India-US ties must be self-sustaining

ByArun Singh
Apr 08, 2019 09:18 PM IST

Trends and recent supportive actions by the United States suggest the relationship is on a positive trajectory

Recently, President Trump again publicly derided India for “high tariffs”. Withdrawal of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits to Indian exports looms. Economic and trade discussions between the two countries continue to be difficult with persisting unresolved issues.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump at the White House, June 2017(PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump at the White House, June 2017(PTI)

However, after India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test on March 27, the United States spoke of its strong strategic partnership with India, and asserted that it “will continue to pursue shared interests in space and scientific and technical cooperation”. This was a far cry from its pre-1998 criticism of India’s missile and nuclear programmes.

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Earlier, following the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad organised terrorist attack in Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir on February 14, there was widespread international support for India, and condemnation of terrorism. The US response, nevertheless, was the most supportive, recognising the link to Pakistan, which most others did not, and asserting India’s “right to self-defence”. This was publicly indicated by the US after the telephone conversation between India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and John Bolton, his US counterpart. Following the Indian action on February 26, striking targets in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa beyond not just the Line of Control but also the international boundary, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, like India, described it as a “counter- terrorism” action. The US, along with others, worked on Pakistan for the quick release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, and has since repeatedly reiterated the need for Pakistan to take “credible and sustained” action against terrorist groups operating from territory under its control.

French support for India closely followed the US. It took the lead, joined by the US and the UK in reintroducing a proposal at the United Nations Security Council for listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. It has taken a similar initiative to get a European Union listing. Pakistan would have been a bit disappointed by the Chinese reaction, which spoke of support for sovereignty and territorial integrity (and could, by implication, be seen as critical of Indian action), but otherwise emphasised de-escalation and did not criticise India directly. Similarly, Russia’s reaction should give us reason to ponder in India, because it did not expressly support India in the Pakistan context. It also articulated a willingness to enhance counterterrorism cooperation with both countries, which would seem in India to be out of place when there was an attack in India sponsored by a Pakistan-based group.

In this background, as India heads into general elections starting April 11, and as manoeuvring for 2020 US Presidential elections picks up, it is worthwhile to assess how the India-US relationship has evolved over the past five years, and the portends for the future. This would be critical since India would continue to face some significant security challenges. Pakistan has taken only cosmetic action against terrorist groups, including the LeT and the JeM after Pulwama, and the February 26/27 cross border/LoC exchanges when it came under enhanced international scrutiny. It has also since deemed as insufficient the information provided by India regarding involvement of the Jaish in the Pulwama attack. As US works on steps to exit Afghanistan, there would be worries about reversion to the pre-2001 situation and safe haven for terrorist groups. China’s economic and technological rise has implications in India’s neighbourhood in South Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

Since 2014, there have been changes of government both in India and the US. In India, the change enabled some new dynamic and energy to be infused. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the relationship had initially been transformed dramatically with the signing of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008. However, it had languished over 2012-13 with trade frictions coming to the fore.

The National Democratic Alliance government was able to build on some of the earlier decisions and also create new opportunity. It signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in August 2016, and COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) later. These would enable interoperability and enhanced sharing of information. Reports indicate that text of an Industrial Security Agreement has also been worked out, which would enable greater Indian private sector participation in India-US defence projects, and in the global US defence value chain.

Similarly, the Trump administration has built on some of the earlier Obama administration decisions, introduced some new positive dynamic of its own, but also intensified frictions in some areas.

Following the Obama declaration of India as a Major Defence Partner, Trump has placed India under STA 1 technology authorisation, on par with its closes allies, and shown a readiness for higher level technology releases for India. The India-US-Japan Trilateral, and Quadrilateral with Australian participation has been sustained.

However, on trade there is now more coercive action, and notification of withdrawal of the GSP benefits to India and tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from India ostensibly on national security grounds.

Pakistan has come under enhanced pressure, with aid suspended, placed under Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list, and IMF loan negotiations not proceeding to its satisfaction. Post Pulwama, the US again came down heavily, demanding effective action from Pakistan. However, the US needs cooperation from Pakistan, as it seeks an exit from Afghanistan, and Trump has spoken of a possible meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Despite recognising the need for China’s cooperation in his discussions with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, Trump has taken stronger tariff and other measures against Chinese trade and forced technology transfer practices. Chinese technology acquisitions in the US have come under enhanced scrutiny, and the US is leading a campaign to push back against Chinese penetration in 5G technology.

Trends and recent supportive US action would suggest that the positive trajectory of the India-US relationship should endure whatever emerges from the popular mandates in 2019 and 2020. The Indo-Pacific will provide convergence. Afghanistan could be both a challenge and opportunity. There needs to be enhanced attention by both to geo-economic aspect of their strategic partnership.

Arun Singh is former Indian ambassador to the United States

The views expressed are personal

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