Indo-US relations could perhaps draw a comparison between a couple riding surfboard, negotiating the crest and base of a surf. Each passing day of the present US administration has thrown different set of situations for the diplomats of both countries to negotiate, the most recent being the US move to withdraw the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from India which has been in vogue since the 1970s. This means that India’s USD 5.6 billion export to the US will attract tariffs. This does not augur well for the bilateral relationship.
The US has been appreciative of Indian policies which have pulled millions out of poverty. Indian and US interests align in the Indo-Pacific, where both countries believe in freedom of navigation, rule of law and transparency in international financial dealings. This led to the signing of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in September 2018, which was seen as major step forward in strengthening the relationship and which permitted US firms to transfer high-tech equipment such as armed surveillance drones to India to monitor the Indian Ocean. US also agreed to establish hot line between Foreign Office heads of two governments and also cleared the path for joint Army exercises. Agreement also provided port and airfield facilities for the warships/aircraft of each other in their respective bases on case to case basis (LEMOA).
Rightly, Defence Minister Smt Nirmala Sitharaman said, “the momentum in our defence partnership has imbued a tremendous positive energy that has elevated India-US relations to unprecedented heights,”. Joseph Felter, the US Deputy Asst Secretary for Defence said, “It not only allows us to be more interoperable with India, but allows India to be more interoperable across its own systems…most significantly, it opens up a range of Defence technologies to India.” India thus came into a group of fewer than 30 countries with whom US has signed similar agreements.
The US probably expected that India renege on its purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia, but that did not happen. India had been negotiating the S400 deal well before warming up of relations with the US. Also, India’s existing air defence systems are built on architectures around previous Russian systems, which made India take the call of continuing with the arms deal with Russia. While the S400 issue was still live, the import of Iranian oil became a thorn in US foreign policy, more to do with its strong arms business with Saudi Arabia and Israel’s threat, than Iran per se. India’s imports from Iran are fundamentally for reasons of competitive costs and some Indian refineries having machinery to accept specifications of Iranian crude only. Since US allies Japan and South Korea are also importers of Iranian oil, it promulgated exemption from sanctions to a list of 8 countries which included India and China. However, POTUS, in response to a question during a press briefing said, “On Indian imports of oil, you will see the actions soon”.
Such incidents do not augur well for the close relationship that the two countries enjoy. It injects an element of uncertainty regarding ultimate dependability on the US. The US needs India’s support if it wishes to restrict China’s attempt to disrupt existing world order by replacing the US from unipolar leadership. But for whole hearted Indian support, the US must be sensitive to Indian concerns. PM Modi has taken the country on the path of development which is unstoppable. For traversing this path India needs stability and peaceful enabling environment in the immediate neighbourhood. India shares unresolved land borders with two nuclear powers and that is a reality. Also, India has had good relations with Gulf countries across the waterways from where virtually entire hydrocarbons are imported.
Any restrictions imposed by US embargo will hurt the economy and therefore capacity building of India. The two matured democracies need to engage in capacity building to prevent rise of non-democratic world order. At the 19th CPC, the Chairman had clearly annunciated that the model of governances is worth emulation since it has turned China from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy and taken millions out of poverty. Trade war is an attempt to restrict this rise and rightly so. But it may not be adequate. US will have to engage in constructive relationship with China’s neighbours, India being important one with entire peninsula a strategically dominant power in the Indian Ocean.
Uncertainties of policies could be counterproductive for calm passage of relationship which the two countries are navigating on a single surfboard called the Indian Ocean.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff & former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command. Presently, he is Member, Board of Trustees, India Foundation.