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India and US: Expanding interests, overcoming hesitations of history
Posted:Jul 4, 2017
 
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By Hardeep S. Puri
 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his foreign policy team would deservedly have heaved a major sigh of relief on the conclusion of his latest visit to the United States, his fifth since assuming office in May 2014.   The visit itself, in many respects, was of a sui generis nature, both in respect of optics and substance.   
 
Both India and the US have, over the past quarter century, invested considerable effort in strengthening and developing the relationship.  The first para of the post-visit joint statement, "Prosperity through Partnership," sets the tone.  The two “leaders resolved to expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives”.   
 
There are always elements making for both continuity and change. Relationships between countries are invariably built assiduously step by step and change is not always easily discernible.   
 
I had the privilege of serving on the North Americas desk of the Ministry of External Affairs as Joint Secretary (AMS) from 1992 to 1994.  The tone and substance of the relationship then was completely different: the US was prescriptive, keen to meddle and mediate in the affairs of South Asia in a relationship with Pakistan that the United States hyphenated.  In reality, the Pentagon was openly pro-Pakistan, with a thinly disguised hostility towards India.   Our main task, 25 years ago, was to seek a fundamental transformation in this important bilateral relationship. 
 
The going was tough and we gave it back every inch of the way.   We had to deal with the likes of Robin Raphel who questioned the Instrument of Accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to India.  Having had an affair with one of the newly-elected American President’s close friends whilst at Oxford, she had the President’s ear. An eager to please political class and sections of the press not known for doing their homework provided a resonating platform to Deputy Assistant Secretaries like John Mallot and Assistant Secretaries like Raphel. Those of us who opposed some of the excessive accommodation that the political leadership wanted for developing a better relationship with Uncle Sam were made to compulsorily rest for a while and do a stint in another part of the South Block.   
 
Twenty five years later, the bilateral relationship is proceeding well.  TV anchors seldom read joint statements.  The experts on their shows often know even less than the anchors themselves. It is, therefore, important that the joint statement ‘Prosperity through Partnership’ be analyzed, both for so-called experts as well as for the uninitiated.  
 
But first, the timing of the visit.  Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President itself took place in somewhat unusual circumstances.  He beat an impressive list of 16 Republic candidates - and then Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton - to secure an unprecedented victory through the mechanism of the electoral college.  He came to office without any experience of governance and absolutely no experience in foreign policy. 
 
The US is an 18 trillion dollar economy and what happens there is important.  Its actions not only impact its own citizens but equally have consequences for its allies and adversaries, trading partners, and for the functioning of the multilateral system and the current international global order itself.  
 
President Trump’s election has unleashed more turbulence in domestic politics and in the area of foreign policy than the election of any of his predecessors. Trump has been difficult with the traditional allies of the US. His interactions so far with the Europeans have not proceeded smoothly. The exchanges with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were particularly difficult.  Trump has been nice to Saudi Arabia, a country known for spreading Wahabbi salafism.  He has bought the Saudi line which views instability in West Asia through the Saudi prism, which focuses on Iran and, to a lesser extent, Qatar.  This is a narrative which is not only flawed but which Trump’s own State Department will find difficult to sustain, at least as far as Qatar is concerned. The point that needs to be stressed is: connecting with POTUS has always been an imperative of policy for other heads of state/government.  It just became more important with President Trump. 
 
The timing of the PM Modi’s fifth visit, therefore, assumes importance.  If the PM had gone too early, that is if the White House had agreed to earlier dates, he could have faced uncertainty and an even more unsure President-elect.  He would have walked into the enthusiasm and exuberance of a debutante.  If Modi had not gone at all, he would have missed an opportunity to engage President Trump substantially on a one on one basis before he meets him on the margins of the G-20.  The PM’s decision to go ahead with the visit, amidst and in spite of the uncertainty prevailing in the US was, therefore, in all respects perfectly timed.   
 
To say that President Trump is preoccupied with domestic issues would constitute an understatement.  He is facing the prospect of criminal indictment for actions prior to becoming President and most likely will face the charge of obstruction of justice for his firing of FBI director James Comey and other actions related to Russia.  To engage Trump, known for his short attention span, and to be able to strike a positive rapport and warmth with him, is a considerable achievement, no matter what yardstick of assessment is applied.  
 
Addressing a joint session of the US Congress on 8 June, 2016, Modi said that the relationship between India and America had overcome the ‘hesitations of history”.  He had gone on to say “in every sector of India’s march forward, I see the US as an indispensable partner”. Returning a year later, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on 25 June, 2017, in which he recalled the earlier statement and said “a year later, I return to the US confident in the growing convergence between our two countries”.   
Let there be no ambiguity.  The Prime Minister of India has signalled “growing convergence” between the two countries and this is reflected in almost every paragraph of the joint statement.   
 
