CANBERRA – The distance from hubris to delusion is short and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is bent on covering it in a sprint in its India policy. A healthy and long-lasting bilateral relationship rests on a history of shared interests and values that embody common expectations, reciprocity and equivalence of benefits across different domains, rather than equal benefits in every single sector individually.
Conversely, absent a solid body of shared histories and memories to provide ballast, minor irritants can derail a relationship. The bilateral relationship between the United States and India, since the latter’s independence in 1947, had more downs than ups during the Cold War but has since been on a gradual upswing. It was put on a steeply upward trajectory with the signing of the bilateral civil nuclear cooperation deal in 2005.
Having been denied an entry visa for the U.S. for many years despite being the elected head of a state government, on becoming prime minister in 2014 Narendra Modi set aside personal hurts from the slight and made a strategic decision to invest in the U.S. as India’s most important relationship. That has helped create important constituencies in the U.S. Congress, political parties, bureaucracy, military and private sector, contributing to deeper India-U.S. ties. The Indian diaspora in the U.S. also plays key bridge-building roles.
However, because it lacks the historical ballast of U.S. relations with Europe and Japan, the India-U.S. relationship is being tested harder than any other by Trump’s transactional foreign policy. The end result is incoherence between U.S. trade and geostrategic objectives in its India file.
In the overarching effort to challenge China’s assertive dominance, a coherent U.S. policy would accept some trade or technology costs as the price of sustaining strategic partnerships with Japan, South Korea and India. The combination of geography, demographics, military power and political weight gives India multiple roles in safeguarding sea lanes, dampening Islamic militancy, combating terrorism and taking the lead in disaster relief operations around the Indian Ocean as after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. On Jan. 18, 2018, admirals from Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. sat together on stage at the high-profile annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, symbolizing the shared strategic assessment among the four democracies that China had become a disruptive force in the Indo-Pacific.
The India-U.S. relationship is asymmetric. The U.S. is a multidimensional actor across the military, diplomatic, economic and financial global landscape. India is still struggling to boost its economic and military power. While the U.S. has a global train of interests, India has a distinctive mix of regional interests at its specific geographical crossroads.
For example, India is keen to build Iran’s Chabahar port as a route connecting it to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan and linking it to Central Asia and Eurasia. Chabahar would also act as a riposte to the China-Pakistan joint venture to build Gwadar port. By basing its Iran policy solely on priorities in the Middle East and threatening to punish any country that crosses that policy, the U.S. introduces yet another element of strategic incoherence vis-a-vis China, India and Pakistan. India is too large and in the pursuit of its regional interests, India’s pride and self-belief will not permit it to be a mere vassal state of any external power, whether benign or malevolent.
A Times of India editorial urged Washington to make up its mind on whether to deal with India as an ally or a “frenemy.” Earlier, in February Washington broke from its traditional neutrality to side openly with India’s narrative on a militant attack in Kashmir and retaliatory missile strikes on Balakot. This was followed by the successful pressure on China to lift its hold on designating Pakistan-based Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.
But in recent weeks the Trump administration has:
Leaned on India to cancel its S-400 missile defense system from Russia on pain of triggering U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Threatened to curb H-1B visas for Indians working in the U.S.
Urged India not to choose Huawei’s 5G telecoms technology.
Terminated India’s sanction waivers for importing oil from Iran and beneficiary status under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, affecting 12 percent of India’s exports to the U.S.
Denounced India’s retaliatory trade tariffs as unacceptable.
Demanded further liberalization of Indian import and market access rules, for example on agricultural goods, pharmaceutical products and big data tech firms.
Many U.S. complaints are legitimate and some demands are in India’s economic self-interest. Nonetheless, the public articulation of U.S. grievances and threats will make it harder for any Indian government to be seen kowtowing to Washington’s demands, fuel the latent but ever-present anti-Americanism, and reverse the carefully nurtured and still fragile pro-American sentiment of the last two decades.
India cannot become an Asian counterweight to China if its economy is weakened. A transactional approach that weaponizes tariffs, trade and dollar dominance will compel the Modi government to evaluate other options. During U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit, new Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar — a consummate professional diplomat who has served as ambassador to China and the U.S. — gently noted that India would decide its policy based on its own assessments of national interests.
This was diplomatic code for hinting that the S-400 purchase will proceed. Retaliatory CAATSA sanctions in turn could imperil several multibillion dollar purchases of U.S. military hardware over the coming years: a lose-lose outcome at odds with Trump’s pride in win-win solutions. There has been some pushback in Congress against the administration’s attempt to coerce India into complying with U.S. demands instead of treating it as a strategic partner. But in the meantime, the post of assistant secretary for South Asia, the nodal agency for coordinating India policy, remains unfilled deep into Trump’s third year, and there is no India champion in the administration after the departure of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Tactical transactionalism via ad hoc responses to sanctions, tariffs and technology denial is not going to be a long-lasting substitute for strategic coherence in India’s U.S. policy. Encouragingly, Jaishankar and Pompeo concluded their meeting June 26 by noting that “great friends” can disagree, “issues” arise in any trading relationship, it was important not to be distracted by the “noise” but to focus on “the solidity of the relationship” with “as little theater as possible,” and negotiate their way through the issues to find common ground.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University. A version of this article appeared in Pearls and Irritations on July 15 and 16.