What is the state of India-US relations? That question is being repeatedly asked since the much anticipated 2+2 dialogue was abruptly called off by Washington last week.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman were to travel to Washington for meetings with secretary of state Mike Pompeo and nation security adviser John Bolton on July 6. The first such meeting between the foreign and defence ministries of both countries was to bring more synergy and strategic depth to warming ties. This was regarded as a significant step forward in ties and announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with President Donald Trump in 2015.
Tongues started wagging because this was the third time that the crucial dialogue was postponed. There were murmurs of relations taking a downturn. But have they? Indians as a nation are quick to take offence as well as gratified when foreigners criticise or praise the country or its PM. The truth is every nation acts in its self interest. India is important but not at the heart of US foreign policy, despite what we, as a country, wish to believe.
For now, North Korea and Russia are more important to the White House. Donald Trump’s gamble with North Korea is the big ticket item on his agenda. He has got grudging support even from his numerous critics on this, though no one is sure how it will eventually pan out. Pompeo is expected to travel to Pyongyang this week. So, the meeting with the Indian ministerial duo had to be pushed back. A lot of planning is also to be done for Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16 in Helsinki. So, both Pompeo and Bolton are busy.
This does not mean that India-US ties are in the backburner. It is not a priority at the moment with the US administration. The almost tectonic change in India-US ties began with civil nuclear deal offered on a platter by George Bush. The idea was to bolster India’s growth to counter the rising might of China. What Bush began, was expanded by Barak Obama. Trump is doing the same. The renaming of the US Pacific Command in Hawai as Indo-Pacific Command, to expand India’s role to the Pacific is aimed at checkmating China. There has been much talk of joint patrol in the Pacific by India and America, but Delhi has not so far agreed.
India is preparing also to sign a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which will enable the Indian military to obtain critical secure and encrypted defence technologies from the US. Earlier in 2016, India and US had signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which gave each side access to each others bases. These two foundation agreements will help in working better with the US defence forces as a major defence partner of the US. All these are on course.
Yet, there are several niggling issues that need to be addressed. Tariffs, H1B visas, US sanctions on Iran and Russia, which affect Indian entities, need to be ironed out. Trump believes that previous US administrations had allowed the rest of the world to take America for a ride on trade leading to huge trade deficits. India is among the 10 countries which has trade surplus with the US. Yet, according to the US government’s own figures, India’s deficit is coming down: In 2017, it was $22.9 billion, a decrease by 5.9 per cent, around USD 1.4 billion since 2016. China’s trade deficit grew by over $25 billion to about $375 billion in the same period. So, to equate China and India in the same category by Trump is unfair. But that is typical of President Trump as he uses the broad brush when he talks of America’s deficit and puts both India and China on the same page. The US lodged a complaint against India at the World Trade Organization, challenging almost all export subsidy programme.
Then there are the sanctions. The US arms industry, backed by both the Congress and the White House wants Delhi to reduce its dependence on Russian arms. The focus at the moment is India’s decision to buy the S-400 Triumf air defence missile system from Russia. The US is trying to persuade India not to do so and is instead said to offer an American variant of a ballistic missile shield. However, Modi’s informal summit with Putin in Sochi had assured Russia that Delhi
will go ahead with the deal. India has arms worth $12 billion with Russia over the next decade. With the US passing the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the purchase of S-400 will definitely lead to sanctions. India however argues that the negotiations began much before the act was in place. This is a sensitive issue for Washington.
Yet India has already decreased its oil imports from Iran to meet the November deadline of the Trump administration. Delhi, however, is keen on continuing work in the Chabahar port. This is because trade through Iran will help to stabilise Afghanistan. So far there is no word on what the US will do on Chabahar. The problem is with the unpredictable Donald Trump, nothing can be taken for granted.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.