Diplomacy is essentially about the art of making the best out of what is doable.  President Trump is clearly preoccupied with developments in North-East Asia.  The Chinese leadership, it appeared till a few weeks ago, had been somewhat successful in leveraging the irresponsible behaviour on display in Pyongyang. More than 80% of North Korea's trade is with China which could bring that economy to a grinding halt merely by choking off imports of coal.  China leveraged that position up to a point but it now appears that the new administration’s patience is wearing thin. 
 
A close partnership between United States and India is central to peace and stability in the region.  The references to the UN Charter, sovereignty, international law, freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce through the region and the call for all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law is the most direct and focused joint US-India  position on China’s behaviour and conduct in the South China Sea.  
 
The coyness of the past is gone. The subsequent segment on bolstering regional economic connectivity, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, is clearly aimed at China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The timing of this formulation is interesting.  The US did send a representative to the Belt Road Forum in Beijing in May, 2017 but the language in this para reflects the MEA official spokesman’s formulation for explaining India’s non participation.   
 
The next paragraph on Afghanistan is interesting.  President Trump welcomes India’s contribution to Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, prosperity and security and recognizes the importance of the US and India’s strategic partnerships in Afghanistan. This important signal comes in the quick aftermath of news reports which said that China had announced that it would mediate between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  
 
There is an explicit reference to “increase cooperation, enhanced diplomatic consultations and increase tangible collaboration with partners in the Middle East” in accordance with India’s Think West Policy.  There has been some uneducated comment on this that India is signing on to the US’s new pro-Saudi, pro-Israel axis against Iran.  
 
Quite apart from questions on the durability of a Saudi-led Sunni NATO which enjoys Israel’s support against the Shia regimes of the region, the notion itself is fanciful.  In any case, how can an increase in cooperation and enhanced diplomatic consultations and/or increased tangible cooperation with partners in the Middle East prejudice India’s position?  If anything, such enhanced consultation and cooperation should only facilitate our ability to look after our interests in West Asia, North Africa and the Gulf.  
 
President Trump’s preoccupation with China is anchored in anxiety and frustration over provocations by North Korea.  India shed its inhibitions in agreeing to call “on DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) to strictly abide by its international obligations and commitments”.  The statement also pledged that the two countries would work together by countering DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction programme, including by holding accountable all parties that support this programme.  This is interesting.  DPRK is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the formulation “holding accountable all parties that support this programme” would appear to imply India agreeing to join a sanctions regime.  If this is indeed so, then we would have appeared to have made a careful choice to join the civilized, rule-bound countries in condemning DPRK which, after all, also contributed to the clandestine nuclear weapons programme of our western neighbour.  
 
The section on terrorism is equally explicit and forthcoming in that the “leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”.  Pakistan is also explicitly called upon to bring the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot and other attacks to justice. A new consultation mechanism has been established on domestic and international terrorist designation and listing proposals.  Amongst other notable references are “expanding intelligence-sharing and operational-level counter terrorism cooperation.”  They also “further resolved to strengthen information exchange on plans, movements and linkages of terrorist groups and their leaders, as well as on raising and movement of funds by terrorist groups”.  
 
The State Department’s designation of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin as a Global Terrorist and the naming of terror groups “including Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, D Company and their affiliates” in a joint US-India statement is of considerable significance. 
 
Cynics have argued that such entities have been listed and so designated in the past. This misses the point altogether.  At a time when the Indian state faces a difficult situation in the valley, the designation of the chief of the HUM, who operates out of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, being declared a global terrorist vindicates India’s position about its problems being orchestrated by Pakistan and should be a cause for worry for Pakistan which has reacted with predictable disquiet.  
 
Having been declared a Major Defence Partner, the US is clearly keen to step up the sale of military hardware to India.   The unmanned Sea Guardian drones, valued at USD 2 to 3 billion finds mention in the joint statement. 
 
Commercial negotiations remain to be completed. It is important to point out that the request for these drones by India during the Obama administration had been refused. The technical agreement between Lockheed Martin and Tata Advance System on the F-16 aircraft was separately reported.  Although this provides the optics, it is far from clear that the Indian Air Force would want to go in for F-16s if more modern and technologically advanced platforms are available.   
 
