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Why friction between India, US is rising when the two nations are trying to improve ties

Ties between India and US remain somewhat awkward, marked by periods of intense engagement with the promise of elevating relations to a new height.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2018 21:35 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
India-US ties,US,PM Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington DC.(PTI File Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known to greet world leaders he meets with a big bear hug and President Donald Trump likes to shake hands with a bone-crushing grip. When they appeared together on the lawns of the White House on June 27 last year, they did a bit of both. And it was a bit awkward.

Ties between the countries too remain somewhat awkward, marked by periods of intense engagement with the promise of elevating relations to a new height – the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy called India a “leading global power”, not the “regional power” it was under President Barack Obama.

More recently, there has been a marked uptick in economic frictions, with Trump’s sharp rhetoric and protectionist measures, including tariffs on steel and aluminium, that have added to a long list of differences over market access and intellectual property rights.

There is also the threat of “secondary sanctions” that could curtail India’s ability to buy oil from Iran, its third largest supplier, and weapons such as the S-400 air defence systems from Russia, a long-time and trusted supplier of military hardware (though there is understanding of India’s concerns on this).

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with Wilson Center, said, “Despite the tensions of recent days, the relationship will be fine. There’s plenty of goodwill and trust to see it through the bumps in the road.”

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson described India and the US as the “two bookends of stability” in a much cited speech before his first visit to New Delhi. Most recently, the US rechristened its Hawaii-based Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command in a nod to growing defence ties.

And in a move that was bound to be cheered in New Delhi, Trump started 2018 with a blistering attack on Pakistan for its “lies and deceit” on countering terror, suspended nearly $2 billion in security aid and pushed a global financial watchdog to place Pakistan on its list of countries that fund terrorism.

But there have been chastening developments, such as the tightening of rules applying to H-1B visas and the targeting of Indian companies that are among its heaviest users.

There is also Trump’s rhetoric, when he accused India of demanding billions in exchange for committing to reduce its carbon emissions as part of the Paris climate accord, or when he first brought up India’s tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

He has continued to lash out at India publicly and privately, the most recent instance being before leaving for the G-7 summit. This tirade and the postponement of the 2+2 dialogue, said Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations, “have shifted my thinking to the ‘worried’ category’” to describe the state of ties between the two sides, which she oversaw as a state department official in the Obama administration.

A BREAKDOWN OF INDIA-US RELATIONS
AREAS OF CONVERGENCE
TERRORISM AND PAKISTAN: There has been a marked convergence in the positions adopted by India and the US on terrorism, especially the activities of Pakistan-based terror groups such as LeT and JeM. Whether it was the support for the move to put Pakistan on the watchlist of the Financial Action Task Force or the suspension of security aid for Islamabad worth nearly $2 billion, the Trump administration has done more than recent administrations to put the squeeze on the Pakistani military establishment and to address Indian concerns
AFGHANISTAN: Both the US and India have backed Afghan-led efforts for peace in the war-torn country and Trump’s new South Asia policy called on India to provide more economic and development assistance in Afghanistan. As the US administration tries to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan, its position is closely aligned with that of New Delhi
SECURITY AND DEFENCE COOPERATION: From the rechristening of the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific to underline India’s central role in the region to the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of India, the US, Australia and Japan and the new 2+2 dialogue format involving the foreign and defence ministers, this is another area which has witnessed a tremendous convergence between the two sides. The US has also pushed for the sale of hi-tech military hardware ranging from drones to combat jets and helicopters.
AREAS OF DIVERGENCE
TRADE, TARIFFS AND VISA REGIMES: Trump’s "America First" policy and repeated references to India’s tariffs on American products such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles reflect the increasing trade differences. Besides slapping tariffs of 25% and 10% on steel and aluminium imports, Trump has also repeatedly cited the US trade deficit with India. The US administration has taken several steps to revamp the H-1B visa programme and related visas that have hit thousands of Indians, the largest beneficiaries of these visas.
SANCTIONS ON IRAN AND RUSSIA: These sanctions have led to US pressure on India to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil imports and Russian weaponry. US officials have called on India to cut Iranian oil imports to zero by November and other sanctions could hit India’s plans to buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems, reflecting Washington’ disregard for New Delhi’s sovereign policy decisions.
CLIMATE CHANGE: Trump withdrew the US from the Paris accord on climate change but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reiterated India’s commitment to fight global warming through initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance, which China has shown an interest in joining.

India and the US have a “long laundry list of economic frictions” and the Trump administration is adding to them.

But Shailesh Kumar, a former US treasury official and now an expert with the Eurasia Group, said, “Trump’s comments on India are the lightest and softest he has given of any country that has a trade surplus with the US. Thus, on a relative basis, his comments regarding India should not be seen in a negative light.”

The last minute US announcement regarding the postponement of the 2+2 dialogue was frustrating for both sides, officials have said.

Though the US has not announced if Pompeo is scheduled to visit North Korea around then, there is speculation he might be headed to Pyongyang for his third visit to discuss ways to move forward on issues discussed by Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

Ayres counts the 2+2 postponement, so Pompeo “could visit the dictator of North Korea”, as something that worries her as well. “President Obama (or presidents George Bush or Bill Clinton) would never have done this,” she said.

Events leading up to 2+2 agreement
Sep. 2015: New high-level consultation between India’s foreign secretary and US deputy secretary of state launched
Policy Planning Dialogue started between the two sides.
Nov. 2015: Fuel Exchange Agreement, another key defence pact, signed.
May 2016: Technical agreement on information-sharing on merchant shipping signed
Jun. 2016: Information Exchange Annexe on aircraft carrier technologies signed.
Aug. 2016: Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Association (LEMOA), key defence agreement on logistics, signed.
Jun. 2016: During PM’s visit, the US recognised India as a "major defence partner", facilitating technology sharing at a level available only to US’s closest allies
They finalised package to provide concessional finance to support clean energy projects
Jun. 2017: The two sides also agreed on the 2+2 dialogue, a new format for talks between defence and foreign ministers

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 07:35 IST