All is not well between Washington and New Delhi
The key problem lies in not knowing what might trigger some new punitive action by the Trump administration
What is India’s place in US foreign policy? With every recent US administration, this question emerges anew. But the past few months have introduced new anxiety to bilateral ties — and that seems likely to continue.
The George W Bush administration’s big strategic bet on India with the civil-nuclear deal was arguably its greatest foreign policy success. When the Obama administration began, Delhi chattered about the “Af-Pak” focus, and whether Indian interests would be sacrificed, and even whether India mattered at all after the heady attention under Bush. Those concerns turned out to be misplaced, and New Delhi and Washington deepened consultation and expanded ties on security, climate, development, even crafting a shared vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean.
With the arrival of President Trump, a larger question loomed: what would a Trump foreign policy look like, and where would India fit within it? The president came to office with no foreign policy track record, but with a significant business interest in India. He appeared favourably disposed toward India. His administration released a National Security Strategy that seemed to boost the strategic focus on India through its emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and resuscitation of the “Quad.” Both concepts acknowledge India’s centrality to this larger maritime space, as well as the alignment of US and Indian interests across the larger region especially at a time of increasing Chinese assertiveness. Washington and New Delhi have much to discuss, and share a commitment to the principles of the rules-based international order.
Indeed, with the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as an organising strategy for national security, it looked for the past year as if the positive trajectory would continue. There can be no “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy without a strong India, and a strong partnership with India, so the introduction of this strategy suggested more to come.
But based on events of the past two months, all is not well between the two countries.
For one, trade is determining how Trump assesses relationships. Last year, the administration developed a list of countries with which the United States ran the largest trade deficits — and India clocked in at number ten with a $24 billion ticket. Earlier this year the administration imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum products coming into the United States. This, too, hit India, and moreover, without the relief that countries such as Argentina and Australia received after appeals for exemptions. This arbitrary process led to Indian retaliatory tariffs in June, marking a new front in US-India economic skirmishes.
Further, the unintended consequences of U.S. secondary sanctions — the sanctions on Russia, which at present could be triggered by India’s acquisition of the S-400 air defense system, plus the return of US sanctions on Iran with the American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — will pressure Indian oil imports as well as constrain the viability of the Indian-built Chabahar port in Iran. Neither of these sanctions has India as a target, but both will, absent a solution, affect Indian interests.
Add to the mix the postponement of the 2+2, which sends a negative signal of US strategic priorities. Still the bigger problem lies in not knowing what might trigger some new punitive action, as occurred at the G7 summit. The president’s tantrum at Canada (Canada!) over dairy tariffs led to the American withdrawal from the G7 communique, showing decisively that for President Trump, longstanding alliances cannot prevent a blow-up over a seemingly irrelevant trade issue. Put simply, the Trump foreign policy can zero in on an arbitrarily-chosen economic metric, fixate on it, and no strategic concern or history of alliance strength can compensate.
Thus the larger uncertainty introduced by the new United States makes this moment different.
That’s the disquiet in the US-India relationship. Despite decades of economic frictions, the strategic partnership between the world’s two largest democracies has strengthened. Successive US administrations have understood that the economic differences between us — and I’ll fully agree that any US official would like to see the Indian market become more open — cannot be resolved easily or quickly.
But these issues did not become a litmus test for the larger relationship. Nor did they prevent further cooperation. In the Trump foreign policy, in sharp contrast, one can never be sure. And that’s precisely the worry.
Alyssa Ayres is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World (Oxford)
The views expressed are personal