The formulations regarding Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) are of a proforma nature. The expression of strong support will materialize only if the US agrees to do some heavy lifting on India’s behalf.  Given the state of US’s relations with China and other important players, it is far from clear that the US would be able to pull this off even with heavy lifting.  
In the case of the UNSC membership, a very explicit reference by President Obama during his visit to India in November 2010, to the effect that he looked forward to early permanent membership of India in a reformed UNSC, was warmly welcomed then but did not translate into meaningful and positive action on the ground. The US delegation actively worked with Russian and China to undermine any efforts at reform.   
 
The sections on trade and economic interaction in the joint statement, which occupy considerable space have, not surprisingly, drawn the least attention among Indian commentators.  The reference to “the leaders commit themselves to further expanding and balancing the trade relationship and to removing obstacles to growth and jobs creation” is a veiled and thinly disguised formulation that the US would like to rectify the trade balance which is presently in India’s favour.  There is a reference to the principles of “free and fair trade” which shows that the joint statement was drafted by political officers.  Trade has never been ‘free’ and seldom, if at all, ‘fair’.  
 
The ‘principles’ of trade are enshrined in the rights and obligations of the rule based system anchored in the WTO.  This is where the problem arises.  On the issue of intellectual property rights India maintains, for good reason, that we are fully compliant with respect to the obligations which we have assumed under the TRIPS Agreement.  The US, on the other hand, would like India to assume TRIPS plus standards. Therefore, the threat of Section 301 and other unilateral and coercive instruments which is held out so often.   
 
The decision that the United States and India plan to undertake a comprehensive review of trade relations provides the opening for both sides to vigorously argue their respective positions on existing and new initiatives in trade policy.  The discussions, as part of this review, will cover regulatory processes, technology and innovation, increased market access in areas such as agriculture, information technology, manufactured goods and services.  India will want a carve-out for food security and the US would want India to open up on e-commerce, just to cite two issues.  Negotiators on both sides are known to be difficult and relations between the two countries’ delegations in Geneva have often reflected this.     
 
The reference to a rational approach that balances environment and climate policy, global economic development and energy is not really very much of a departure from the Paris Accord which is sufficiently flexible in terms of being an umbrella framework to allow each participant to do what they wish.  
 
 The extended para on energy ties opens the possibility of India accessing different energy sectors in the United States on commercial terms.  “The leaders affirmed the continued importance of their Strategic Energy Partnership and of leveraging new opportunities to elevate cooperation to enhance global energy security”.  
 
The section on civilian nuclear cooperation is a sad reminder that the previous UPA government was willing to stake the survival of its government on this issue.  Not a single dollar worth of contracting has taken place and, of the three economic entities, two have declared bankruptcy and the third is not doing well either.  
 
A news report following the visit suggests that Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India will go back to the drawing boards on the six reactors, including their financing.   
The joint statement signals that this has the blessing of the two governments. “They supported financing of energy projects, including clean coal projects, by Multilateral Development Banks to promote universal access to affordable and reliable energy”.  This is all about money and commerce.  
 
Although termed a ‘strategic partnership’, the relationship at the best of times has been transactional.  India has bought 15 billion dollars worth of defence equipment since 2010.  One could argue that much of this, like the 100 Boeing civilian aircraft that an Indian carrier has reportedly ordered, are essential requirements for India.  The private sector can always direct the procurement in the direction of suppliers in other countries.  
 
Clearly, with Trump, the relationship has become even more transactional.  Since the United States is now headed in the direction of sanctioning Chinese entities over their relations with DPRK, more turbulence can be expected.  For countries like India, this will require skilful navigation. 
 
The H1B visa issue for skilled professionals has not found explicit mention in the joint statement.  The issue certainly came up for discussion. There is no new development on the ground on this issue and action lies with the Congress. The issue will most likely be considered as part of a larger immigration bill. Mentioning this explicitly in the joint statement would have served little or no purpose and would certainly have succeeded in irritating an already brittle host who designed his election campaign on the issue of immigration. Good diplomacy won. The issue will, however, need to be pursued through quiet diplomacy in the coming months.  Twenty five years ago we viewed our security in a South Asia context.  We then moved on to a larger Asia-Pacific canvas.  We now talk of the Indo-Pacific, Act East and Think West. This reflects India’s expanding interests.   
 
PM Modi and his foreign policy team have every reason to be satisfied with the outcome of his fifth visit to the US which was undertaken in not the easiest of circumstances but with positive results to show. 
 
(The author is a veteran Indian diplomat who retired as India's Permanent Representative to the UN. He is the author of "Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos/HarperCollins India. The article is courtesy India Review & Analysis, the fortnightly journal of the Society for Policy Studies.)
 
 
 
 
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