After a long period of suspense, it has become clear that the United States President Donald Trump will not be attending the 70th Republic Day celebrations in January 2019, an invite for which was sent from the Indian side in August this year. The communication was made in a letter by the White House to India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, with its proximity to the State of the Union address – an important event in the calendar of the US Capitol – as a possible explanation given by the Americans.
While it remains a mystery why the Republic Day invite to Trump was made public before a modicum of understanding with the Americans, his refusal might have come as a relief to South block mandarins in the backdrop of some recent developments.
The past two months have seen India exercising its strategic autonomy in going ahead with its defence deals with Russia and oil trade with Iran. We bought the crucial S400 missile defence system from the Russians during a highly visible summit in Delhi between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi in early October. We have, during the same period, worked around the American sanctions to continue to buy oil from the Iranians – both decisions objected to by the Americans citing their sanctions regime under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act).
The Trump administration had taken a very public position against these deals, albeit with only some junior State and Defence department officials warning of implications on the Indo-US relationship. It’s likely that in refusing the invite, the administration is sending a message that it is miffed. While it remains to be seen whether there would be an escalation from the side of Americans, it should not be seen as a major setback in the burgeoning and ever-strengthening Indo-US relationship.
Over last decade and a half, the ties have seen bipartisan support in the United States, with both Democrat and Republican administrations scaling up and investing in India. While George W Bush effectively ended nuclear apartheid against India with the civil nuclear deal in 2008, President Obama took it to the next level, making India a pivot of his Asia policy. Under Trump, we have seen praise for India in his last State of the Union address, and an accentuated role for India in what is now called the Indo-Pacific by the American officialdom.
More likely, the decline of the Republic Day invite is in line with the overall inward-looking philosophy of the United States government under Trump. Be it the trade wars with China, or haggling with India over tariffs on import of American superbikes, the President has not shied away from taking strong positions in what he sees as best serves the American interest. America being in the throes of a bitterly contested midterm election could also have played a role in the decision. So while India should still keep a window open for a Trump visit in future, if not in January, it would be wise to not allow a sentiment of 'snub' to cloud the estimation of the trajectory of the Indo-US relationship.