India’s relations with the United States of America need to be put back on track. The relationship has lost steam in the recent months with many contentious issues surfacing that remain unaddressed. We have now to see whether, with the change of government in Delhi, a new start can be made.
The challenges ahead will not be easy to overcome. The irritants marking the relationship arose when a ‘pro-US’ prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was in power. His government was grappling with problems of development and growth, and sought US participation in building a strong Indian economy. Indeed, the strategic dialogue, with its five pillars — strategic cooperation, energy and climate change, education and development, economy, trade and agriculture, science and technology, health and innovation — was instituted in 2009, under his watch. If, despite four previous rounds, the relationship became somewhat morose, no breakthroughs can be expected from the fifth one.
To begin with, the US must make an extra effort to establish a relationship of confidence with the new prime minister, whom the Americans have treated very shabbily with an obstinacy that makes little political sense. President Barack Obama seemingly established a good personal chemistry with Manmohan Singh; it is unlikely that this will be easily repeated with Narendra Modi, although the US president has reached out to him immediately after his election and welcomed him to Washington, as did the secretary of state, John Kerry. Modi himself has been remarkably large-hearted towards the US, conveying through his decision to visit Washington quickly that he intends to overlook the visa-denial insult and move forward to establish a mutually productive relationship in India’s national interest. It is indisputable that a perception of some malaise developing in the India-US relationship complicates the management of a balance in our foreign policy.
To the extent that these diplomatic signals are watched when a new government takes over in a country headed by a prime minister, whose thinking on foreign policy issues is not known, it would have been noted that the first foreign visit by Modi announced by the government was to the US. As against this, Modi has reached out exceptionally towards China by allowing the Chinese to stage a diplomatic coup of sorts, especially vis-à-vis Japan, in having their foreign minister received as the first foreign envoy by him, holding an unusually long conversation over the telephone with his Chinese counterpart and following it with a “very fruitful” meeting with the Chinese president in Brazil, who was invited to visit India in September, programming the Indian army chief’s visit to China, and that of the vice-president to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel Agreement along with the Myanmarese president. This boosts China’s “peaceful” credentials and indirectly signals reduced concern about China’s thrust into Myanmar.
This has implications for our “strategic cooperation” with the US. The Modi government, by intensively engaging China and inviting it to invest in india, has emphatically distanced itself from the US “re-balance” towards Asia. While the trilateral US-Japan-India naval exercises in the Pacific have just been completed and the Indian navy will no doubt continue to exercise frequently with the US navy in the Indian Ocean, the new government is clearly being responsive to a calculated Chinese charm offensive that, not surprisingly, excludes any softer nuance on its territorial claims on Indian territory. The strategic independence of our China policy is being affirmed.
The upcoming strategic dialogue will hardly bring about any greater congruence between our positions on developments in the troubled Islamic region to our west. The US continues to mishandle Pakistan at our cost. It has brought about regime changes in various countries through military interventions; it has resorted to suffocating sanctions against Iran, for instance; it is threatening to isolate even a powerful nuclear armed country like Russia by targeting its vulnerabilities. Yet, it is accommodating towards Pakistan, although the latter has been responsible for indirectly inflicting the greatest number of casualties on the US by a friendly country — indeed, a non-Nato ally — because of the safe havens it has provided to the Taliban. The ambiguous way the US deals with Islamic movements, including its outreach to the Taliban and its unwillingness to scotch the dangerous idea of the Islamic Caliphate, is not consonant with our strategic interests. Its current geopolitical compression of Russia is reviving Cold-War-type tensions in Europe that could spread elsewhere if the confrontation with Russia is pursued in a bid to divide Russia from Europe so that American hegemony over Europe through Nato is not diluted. This puts India at odds with the US over Russia, with which we have a “special and privileged strategic partnership”.
On the nuclear issue, the Bharatiya Janata Party, responsible for inserting those provisions in our nuclear liability act that the Americans adamantly object to, will find it that much more difficult to find a legal solution. On defence sales, the new government wants to give priority to local manufacturing and technology transfer. On the latter, the US has the record of being the most restrictive. We cannot also move too much in the US direction as we have defence ties with other “strategic partners” too.
The several irritants on the economic side have contributed most to the perceived loss of élan in the bilateral relationship. Select US corporations have led a campaign, including in the US Congress, against India’s investment, trade and IPR policies, leading, inter alia, to a year-long investigation by the US International Trade Commission and India’s classification as a Priority Watch Country under Section 301 for IPR violations. On our pressing need to obtain massive foreign investments to upgrade our physical infrastructure, not much can be expected from the US. Another limitation is the unwillingness of US companies to work with the public sector. The US uses the strategic dialogue for policy changes in India that would create a business environment tailored to the need of their companies looking for opportunities in the financial, energy, agriculture and environment sectors, for instance. While being demanding on this score, the US is unwilling to address long-standing Indian concerns on a number of trade and services issues. On top of this, detracting from their “strategic cooperation” on global issues, India and the US have serious differences within the framework of WTO and climate-change negotiations — a situation unlikely to change soon, given the entrenched US positions and India’s resolve to protect its legitimate interests.
All in all, we have to take a realistic view of the scope of our “strategic partnership” with the US, much as we must seek to build strong bridges with that country in pursuit of our larger national interest.