Concern after barb on climate

Trump's reference to India sparks renegotiation worry in New Delhi

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 3.06.17
Narendra Modi hugs Vladimir Putin during a session of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (Spief) on Friday. (AFP)

New Delhi. June 2: US President Donald Trump's description of India as an illegitimate beneficiary of the Paris climate pact has sparked concerns in New Delhi's strategic establishment that he may similarly try to renegotiate other key agreements that form the bedrock of ties with Washington.

Trump withdrew from the Paris accord with a speech from the Rose Garden of the White House early Friday morning here that twice suggested the deal was loaded in favour of India and China. Trump said he would try to negotiate fresh conditions for the US to rejoin the pact.

"India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries," Trump said, before doubling down on his criticism seconds later. "India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it: India can double their coal production. We're supposed to get rid of ours."

While Trump's criticism was principally aimed at his predecessor Barack Obama, his stinging comments about India threaten to cloud Prime Minister Narendra Modi's upcoming visit to Washington later this month for a meeting with the US President.

India had lobbied hard for that meeting, principally to try and establish an early personal relationship between Modi and Trump, and to try and goad the President towards continuing with key pillars of the partnership.

But the pullout and Trump's criticism of India have also deepened concerns within the foreign policy establishment that he may also demand fresh terms bilaterally for support in sectors ranging from defence to India's nuclear ambitions, officials and analysts said.

"His (Trump's) approach everywhere is in terms of give and take alone," said Chintamani Mahapatra, professor of American studies and international security at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "He doesn't seem to understand - there are things that go beyond short-term gains."

Every US administration -just like every Indian government - has kept at the centre of bilateral relations their understanding of their country's interests, including financial and monetary gains for companies, officials said.

Still, over the past two decades, multiple Indian and American officials have also articulated Washington's recognition that a strong India is beneficial for the US, especially as a counterweight to a rising China in Asia.

"India's rise and its strength and progress on the global stage are deeply in the strategic interest of the United States," then US under secretary of state for political affairs William Burns had said in October 2010, ahead of Obama's maiden visit to India.

That recognition was a key factor, Indian officials acknowledge, in the political ballast then President George W. Bush gave to the Indo-US nuclear deal in the mid-2000s, overriding decades of scepticism in Washington. In 2008, Bush telephoned world leaders to help India gain a special - and unparalleled - waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to trade in nuclear fuel and technology with other members of the 48-nation cartel.

Obama, despite initial reservations, backed the nuclear deal and agreed to a compromise with India when the nuclear liability law here was threatening to upend the 2008 pact with the US. The US remained supportive of India's aspirations to become a full-fledged member of the NSG even though Russia has benefited from India's NSG waiver more than American firms have.

Starting with former President Bill Clinton's second term in 1997, the US has gradually eased technology access restrictions on India - culminating in the Obama administration's declaration of India last year as a "major defence partner." With this tag, India is eligible for access to several security-related products without subscribing to a licensing regime.

India too made concessions that appeared not to bring any gains in the short-term but that were part of the larger calculations involved in ties with the US. It agreed to a logistics support pact - although after a decade of negotiations - that allows American troops to use Indian bases in select circumstances. It agreed to cut oil imports from Iran to assist the Obama administration to pressure Tehran to join talks that ultimately yielded their nuclear agreement.

But Trump has indicated he intends to pursue "strict reciprocity" with other nations, former US State Department official and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ashley Tellis, wrote in an article in January. He iterated those concerns about Trump's impact on India-US relations in a May lecture at Georgetown University.

Now, officials here are worried: What if Trump insists on Indian troops in Afghanistan in exchange for support on terrorism? What if he seeks fresh sweeteners for American nuclear firms in return for lobbying at the NSG? And what if he demands more from India's information technology sector in the US, to facilitate American manufacturing plants in India?

The worries for the Indian government began even before Trump was sworn in and are central to its efforts since his election to try and reach out to him, and minimise the risks of any rupture in ties.

Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar had rushed to the US in November, days after Trump's victory, to establish a channel of communication and fix an early meeting between Modi and America's new President. "There will be change in terms of engagement of the US with the world," Jaishankar said at a seminar after returning from that trip. "What can be safely predicted is that the Trump administration will have different priorities."

Since then, Jaishankar and national security adviser Ajit Doval have each made two trips to the US for talks with the Trump administration, securing the meeting between the two leaders, likely on June 26.

But the withdrawal from the climate agreement translates worries about a transactional approach to international relations to reality. In itself, Trump's withdrawal from the climate agreement may not directly affect ties between India and the US, Mahapatra said. But it points to a larger challenge, he said. India, Mahapatra said, will "quite likely" need to deal with Trump in a manner very different from its approach with former US Presidents.