Meeting Fire with Fire

India flexed back against the United States by issuing retaliatory tariffs on a broad swath of US exports. This latest escalation compounds conflicting prerogatives in international trade, as the world has become entangled in the web of an anticompetitive US tariff regime. With the economic and bilateral harm still young, India and the US can together prevent further damage by repairing discrepancies during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to South Asia next week.

The course of America’s feud with perceptibly unfair trading practices has hardly been contained to India. Both Canada and Mexico have been enveloped by the cascade of tariffs, specifically on aluminum and steel. European countries have similarly come under fire. The Trump Administration has slapped excises on imported vehicles originating from the European Union, and it has pledged more forthcoming should negotiations fail to bear fruit. Unsurprisingly, China has been the source of the Administration’s most intense ire. Chinese imports have been struck relentlessly by tariffs, to a dollar amount ranging in the hundreds of billions of dollars, with several hundred billion more in trade in the crosshairs.

But India’s case is radically different from the rest. The imposition of US tariffs on countries throughout the world have predominantly followed a strict ally-foe binary: North American and European countries comprising the former and China, at the very least a strategic adversary, the latter. India cannot be categorized by this dualistic method because its inherited Nehruvian approach to foreign policy permeates strongly, even today. With this frame of mind, India considers nearly every state actor a partner; thus, it forges global relationships that are neither too hot nor too cold. Ostensibly, some relationships carry greater significance than others, but India maintains its position as a friend to all and an ally to none.

This makes the Indo-American trade conflict perhaps all the more tragic. Following India’s 1998 nuclear tests, the US unleashed a torrent of sanctions upon India designed to inflict significant economic damage for acquiring nuclear proliferation capabilities. Gradually, under American political leadership, sanctions were relaxed, bilateral relations deepened and expanded, cross-cultural exchanges flourished, and strategic interests increasingly aligned.

President Clinton traveled to India in his final years as commander-in-chief and reintegrated India into the world of nations as a responsible member. With meticulous nurturing, President Bush broadened the scope for partnership by weaving economic goodwill and shared concern against terrorism into the structure of an enduring relationship. President Obama placed India at the heart of the pivot to Asia by reinforcing defense cooperation, positioning India into a robust export market for America and the world. Sustained progress had been executed by consecutive presidents across political divisions for nearly two decades on end.

These recent tariffs peril the promising path of Indo-American relations. The tragedy emerges from the devout energies of several administrations before, that molded the partnership into its present form, now being impassively discarded. Now India has demonstrated the tenacity to respond with tariffs in kind – to meet fire with fire – against the United States. Beyond tariffs, the United States has rescinded India’s status in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), a program which shielded select US-bound Indian imports from duties. The US is undermining the trajectory of a “defining partnership of the 21st century” by receding from a mutually-sought apex and the stronger relations which would assuredly result.

These policies come amid a resounding electoral mandate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won an unassailable majority for a second straight term. Continuing to exert force against his government would be a politically unwise move for the US. Instead, the US is better situated working alongside the prime minister to reconcile differences in policy and perspective.

Secretary Mike Pompeo’s travel to South Asia is a ripe opportunity to set right again the direction of a relationship so paramount to the global architecture of this century. Together, India and the United States have a shared rendezvous with destiny. Separated, they share no such common destiny.

Photo Credit: AP