Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump will travel to New Delhi and Ahmedabad, India, on Feb. 24–25 to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the White House announced Monday.

Why it matters: “India could be to America in Asia during the 21st century what the U.K. was in Europe during the 20th – the most reliable partner in great power competition,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington now at the Hudson Institute.

  • India’s location, size and economic growth make it the obvious counterweight to China in the eyes of American policymakers.
  • The relationship is deepening, particularly in the military dimension. 
  • India has also recently shown “a greater willingness to call out aggressive Chinese behavior,” says Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment. It spurned Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and is attempting to counter Chinese influence in South Asia.
  • There have been tensions with the White House over trade, but a modest deal on that front is expected when Trump visits later this month.

Between the lines: Trump’s visit will be closely watched primarily for his rhetoric on Modi’s domestic policies, including a controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims. Modi is a fellow populist who won a landslide at the last election, but has faced protests at home in recent months.

  • Protestors fears that Modi’s muscular Hindu nationalism is trampling India’s status as a secular democracy, especially after he sent thousands of troops to the Indian-administered Kashmir and erased the special status of the majority-Muslim state — escalating tensions with Pakistan in the disputed region.
  • After the recent crackdown in Kashmir, Trump appeared alongside Modi and declared before a 50,000-strong crowd at a "Howdy Modi" event in Houston: "India and the United States understand that to keep our communities safe, we must protect our borders."
  • “I’m expecting that this is essentially going to provide a similar kind of air cover for Modi,” Vaishnav says. “And I think the White House has no issue providing that.”

The big picture: That’s not only because Trump has a track record of embracing strongmen and rejecting concerns on human rights.

  • “The fundamental premise of this relationship is that there is an aggressive China emerging in the Asia Pacific that seeks to be a global power, and India is America’s best bet at balancing against that threat. That’s roughly the same realpolitik calculation a Democratic administration would make,” Vaishnav says.
  • Thus, Washington will seek to deepen the relationship even if there’s less focus on shared values — as the world’s two largest democracies — and more on shared interests.

What to watch: The current realities stand in stark contrast to the grand vision.

  • China’s economy is five times larger than India’s. Even the deepening military relationship is a “long way from the robust partnership the U.S. envisions,” Vaishnav says.
  • “India does not see its relationship with the United States through the China prism,” he adds. “In fact, they somewhat resent being talked about as a pawn in this great game between an established superpower and an emerging one.”

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