Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2018-07-06 05:51:18 Published on Jul 06, 2018
India-US relations are fine

In the end it was much ado about nothing really. All the hyperventilation of the Indian strategic community was really an exercise in vanity. Grand deductions were being made about why the US last week cancelled the much anticipated ‘2+2 talks’ with India set for July 6. It turned out that it was indeed a scheduling problem with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo actually having to go to North Korea to salvage the Trump-Kim engagement which is seemingly on the verge of collapse. Trump’s outreach to North Korea is his signature achievement so far and he would want to preserve at the least the appearance that it still has some traction. Not surprising, therefore, that India would be asked to wait. Nikki Haley’s visit to India last week is no coincidence. It was meant to convey that even as the 2+2 has been postponed, India will remain an important focus area.

India shares an interesting relationship with the US. While many in India would like to pretend that New Delhi couldn’t care less about Washington, every sign emanating from Washington is also over analysed. If an American President doesn’t mention India or if an official meeting had to be postponed or cancelled, it is read as a sign that Indo-US relations are heading towards the cliff. The reality is that India’s relations with the US have today matured enough that underlying structural and institutional variables can propel the bilateral relationship in a positive direction for quite some time. Both in India and the US, top political leaderships, cutting across party lines, are invested in making this relationship work.

Even a US Presidency as transactional as Donald Trump’s has largely made all the right noises about India. If Prime Minister Modi could argue that India and the United States have overcome “the hesitations of history” under the Obama administration, he wooed the Trump Administration during his initial outreach when he suggested that “the convergence of my vision for ‘New India’ and President Trump’s vision for making America great again will add new dimensions to our cooperation.” He managed to steer Trump towards the larger structural realities that have driven the India-US relationship since George W. Bush declared that America would help India emerge as a global power. Trump’s South Asia strategy has also taken Indian concerns into account and his emphasis on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is in tune with Indian thinking.

There are indeed problems and in a relationship as broad and deep as Indo-US that should be par for the course. There’s the persistent Iran question which has come to the fore with the US asking all countries, including India, to reduce oil imports from Iran to zero by November 4. Indian companies will be facing sanctions if India fails to comply. The Trump Administration has taken a maximalist position on Iran and it is willing to brook no dissent in the matter. India’s defence ties with Russia are another point of contention as India is in the process of purchasing S400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. As per the US law called “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA), sanctions can be imposed on countries that engage in “significant transactions” with any of the listed 39 Russian companies. India has close defence ties with Russia and Indian armed forces remain highly dependent on Russian from cooperation on strategic technologies to supply of spares, maintenance repair and overhaul.

Trade is the third leg of this triad that is generating tension with the Trump Administration pushing New Delhi to lower its trade barriers. Trump has accused New Delhi (along with other major economies) of charging 100 per cent tariff on some of the US’ goods, threatening to cut trade ties with them. India has announced its retaliatory tariff on 29 US products worth $235 million to come into effect on 4 August, in response to the US move to unilaterally raise import duties on Indian steel and aluminium.

Together these issues have raised the spectre of Indo-US ties once again going back to the good old days of recriminations and wrangling. Some have even welcomed this gleefully underlining their own dire warnings about the dangers of relying on the US as a partner. But there have always been issues on which the US and India had been on the opposite sides. Even when the US India civil nuclear pact was being negotiated, India’s ties with Iran were brought up by interested parties to derail the process. Today when Iran has bounced back, India is not the only nation being targeted by Washington. On all the three issues of contention, the US is challenging the rest of the world and in all the three cases, India is not really the central player.

India is trying to seek exemptions from the sanctions and is also working on alternate payment mechanisms so as to continue to make purchases from Iran. But the private sector will not stick to Iran even if the Indian government may so desire. They are most likely to pull out of Iran, making the hue and cry in Indian largely redundant. The Russia case is different and the Trump Administration has also defended India at the US Congress, calling for exemption for India. It recognises the setback to Indo-US defence engagement if the CAATSA sanctions were to be implemented. It has also indicated that India may receive some waiver for the development of Chabahar port in Iran.

While the Trump Administration’s transactional approach is generating some turbulence in the Indo-US relationship, New Delhi retains the ability to confidently to bear this out as the fundamentals of the relationship remain as strong ever.  As a self-confident emerging power, India should take the lead in shaping the terms of engagement of its partnership with the US, rather than getting carried away by the surrounding noise.

This commentary originally appeared in DNA.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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