Strategists and analysts world over have difficult time when relationships between world’s largest and oldest democracies are riding surfboard and negotiating the crest and base of a surf. Indo US relations probably fall within this definition. Each passing day of the present US Administration has thrown different set of situations for the diplomats on both sides to shape these into existing rubric, and it is working.
The most recent one being a move to withdraw the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from India. India has been largest beneficiary of this scheme in the world. This effectively means India’s $5.6 billion export to the US will attract tariffs. Trade and investment policies of India are the bone of contention. This scheme has been in practice since 1970s. However, from the time the present POTUS has moved into the White House, he has been pointing at trade deficit of the US with the countries that it does trade with, India being one of them. Does it augur well for bilateral relations?
It began with appreciation of Indian policies which has pulled millions out of poverty, largest democracy of the world, most important in the Indo Pacific and Strategic partner who believes in free and open sea, following rule of the laws and transparency in international financial dealings. It was followed by signing of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in September 2018. This was seen as major step forward which permitted US firms to transfer high-tech equipment such as armed surveillance drones to monitor Indian Ocean. US also agreed to establish hot line between Foreign Office heads of two governments. It also cleared path for joint Army exercises. Agreement also provided port and airfield facilities for the warships/ aircraft of each other in their respective bases on case to case basis (LEMOA).
Rightly, Defence Minister Smt Nirmala Sitharaman said “the momentum in our defence partnership has imbued a tremendous positive energy that has elevated India- US relations to unprecedented heights,”. Joseph Felter, the US Deputy Asst Secretary for Defence said, “It not only allows us to be more interoperable with India, but allows India to be more interoperable across its own systems…most significantly, it opens up a range of Defence technologies to India.”
Clearly, India came into a group of fewer than 30 countries with whom US has signed similar agreement. Probably, it sent signals to India that it should resist purchase of S-400 system from Russia.
But that didn’t happen. India had its compulsion of ongoing negotiations with Russia well before warming up of relations with the US. Also, the existing Air Defence systems having been built on architectures around previous Russian systems. Exercising its autonomy India took a call.
While the S 400 issue was still live, the import of Iranian oil became a thorn in US foreign policy, more to do with its strong arms business with Saudi Arabia and Israel’s threat than Iran per se. India’s imports from Iran are fundamentally for reasons of competitive costs and few refineries having machinery to accept specifications of Iranian crude only. Since US allies Japan and South Korea are also importers of Iranian oil, it promulgated exemption from sanctions a list of 8 countries which included India as also China. Though POTUS in response to a question during press briefing said “On Indian imports of oil, you will see the actions soon”.
If one analyses these roller coaster relationships, it does not augur well for the close relationship that the two countries enjoy. It injects an element of uncertainty regarding ultimate dependability on the US. While US needs India’s support if it wishes to restrict China’s attempt to disrupt existing world order by replacing the US from unipolar leadership.
For the whole hearted Indian support, it would be necessary to be sensitive to concerns and challenges India faces. PM Modi has taken the country on the path of development which is unstoppable. For traversing this path India needs stability and peaceful enabling environment in the immediate neighbourhood. India shares unresolved land borders with two nuclear powers and that is a reality. Also, India has had good relations with Gulf countries across the waterways from where virtually entire hydrocarbons are imported.
Recent statement by India’s Foreign Secretary that “India aligns on issues”, and that is its compulsion given the geopolitics of IOR. US needs to realise this. Any restrictions imposed by US embargo will hurt the economy and therefore capacity building of India. The two matured democracies need to engage in capacity building to prevent rise of non-democratic world order. At the 19 th CPC, the Chairman had clearly annunciated that the model of governances is worth emulation since it has turned China from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy and taken millions out of poverty. Trade war is an attempt to restrict this rise and rightly so. But it may not be adequate. US will have to engage in constructive relationship with China’s neighbours, India being important one with entire peninsula a strategically dominant power in the Indian Ocean.
Uncertainties of policies could be counterproductive for calm passage of relationship which the two countries are navigating on a single surfboard called the Indian Ocean.