy. US emphasis on “America First” has harmed the interest of Indian nationals in the US by restricting work visas. Washington has ignored the importance of Iranian oil to the Indian economy and even taken to undermining India’s economic growth and financial stability. It overlooked India’s security interest, especially the traditional military ties with Russia, by pushing New Delhi to maintain distance from Moscow.
The US uses India to counter China without consideration for the potential strategic risks for New Delhi. Washington also pushes India to be part of the Indo-Pacific strategy without supporting the latter’s demand to maintain its dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. Trump’s eccentric diplomacy, which India finds hard to adapt to, has reduced New Delhi’s strategic trust in and passion for the US.
Factoring in all this, India is not necessarily willing to deepen its strategic ties with the Trump administration. It is probably biding time before it can deal with the next one.
Despite all these differences and nicks and bumps in the relationship, the US and India have had their strategic fundamentals unchanged. It remains true that the US is in a relative decline while India is rising, and Washington still needs India strategically. Meanwhile, India keeps relying on the US economically and strategically. In this sense, India will on the one hand adhere to its strategy of balancing its ties – by trying to strike a sensitive balance with Washington. This won’t be hit by the two countries’ discord over Russia’s air defense system, Iran’s oil exports and the queer style of US diplomacy.
Moreover, rejecting the Indian invitation for the Republic Day doesn’t mean Trump won’t visit India. This can probably be Trump’s way of cranking up the pressure. The two sides must be communicating with each other extensively and it would be no surprise if the US changes its plan.