The Indo-US diplomatic relations have always been on a roller-coaster ride. From the time of the Jawaharlal Nehru regime, various US administrations have adopted different policies to deal with India vis-à-vis the neighbouring Pakistan and later China. As a result, even during the thick of our friendship era, both the nations never nursed the relationship of mutual trust and confidence. Therefore, international experts take Indo-US relations on event-to-event basis and are reluctant to pass any blanket judgement. The postponement, for the second time, of the first ‘2+2 Dialogue’ involving the foreign and defence ministers of the two nations is being projected by some as a setback in India-US strategic relations. The previous postponement was related to the absence of a US Secretary of State following the firing of Rex Tillerson. The latest reason is the unavailability of his successor Mike Pompeo due to North Korea-related travel.
However, though these postponements are disappointing for India and indicative of US political priorities at the moment, citing this as evidence of a reversal or setback in India-US security relations should be described as short-sighted. One must consider how much the India-US strategic and security relationship has evolved over the past quarter century. A visit by the Indian Air Force chief to Washington in 1995 and a 1997 trip by the US Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to India were ground-breaking at the time. After India’s 1998 nuclear test, the US led the imposition of strong sanctions on India, suspending all defence sales, lines of credit, international financial institution loans, visas for Indian scientists and non-critical aid.
India-US security partnership
In today’s situation, the India-US security partnership encompasses a large variety of activities, from information sharing and joint exercises to defence sales and emerging industrial cooperation. Even after Donald Trump’s election, developments in security relations over past 18 months have surpassed expectations in several areas. The first is in terms of bilateral engagement. In 2017, Trump met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and agreed to a joint communiqué that reflected many Indian concerns. Less noticed, but no less significant, is the almost constant two-way traffic of working level security officials, both from the armed services and among civilian bureaucrats. Secondly, co-operation and coordination involving third countries has also increased. India-US-Japan conversations have been upgraded. A working-level quadrilateral dialogue has been resurrected, and has now met twice. A new trilateral infrastructure working group involving India, the US, and Japan has also been established. Country-specific coordination in third countries has increased, as in Sri Lanka. Differences on Pakistan have also been moderated, including a sharp reduction in the US aid to Pakistan after giving the reason that the aid in arms has been used to promote terrorism mainly against India.
Certainly, India and the United States will continue to have their differences. The US Congress has imposed tough sanctions against countries engaging economically with Russia, despite reluctance by the White House about its impact on ties with India. While the wiggle room afforded the executive branch in pending US legislation remains to be seen, the imposition of sanctions would definitely harm defence relations with India, which has made it clear that it will continue major arms purchases from Russia. Similarly, the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal risks American sanctions on Indian entities engaged in commerce with Iran, a move that will particularly affect India’s energy sector.
An escalating trade war between the United States and China has already begun to affect India, which has retaliated by giving notification of increased tariffs on select imports from the US in all three cases; from Washington’s standpoint, India is a secondary target to Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing. Nonetheless, it is natural that India should adopt a tough negotiating position with Washington in a bid to resolve these differences in its favour. Barring severe escalations in these three areas, which are still possible if they are not carefully negotiated in the coming weeks and months, such differences will not fundamentally alter the broad trajectory of India-US defence relations.
US believes in commercial terms
This situation that has a long history only means that Indo-US relations can never be permanently ‘friendly’ in the true sense of the term. This is because, for all said and done, the US administration believes in relations on commercial terms. Therefore, the US never had and shall never have a permanent friend or a permanent foe. Only its self-interests are permanent. The US administrations, whether John F Kennedy and Barrack Obama, who were considered India’s best friends or Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon who hated India and its foreign policy, were never consistent about their own policies. The US Governments always loved spoilt Indo-Pak relations as it has always been a trigger-hungry nation. Not because it loves violence and killing of people but because if there are wars, the weapon industry there gets more profitability.
One must recall, in the recent past when Obama came to India with a great fanfare, the next day he was in Rawalpindi. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, came to India after visiting Pakistan. For the US, both India and Pakistan are the South Asian nations useful to enhance US commercial interests.
Therefore, one should never be over too happy if President Donald Trump hugs Prime Minister Narendra Modi or should not be disheartened if the ‘2+2 Dialogue’ is aborted for whatever reasons. It all happens because we are always on a ‘roller-coaster ride’.
Bharatkumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).